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Building a Strong Sales Candidate Pipeline: 3 Steps for HR Leaders

Virtual Talent Bench

One of the central challenges for companies attempting to scale their sales teams is the ability for HR leaders and their teams to deliver qualified candidates in a timely manner. The time-to-hire gap is long—estimated at roughly 2 months—and once a rep is on the job it takes them 10 months to onboard. Put in context, in which the average tenure of a B2B sales rep is 24 months, this leaves very little time for a rep to deliver a return on investment.

All told, this leaves sales organizations with eroding revenue and a weak pipeline in times when they should be growing. The typical mad-dash recruiting approach, which tries to fill seats as soon as headcount opens, fails to bring in candidates fast enough and tends to attract low-grade hires that soon voluntarily turn over.

HR leaders and sales leaders must collaborate on a new recruiting strategy designed for top sales talent that uses long-term relationship building to prime them for an interview. This is called the Virtual Talent Bench strategy, which shortens the time-to-hire gap, shortens ramp-up time, and lengthens a salesperson’s tenure.


Why a virtual talent bench strategy attracts A-players

Think of A-player sales candidates as “customers” who require time to travel through a buyer’s journey. When you sell a product to a customer, you don’t expect them to purchase the moment they hear about your company. Instead, you might expect an average lead time of weeks, months, or even years where you build mutual trust through check-ins and nurture content, like eBooks, articles, and videos, to educate them about your brand and benefits.

Top talent requires a similar approach. Push candidate leads along a hiring nurture funnel with content and check-ins until you have a pool of talent that knows and trusts your employer brand.

Dr. Geoff Smart calls this the virtual talent bench strategy. He writes, “When the star pitcher pulls a muscle and has to leave the game, the coach gets the number two pitcher off the bench and play resumes immediately. No problem.” Hiring managers should think like a baseball coach: nurture candidates until you can put a rep in the game as quickly as you like.

The virtual bench strategy eliminates last-minute dashes and establishes a recruiting machine that predictably incubates high-quality hires. It decreases time-to-hire and gives A-players the time, relationships, and information they need to join your company.

There are three steps to the virtual bench strategy: Generate leads, put infrastructure in place to track your interactions, and nurture them with personal outreach and content.


Step 1: Identify A Players

Start with a workforce planning exercise to anticipate the number of reps you plan to hire in the next year. Then, build a picture of the ideal candidate with the specific attributes and skills needed to do the job. Because you are hiring salespeople, educate your team about the importance of Sales DNA, which are the intangible traits that help top salespeople excel. Sales DNA almost always beats the resume as a form of screening and selecting a candidate that will perform well on the job.

Next, find candidates. They will be more likely to act on a word-of-mouth referral from someone they trust, so mine your company’s extended network, starting with your top salespeople. Conduct an internal brainstorming exercise by asking key sales leaders and reps to make a list of 10 potential candidates in their network. Top performers immerse themselves in successful communities and have deep networks of other talented sales leaders. Ask them to browse their own LinkedIn networks to make sure they haven’t missed anyone.

You can do a similar exercise by identifying people in your network who are “connectors”—advisors, mentors, influencers, and other business partners—who can recommend candidates and make a connection.

Next, look at the competition’s sales force, as well as peripheral competitors and industries. These are companies and industries adjacent to yours that have similar buyers, sales cycles, and deal sizes, but don’t compete head-to-head. You can also participate in professional associations, network at trade shows, and even host events for education, networking, and industry interest presentations.

Consider creating a talent community, which allows top talent to submit their resumes to your company without committing to a certain position. People who are attracted to your brand can simply express interest, share contact information, and upload their resume, separate from any job postings. There are many benefits to this for both you and the candidate:

  • You can attract potential candidates year-round, even if you don’t have a job posting written.
  • You can see where they best fit within your company and have more flexibility to match them with a role.
  • For a top candidate, it’s less time-consuming to join a talent pool than to apply to a position. It’s low-barrier and low-commitment to begin with, and opens the door for a long-term nurture relationship.

Over time, you’ll amass a list of prospective candidates who are already genuinely interested in your brand and you will have the contact information to begin engaging them with nurture content via email, phone, and live events. Lockheed Martin, Santander Bank, and Carvana, an auto tech startup, are examples of companies that use talent communities to recruit.


Step 2: Create a tracker

Once you have a list of talent prospects, put them in a candidate CRM, ATS, or manual tracker—you wouldn’t keep lists of customers in your head, and you don’t want to do this for candidates either.

If you don’t have technology in place, a simple spreadsheet can suffice to hold candidate information and track your interactions over time. Share the document with your organization’s leads and any other team members involved in the recruiting process. Then, update it with new leads and set a ritual or reminder to repeat the lead brainstorming exercise from Step 1.

The tracker should at minimum have these fields :

  • Name
  • Priority ranking — To sort your dream leads
  • Current title
  • Source — Where you got the idea for the lead
  • Connectors — Your mutual “connectors” that can provide an introduction or reference
  • Timing of contact — We recommend logging the first outreach and the latest outreach at the very least. You can also log any in-between contacts and content sent to the candidate.
  • Selling Performance — Did the candidate hit quota the past 3 years?

(See Rob Kelly’s explanation of his candidate tracker for more background.)


Step 3: Plan your buyer’s funnel

Once you have a list of leads to reach out to, create a funnel that nudges a candidate through the stages of the buyer’s journey, similar to an inbound marketing funnel. Just as it takes consumers many touchpoints to purchase a product, top candidates typically need high-quality, repeated exposure to your employer brand before accepting an interview invitation. All the more so if they’re comfortably employed and doing well in their current job.

This is why your first outreach to a candidate should simply get your company on their radar, because they likely aren’t familiar with your company yet. The first conversation is a “meet and greet,” and ideally comes through a warm introduction. Do not treat it as an interview or an opportunity to pitch your company. Instead, it should entirely center around the candidate, their career aspirations, and their interests. Get a head start before the conversation: research the candidate to understand their career trajectory, recent increased responsibilities, patterns across jobs, and any associations they’re affiliated with or articles they’ve published.

After that first contact, let the candidate progress through a funnel of regular check-ins over email, phone, or coffee so that they can learn progressively more information about your company and the position. Even if they’re not ready to leave their current job, they’ll become more familiar with you over the long term, increasing the chance they’ll consider you for the next stage in their career.

What does this nurture funnel look like? It’s similar to the way a marketing team uses content like articles, webinars, and testimonials to push a lead forward. In the same way, an employer brand uses candidate nurture to slowly communicate selling points and build trust.

Sales teams can collaborate with marketing to create digital nurture programs using emails, ads, and videos that paint a picture of the career that’s in store for a candidate. They should highlight the benefits of the working environment, spotlight successful employees, and communicate key aspects of your company’s growth story, like new product developments and milestones. It’s a way to cut through to what really matters to millenials in a new job and illustrate opportunities for accomplishment, self-actualization, challenges and recognition.

Emails to candidates might take the form of:

  • Employee profile stories demonstrating their accomplishments, providing a model for career growth and an example of external recognition
  • Newsletters that include industry news and business milestones like new high-visibility partnerships and customers, helping candidates understand the exciting challenges they could experience
  • Stories about culture and sales team events
  • eBooks, blog posts, whitepapers, webinars, and videos about the industry or the specific team a candidate is interested in
  • Glassdoor ratings
  • Invitations to in-person events
  • Job alerts
  • Gentle reminders to finish an application
  • Thank you messages

Consider using personalization to improve candidates’ engagement rates (like any good marketing team would). This starts with collecting clean data about each candidate: use standardized forms fields and email questionnaires to collect their name, contact information, and the type of job they’re interested in, as well information about skill sets and areas of interest.  

Then, dynamically insert this data into emails—or segment your candidate database into major groups or personas that require different types of content. For example, junior candidates are more likely to identify with employee stories that match their experience level and early career goals, while senior candidates may be more interested in strategic content about the market and executive team. Other ways to segment a candidate database include job type, areas of interest, and geography.

Netflix is an example of a company that has invested in their nurture programs and employer brand. They cultivate candidates with content such as videos about their internal culture, podcasts about how they hire, and a Facebook page for their talent community called We Are Netflix. Bain & Company has invested in in-depth content to help candidates explore roles and navigate the interview process, complete with videos demonstrating sample interviews and tips. E-commerce tech giant Shopify also invests in automated email nurture campaigns in which recruiters partner with hiring managers to actively check in with candidates who are in the interview process.

Like these companies, persistent nurture will help you bring candidates through the buyer’s journey—all while they’re not actively searching for a job. When they’re ready to consider a change, your company will be top of mind.


A virtual talent funnel is a support structure for building deep human relationships over time. Courting excellent candidates requires a long timeline, but without the disciplined follow-ups of a nurture campaign, they’ll slip through the cracks and go elsewhere. A tracking and outreach system ensures that you’re intentional about building high-quality talent relationships—just as your best reps would for your dream customers.


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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.


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.