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Building a sales engine: Five insights to accelerate your start-up

For digital companies looking to grow, rapidly scaling the sales function can be critical for success. But in a competitive talent market, companies need to accelerate sales recruitment without losing their commitment to finding the best people. Many digital companies are in the middle of tackling these challenges.

In this interview, Dominikus Kirchhoff, former managing director Europe at Choco, shares with McKinsey alumnus Pablo Hernandez how he has scaled sales organizations at companies including Choco and other digital companies. Kirchhoff explains how he identifies and attracts “sales superstars” and the key elements of his sales approach. He also provides insights into the techniques he uses to boost sales productivity and increase closing rates.

Key insight #1: Rapid growth in sales requires a robust pipeline of talent, a strong sales approach, and data to back it up.

Pablo Hernandez: When building a sales organization, what areas do you focus on to successfully drive sales?

Dominikus Kirchhoff: First, the most important factor is people. We want to hire only the best of the best, because in sales, the number-one salesperson often brings in as much revenue as the next five or six people combined. At the same time, never stop recruiting. If you’re not constantly recruiting, you can’t react successfully if somebody leaves or doesn’t perform anymore.

Number two, once you’ve got the right people, you have to train them with a sales approach, which, for me, is a solution-based selling approach instead of a sales pitch.

Number three, I’m always astonished by how little data sales organizations have to steer their sales teams. So one of the first things I set up is a transparent performance management system for everybody in the sales organization.

Key insight #2: To fill your team with ‘sales superstars,’ you first need to identify them—and then sell yourself to them.

Pablo Hernandez: Because having a great team around you is so important, what is the best way to recruit “sales superstars” in today’s competitive marketplace?

Dominikus Kirchhoff: First, you have to identify them. These superstars already have jobs, and most of the time they are not applying for new ones. That’s why it’s so important to build up a talent acquisition team to act as headhunters and find these people.

Then you have to reach out to superstars and arouse their interest at the very first contact point, because great salespeople and great sales organizations get approached a lot. Many people are talking to them, and you are just one voice in the crowd.

Finally, when you talk to them, you have to convince them to join your company. You should do everything you can to get these people. You need to ask them, “What do you need to get excited about coming here? How can I help you get there?”

Speed is also important because it shows you’re invested in them. When somebody says they want to talk to us, we’ll set up an interview for the next day. Within a week, we’ll get to the last round, which is with me. Sometimes, if necessary, I’ll even jump on a plane, fly to get dinner with this person, and fly back the next day. We put in the effort because the best thing I can do as a manager is hire this sales superstar, because I know this person can raise more revenue than many other people combined.

Pablo Hernandez: You talked about identifying sales superstars. What are two or three things you look for in high-performing people?

Dominikus Kirchhoff: Our recruiters and I follow a special interview script that we developed over the years to identify superstars. Here is an example: first I ask, “Why are you a sales superstar?” Ninety percent of people I interview respond with only what is on their CV. And I say, “I’ve read your CV; thank you. But I’m asking you, why are you a great sales rep?” The perfect answer—and this comes only from a superstar—is something along the lines of, “In my last job, I was rated in the top 1 percent. And in my current job, after three months, I closed the biggest deal,” and so on. They’ll sell themselves, not just by talking but also by providing transparency and numbers.

What we do then are different role-plays. Most organizations want their interviewees to sell the organization’s product back to them, but I want the person to sell me whatever it is they’re selling right now. It’s not uncommon during this exercise to find that it’s hard to understand what they’re currently selling, that they’re not into it, that they don’t ask me any questions to engage me, and so on.

One last thing to look for is empathy. Are they able to connect with you? Across three to five interviews, they need to be able to connect with everybody because these are the people they’ll be working with every day.

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Key insight #3: The ultimate sales machine is built on a unified, solution-based sales approach.

Pablo Hernandez: Once you’ve assembled the team, how do you build the sales machine and keep it running?

Dominikus Kirchhoff: If you want to build a sales machine, you have to clearly define all the steps and have a unified approach. All the steps of our sales process are the same for every salesperson. They have the same core approach and ask specific questions, as defined in our sales playbook. The playbook helps the salespeople a lot, because they know where they are in the process and what to do next.

This standardized approach takes a lot of training—about three to six months—but it’s really powerful. I have implemented this sales approach several times and have observed a fundamental increase in closing ratios.

Pablo Hernandez: Can you talk to us about solution-based selling? What makes it unique compared with other sales techniques?

Dominikus Kirchhoff: Historically, sales reps would just explain the features and advantages of a product. This was a very good approach in the past but one that is unnecessary now because everybody can inform themselves about a product using the internet.

Solution-based selling is all about the customer. First, we ask potential customers specific and significant questions to really understand their business and their needs. Then we take the time to analyze internally if we can help the customer. During this process, we may end up determining that we cannot help them, or at least not at this time, in which case our sales managers do not try to make a sale. It’s all about being a trusted advisor for our customer, and this approach sets us apart and is what makes the team so successful.

Key insight #4: Tracking data is the key to powering the sales organization.

Pablo Hernandez: If you were to start your new company from scratch, what are the elements you would incorporate to hyperscale growth?

Dominikus Kirchhoff: The beauty in sales is that it can be 100 percent transparent and measurable. On my computer, I have one master dashboard and one master KPI sheet. If I look, I can tell you what everybody in my sales organization has done since they logged in this morning, in the UK, in the US, in France, in Germany, in Belgium—everywhere. That’s very powerful.

In every sales organization, the number-one KPI, but also the most stressful one to increase, is activity. If a salesperson sends an email or if they have a call, we have them report it. Tracking, and making it transparent, increases activity because it encourages people to stay on top of things. With this data, you also can create an activity scorecard that you can leverage to make sure that everybody is active. If we don’t track, our activity will decrease and we’ll bring in less revenue, and that’s not how you fuel growth.

Key insight #5: Culture can be the selling point in a sales organization.

Pablo Hernandez: Is there anything else that you want to tell people looking to build high-growth sales organizations?

Dominikus Kirchhoff: You have to think about what culture you want to have if you want to attract top talent, because people don’t care only about money. They care about where they work or whom they work with. People like to work with companies that have a clear vision and purpose—for example, to reduce food waste and to make the world a better place—and people connect with that.

To have a great culture, you need to build a really positive environment that is built on trust and that is also challenging and performance-oriented. In a sales organization, it’s also important to acknowledge and offer encouragement. You need to show people who are doing a great job that you care about them, that you celebrate them.

At the end of the day, if you want to scale fast and hire the best people, culture is something you, as a leader, have to cultivate.

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