The Sales Talent Crisis

Remember that post-COVID boom we were all promised? The line went something like this “once the virus has been defeated, the economy will reopen and businesses will come out blinking into the sunlight, to be met by a roaring hurricane of demand.”

That may have been true for bars and restaurants, and there’s no doubt that the travel industry has recovered a decent chunk of its losses, but for the wider economy, since the beginning of 2022 we have been dealing with severe political turmoil, rampant inflation, spiralling interest rates, conflict in Ukraine and now the Middle East, energy prices surging, massive layoffs (especially in the tech sector), record company insolvencies, healthcare backlogs, an economy teetering on the edge of recession and unabating difficulties in filling job vacancies.

The nirvana hasn’t quite materialised, but as we enter 2024 there does seem to be some economic hope with inflation finally calming and the Services sector in particular showing strength. As the economy looks to move onto a more positive footing, business leaders are thinking about growth and how to generate revenue in this unforgiving market.

But there is yet another obstacle: for most businesses, generating revenue means having a great sales team, and hidden amongst the aforementioned difficulties in filling roles, is a pernicious Sales Talent Crisis.

It has never been harder to attract, develop and retain great salespeople. A recent study found that 46-50% of new hires into the sales division fail within 18 months, and we have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that for many new sales recruits, 18 months would be considered somewhat of a win. Sales leaders and HR teams are spending far too much time trawling CVs and sourcing candidates, going through what is often a painful interview process and then ending up hiring people who are not ideal for a career in sales, which in turn leads to HR issues and Sales managers spending too much of their time dealing with ineffective reports.

As a result, companies are consistently missing targets which is suboptimal, especially in the current climate. Business leaders, looking to justify underperformance are quick to blame the economic landscape, which undoubtedly is playing a part in all this. However, in reality, our research suggests that the wider economic environment is only partly to blame and a major factor contributing to commercial underperformance is a lack of sufficient sales talent.

So what’s going on? Our work suggests that there are two primary drivers behind the sales talent crisis. The first is a general lethargy across the workforce following the pandemic and the second is a rapidly shifting approach to work from the younger generations, two issues which we will assess in turn.

The massive increase in working from home, either partially or completely, while popular with workers looking to avoid the commute, is undoubtedly having a negative impact on productivity. This is especially true in a sales environment, which ought to be a high-energy, fast-paced environment in which sales reps are working as hard as possible to find opportunity and convert it into business. We see no way in which an energetic sales floor can be matched by isolated reps working from their dining room tables. Furthermore, there is no means for leaders to properly motivate and energise their teams over Slack. A further challenge with remote work is training and development; for the most part sales coaching is most effective in-person, one-to-one sit downs with managers are most effective in-person and team meetings in which individuals can support one another and feel a sense of unity, is most effective in-person. It’s a catch-22 for employers because 45% of employees say they would stick with a company if they offered training and development, yet it’s a complicated task to deliver decent training remotely.

The effects of the issues listed above, are compounded by the fact that a severe talent shortage means companies will perhaps take a more lenient approach to missed targets, which facilitates a lax mentality among sales teams who know that they are essentially unsackable and that leadership will just blame the economic landscape if commercial results are below expectations.

Many sales professionals we speak to take umbrage with our assertions around remote work, claiming that they are just as, if not more productive working from home than in an office environment. No doubt there are hyper-focused individuals who can deliver the goods regardless of their daily location, but for the most part if we are all truly honest, we know working from home is not delivering optimal results, even if it does mean we can fit in a gym session when we would have once been at our desks.

The second primary driver in the Sales Talent Crisis is the shift in mindset towards work, from the younger generations entering the workforce. This cohort of youngsters is much maligned as a pack of lazy and entitled snowflakes. While there may be aspects of that, we believe that really this is a group that is misunderstood and who has been dealt a pretty awful hand. To put things into context, on average sales execs aged 20-34 stay with an employer for 2.8 years, while those aged 50-65 average 10.1 years with an employer.

There are many reasons for this, but a desire for flexibility seems to be a major factor for younger people. This is a group with far more awareness around mental health and a larger focus on work-life balance than may have existed in the past. All of us who work in sales know that you have to be extremely resilient to make it and that at times, work-life balance has to take a backseat; these facts seem to create a clash for younger workers between their personal priorities and the demands of a career in professional sales, which is contributing to lower applications upfront and higher churn once people are in a sales role.

At the end of 2024, we spoke to a recent grad, who was leaving her job in sales after just six months to take up a role in HR. In her words, the reason was, “I don’t think I can handle the emotional roller-coaster of sales.” This sums up the situation for many new recruits, and we feel the challenges of working in sales are not being properly addressed by hands-on management, again because of remote or hybrid working patterns.

The clash between what younger people want personally and what a sales job requires is a clear contributory factor to the junior end of the Sales Talent Crisis. We have explored some of the key personality traits for a successful sales career, and unfortunately again and again, we find the required elements, are not compatible with the type of day-to-day existence desired by many young people:

  • Resilience
  • Discipline
  • Grit
  • A willingness to work, long and often irregular hours
  • Resourcefulness

To do well in sales, there is a degree of sacrifice required; you have to compromise on certain other aspects of your life and this is why the earning potential is so fantastic. Unfortunately, the always-on, instant gratification culture that is fuelled by an entire generation’s addiction to social media is struggling to find a home in sales.

Furthermore, there are other factors to consider such as the cost of living and particularly the extremely high costs of home ownership. For previous generations, it was easy for individuals to see that if they stuck it out with a job, they would do well and soon be able to get on the property ladder. These days, home ownership is nothing more than a distant dream for most young people, and therefore why would they work themselves to death in pursuit of it? Much better to earn enough money to go to Croatia to load up on selfies.

This is why we see social media phenomenons such a Quiet Quitting and #LazyGirl – which essentially advocate doing the bare minimum to earn a salary which gives you a rough equivalent of a satisfactory lifestyle, and that’s that. With many young people subscribing to ideas like this, you can see why the last thing they would want to do is get into sales.

While, of course, many of these assertions are general and do not apply to everyone in the groups they address, they characterise a climate in which sales teams are not delivering anything close to maximum output. The outcomes for businesses are missed revenue, HR risk and increased costs, coupled with wasted time. It is a problem, which unless fixed, will result in lower revenues at company, sector and economy level. With less revenue being generated, there is less to be spent, making sales an increasingly harder endeavour. Which, in turn, contributes to the Talent Crisis and ultimately we end up in a downward spiral.

So, what can companies do to solve the Sales Talent Crisis and negate the negative impacts that a lack of talent is having on their businesses. One solution is to work with companies such as Pipeline Professional Services, who offer remote sales teams. Our staff are all based in Cape Town and as such are hungry, hard-working professionals who have gone through extensive training. Our team works for us full-time and lives and breathes sales. Your sales exec would plug seamlessly into your systems and wider team, as if they were a full-time employee for the duration of the engagement. However, as they work for us, you do not have any of the headaches that come with an in-house employee:

  • No recruitment fees (which are charged even if the individual doesn’t work out)
  • No Employer’s National Insurance
  • No HR or Legal risk
  • No IR35 risk
  • No sick pay
  • No holiday pay
  • No parental leave
  • No interview process
  • No training
  • No risk of resignation
  • No equipment requirement
  • No desk space requirement

In unison with these benefits, businesses can enjoy the output provided by diligent sales people.

We have created this solution to help with the challenges we experienced as Sales Leaders. It’s impossible for leadership to do a sufficient job without the right personnel. Finding the right personnel is complex, so we created Pipeline to make it easy.