19 Apr 2018

4 Rules of Headhunting Elite Sales Professionals

With white collar unemployment at its lowest level since 2001 (2.2%), the competition for b2b sales talent is at historic levels. There are simply more available positions than qualified talent (see graph below). Because of this, traditional talent resources such as job boards aren’t working. What does work is target recruiting (headhunting) currently employed sales professionals. With 86.2% of Sales Talent’s hires in 2017 found via sales headhunting, we’ve learned that headhunted sales professionals need to be treated differently than talent sourced from a job board. We’ve built this playbook, the 4 Rules of Headhunting Elite Sales Professionals, to explain how.

The 4 Rules of Headhunting Elite Sales Professionals.

1. Offer a Step Up.

The first rule of headhunting truly elite sales performers is that you must offer a significant step up. To understand this, consider the point of view of the sales professional being headhunted. By definition, a top 20% sales professional has strong sales momentum which required a lot of hard work to achieve. Starting over at a new job will be a harder path than staying put. To get them to even consider taking on that challenge you must provide them with a compelling step up in their career.

Examples of a step up would be better pay, more responsibility or a better company culture and working environment. Of these factors, only the base salary being offered is purely objective. Since top sales professionals are approached by multiple recruiters daily, the old school notion of offering a 10-15% raise in base pay won’t cut it.

2. Change Your Expectations and Approach.

Most sales and HR leaders want to hire sales professionals that aggressively pursue their opportunity. Headhunted talent doesn’t behave this way. Remember, they have a good job, they’re doing well and they have a lot to lose. Expect these candidates to ask thoughtful and detailed questions about the viability of your company, your services or products and the condition of the territory. Do not expect them to walk into the interview gunning for the job.

Conversely, consider the position of an unemployed sales professional or one that is at risk of losing their job. They NEED your job and their behavior will reflect that. These candidates will jump through hoops for you. With this in mind, we welcome questioning, on-the-fence sales professionals. Be prepared to sell them on your opportunity. For tips on how to do this read How to Sell Your Company to Candidates.

3. Execute Decisively.

This is a lesson we learned the hard way. Once someone starts looking at one opportunity, they’ll look at other opportunities. A painful example of this was Chris E. He was the most talented candidate we had recruited in some time for one of our long-term clients. As he was “not looking”, the VP of Sales took her time moving him through the process. Two days before presenting him with an offer he accepted a position with Boston Scientific. As he told us of his decision he shared the following…

I would be working for Xxxxx (our client) if they would have just moved quicker.

Chris E., Sales Talent candidate

4. Understand the Value of Headhunted Candidates.

Sales Talent’s headhunting method includes identifying and touching every potential candidate in a market that fits an opportunity. To put that into numbers, the average Sales Talent search in 2017 started with 974 prospects. That’s a big number. At the bottom of this funnel, we delivered 4.33 candidates that were ultimately interviewed. In between those 2 points is a lot of hours. How many?

One headhunted candidate required 13.31 hours on average to source.

Why so many hours? We’re not delivering “close enough” talent. These are “on target” candidates that “Can Do” the job, “Will Do” the job and “Fit” the opportunity.

When we map out a typical search, it required 57.6 hours to complete (13.31 hours x 4.33 candidates). With that many hours invested, the fastest way to frustrate a sales headhunter is to mismanage the talent they deliver. A few examples:

  • A slow interview process (the candidate takes another job or loses interest).
  • Failure to sell the opportunity (see Rule #2 above).
  • Presenting a lowball offer.
  • Passing on candidates that don’t aggressively pursue the opportunity (see again Rule #2 above).

Should the first batch of candidates get mishandled, it can be problematic to find more “on target” talent. After all, we attempt to touch every qualified candidate. Usually, starting over requires us to change the parameters (more experience, different experience, etc) to execute. A simpler and much faster route is to execute on the original batch of talent.

Final Thoughts on Headhunting Sales Professionals.

All signs point towards the competition for top sales professionals intensifying in 2018 and beyond. Reviewing our own data from January 1 to April 15th of 2018, 100% of Sales Talent’s hires have come from headhunting. We’re still using the same job boards and other resources that we did in 2017 and we’d be happy to collect a fee from one of these resources as they require less hours to source from. You can read more on this topic in Do Job Boards Work for B2B Sales Recruiting?

In closing, when it comes to the war for elite sales talent, companies today are left with 2 choices. 1. Settle for the inferior but easy to land talent found on job boards (the “best of the worst”) OR 2. Find a resource that can deliver headhunted sales professionals and treat the candidates that they send you appropriately.


Chris Carlson

President and founder of Sales Talent Inc, a B2B sales recruiting firm. We place sales reps, sales engineers and sales leaders across North America. Employers can click here to learn more about our sales recruiting services. Candidates can view our current sales openings here.