Sales Hiring on a Budget

Hiring an exceptional sales team is not only difficult, but also extremely expensive. And while an investment in successful salespeople will deliver massive returns, the fact remains that a sales hiring budget requires large amounts of starting capital. After all, truly exceptional salespeople expect—and receive—exceptional salaries.

Unfortunately, many companies looking for great salespeople simply can’t compete with the Fortune 500s if the size of their sales budget is the only relevant consideration. Does this mean that sales hiring is a rigged game? Does it mean that growing B2B startups, for example, are doomed to lose to bigger-name companies with deeper pockets every time?

Following traditional hiring practices—where a candidate’s history of major sales and lasting buyer relationships in relevant markets is the hiring criterion—the answer is probably ‘yes.’ However, this doesn’t mean that smaller companies with smaller sales budgets should give up and accept mediocre hires!

Instead, companies that can’t compete on budget alone need to change the rules of the hiring game.

How to change the rules for successful sales hires:

Without a budget large enough to offer competitive compensation, top salespeople are not likely to leave their current jobs—especially for a high-risk position at a company without strong marketing, brand recognition, buyer trust, and a well-oiled sales apparatus. However, by changing tactics and focusing on a different set of hiring criterion, startups and high-growth companies can make smart hires and build high-achieving sales teams.

Though there are numerous ways to attract and develop talent through creative deployment of a smaller budget, effective sales recruiters focus on two of the most crucial considerations: finding candidates that have the potential to consistently sell successfully year-over-year, and investing in these employees to expedite development and reduce turnover.

1. To find the right candidates, look beyond the résumé

It is tempting to think that the top candidate for a sales position is the candidate with the most impressive career selling products similar to yours for big-name companies within your target market(s). But while a candidate’s résumé illustrates, to a limited extent, how well that candidate can sell—perhaps under optimal conditions—it may or may not reflect how well that candidate will sell for your company.

In order to get a better sense of how well a candidate will do, several additional considerations must be taken into account during the hiring process. These include a candidate’s deep-seated personality traits (or “sales DNA”), those personal/professional features common across the most successful sales people, as well as details about your company culture and its selling environment.

Sales DNA

Truly successful salespeople share certain characteristics or personality traits—those traits that help them get ahead no matter the circumstances. Such traits include confidence, perseverance, ambition, competitiveness, resilience, optimism, situational intelligence, a sense of urgency, the desire and ability to influence others, and more.

If a candidate displays the right sales DNA—even if that candidate has little sales experience, or has only worked in unrelated markets or on different types of sales cycles—that candidate has a real opportunity to outperform a candidate who has more experience but lacks some essential traits. This means that a potential hire with the right DNA (combined with the right sales environment and support) will quickly build an impressive track record—at a lower starting salary.

Company selling environment

Though top salespeople share many similar traits, they are not a completely homogeneous group: individuals have different selling strengths and weaknesses, different working styles and preferences, and different experiences across markets, sales cycles, buyer groups, etc. As a result, a quota-busting top performer at a Fortune 100 corporation, for example, might fail to convert a single lead for your early-stage startup—and vice versa.

In many cases, a candidate with less sector experience might be a better performer than the candidate who has spent the majority of their career in your organization’s sector—if that candidate has more experience working in sales environments similar to yours. Once again, by broadening hiring criteria to include candidates that aren’t established in your particular sector, your organization is presented an additional opportunity to stay within budget and also make a better hiring decision overall.

Thus, in order to optimize budget and hire salespeople who will drive sales, it is essential to thoroughly understand the myriad characteristics that make up your company’s selling environment. These include company culture and offerings, market and competition, average deal size and sales cycle length, available sales infrastructure, etc. With a complete understanding of your selling environment, it is easier to identify candidates who are most likely to succeed—even if they come with less overall experience and a lower salary.

2. To build a top-notch sales team, invest in your salespeople

When recruiting on a budget, world class hiring organizations understand the importance of spending more—where necessary. Candidates who have the right sales DNA, mesh with your company’s selling environment, and require lower starting salaries are ideal. However, making a mediocre hire rather than an exceptional one in order to cut costs is one of the most expensive mistakes an employer can make.

Invest in training and development

Along similar lines—and especially with a hiring strategy focused on less experienced sales employees—it is essential to invest heavily in a sales team’s training and development. As we’ve said before, “Self-managing sales people and teams are as rare as purple unicorns.” Keeping top performers performing while transforming high potential into selling machines requires exceptional leadership, training, and support. And exceptional sales infrastructure requires money.

A young company with a relatively young or inexperienced sales team depends on strong leadership: after all, only through smart management and training will new employees reach the sales potential they initially displayed during the hiring process. Again, when hiring a sales leader, successful sales recruiters examine personality traits and company fit alongside the candidate’s history of developing new teams into seasoned sales machines.

The necessity to invest in training time for new sales hires cannot be overstated. Even though weeks spent learning company and market best practices, for example, are weeks during which no sales are made, that investment will yield high returns when new employees do start selling. At the same time, a skilled sales leader will conduct rigorous monitoring and focus on accountability, helping to transform raw potential into ROI.

Invest in work environment

Salary is always important, especially in the highly competitive world of sales. However, numerous studies have shown that work environment plays a larger role in employee satisfaction than salary. Developing an environment where employees feel personally valued and highly motivated (rather than afraid) both increases current salespeople’s performance and attracts top sales talent.

An exceptional work environment comprises multiple aspects of interpersonal communication and interaction, employee recognition and commendation, effective management practices, and more. Salespeople who feel that their actions have a direct impact on their company and that they are developing their own opportunity for growth exhibit higher motivation than salespeople driven by the fear of missing an impossible quota. Thus, top companies encourage programs that highlight and emphasize the value their salespeople bring to the organization, that prioritize internal talent when filling leadership positions, and so on.

It is no coincidence that today’s massively successful corporations—Google, Apple, etc.—devote significant attention to employee happiness. For the same reason, many new startups are emphasizing company culture: from organizing weekly team events and setting up gaming tables in the break room, to allowing flexible work schedules and implementing personal employee-employer communication. Such benefits play a significant role in a startup’s ability to attract top talent at a lower price tag.

3. Keep an eye on budget—but beware becoming stingy

It’s an unavoidable part of the sales hiring game that startups and smaller companies must make do with smaller recruiting budgets than the Fortune 500s of the world. And while focus on budget is essential when working with limited starting capital, it is equally essential not to forget the reality that newly trained salespeople will have the opportunity to flee for higher salaries!

Investing to expand salespeople’s skill sets, actively building company loyalty, and rewarding top performers with commensurate commissions all mitigate hiring and costly turnover risk. After all, the better and more experienced a new sales team becomes, the more attractive your sales employees look to competitors: your employees are no longer the overlooked and under-resumed.

At the same time, though: the better and more experienced a new sales team becomes, the more they earn for the company—and it’s far cheaper to invest those earnings back into a winning team than it is to start again from scratch.


Photo By Matthew Wiebe


Eliot Burdett

CEO at Peak Sales Recruiting
Before Peak, Eliot spent more than 20 years building and leading companies, where he took the lead in recruiting and managing high performance sales teams. He co-founded Ventrada Systems (mobile applications) and GlobalX (e-commerce software). He was also Vice President of Sales for PointShot Wireless.

Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.

He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.

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