Salespeople in the catbird seat
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – GOT GOOD SALES people? It might be time to start worrying about how you're going to keep them. Sibson Consulting recently polled 65 big North American companies, from Ameritrade to Xerox, and found that 80% think they've cut costs about as much as they can and now want to grow revenues. (To see the full study, go to So 77% are hiring more field sales reps, and 50% want to add telephone and web-based salespeople. And where do they plan to get all this fresh talent? Maybe from your sales force. "So many companies laid off so many people during the recession, they cut past the fat into the muscle," notes Mark Donnolo, leader of Sibson's sales and marketing effectiveness practice. "But the top salespeople have gotten other jobs, so getting them back means pirating them from competitors." And not only direct competitors: Todd Abbott, chief operating officer at bar-code maker Symbol Technologies, says Symbol is wooing talent not just from head-to-head rivals like Cisco Systems' wireless division but also from Hewlett-Packard, Avaya, and big consulting firms.

How to lure them? With more money, for one thing: More than half (56%) of the companies in Sibson's study plan to boost base pay. On top of that, 34% see bigger commissions and bonuses as a way to attract and retain sales stars. (Top sellers already do pretty well. At 90% of these companies they earn more than their direct bosses, and 19% pull down more than the CEO.) But it isn't only about the money; 55% of employers say they need to do better at helping salespeople hone their skills and move up, and they're probably right. Consider BellSouth, where annual sales-force turnover is a relatively paltry 5%. Estelle Conover, vice president of indirect sales, attributes that to an intense focus on career development, including training, mentoring, tuition reimbursement, and singling out top performers for bigger jobs. Conover calls herself the "poster child" for this approach: She started at the company in an entry-level call-center job 33 years ago. As for retention, she says, "we never laid off any salespeople during the tough years. They're loyal to us because we're loyal to them." That's something to think about the next time the economy decides to take a little snooze.

Note to new college grads: The big push to recruit sales talent extends to stepped-up campus hiring, and I've heard from a few dozen of you whose only job offers so far are in sales training programs. "If I start out in sales, will I get pigeonholed as a sales guy?" worries one grad signed Hesitating in Hoboken. The short answer is no. Plenty of CEOs and COOs came up through the sales ranks, including Mark Hurd, who started as a field sales rep at NCR and worked his way up to CEO before he was hired as HP's new chief, and John Beystehner, COO of UPS and president of UPS Airlines. "Sales is a great way to learn about a company, its customers, and its competition," says Beystehner. "You're not going to get pigeonholed for life." Good to know. Now, to see whether you've got the chops to be a stellar salesperson, take an interactive quiz at