When it comes to improving the quality of sales teams, you basically have two options:

  1. You can go out and buy top talent
  2. You can build better salespeople

With Option 1, you’re paying more up front. But that’s never been a problem in sales, since compensation is ultimately tied to sales results. Meanwhile, you reduce your risk and get results sooner, since those sales stars already know what they’re doing.

Option 2 is a slower go. It takes time, energy and money to train salespeople. And many of them won’t work out anyway.

So it’s pretty clear that Option 1 is the better choice. Except for one little thing. It doesn’t work.

Talent shortage?
Here’s the problem, according to Wharton professor Peter Cappelli. Over the past several years, with high unemployment and slow growth, companies have assumed they’re in a buyer’s market when it comes to talent. With so many qualified people looking for work, they think they can afford to be choosy. They’re looking for people they don’t have to train, who have exactly the right skills and experience for the job they’re trying to fill.

But guess what? Most of those people already have a job. And it looks pretty much like the job these companies are trying to fill. Same skills. Same duties. Pretty much the same pay. So why would people want to switch?

This disconnect, Cappelli maintains, is what’s really behind the widely reported “talent shortage” in American business. Companies — 52% of them, according to one study — say they can’t find people with the skills they need. They blame schools. Or job seekers. Or the job seekers’ choices. (“Why didn’t Joe plan the last 20 years of his career so it would match the job description we created last week?”)

The problem isn’t with the candidates, Cappelli argues. It’s with employers who think the job market is like their local big box retailer, where they can pick up blister packs of perfectly qualified employees at everyday low pricing. Is it any surprise they’re coming up empty handed? Prospective (and current) employees don’t want a new job just like the old one. They want to advance their careers. Which means, by definition, that they won’t be a perfect fit for their next job. They’ll need to grow into it.

Nowhere are these insights more relevant than in sales, and never more so than now. What on earth would possess successful salespeople to give up what they know — the products they sell, the customers they’ve cultivated, the territories they’ve developed — to take a chance somewhere new? And as the economy picks up steam, why would they want to recreate the job they’re doing now instead of looking to take the next step up? So rather than continuing to look for that mythical sales superstar, a better bet is to identify people who have the right attitude, intelligence and drive — but not necessarily a track record — and teach them what they need to know.

Cappelli’s main point: Companies can’t avoid training. If they’re hiring new people, they’re going to have to develop them. And while they’re at it, they might as well invest in improving the skills of the people they have on board already. You can’t buy an all-star team; you have to build it.

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