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Companies struggle with shortage of sales talent

TORONTO, : July 14, 2015 - Michael Litt, co-founder and CEO of Vidyard, poses for photographs inside the Tannery in Kitchener, Ontario, Tuesday July 14, 2104.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

After no luck finding sales talent locally, a Kitchener, Ont.-based video marketing startup has executives commuting to work – from as far as 4,500 kilometres away.

"Last week we were in a meeting of seven people and three of us were local and four commute every week from Portland, Maine, Vancouver and Denver, Colorado," said Michael Litt, co-founder and chief executive officer of Vidyard, which provides a platform for hosting and analyzing the performance videos used for marketing and sales. "Nobody else in that room came from the Toronto ecosystem or the Waterloo ecosystem."

Vidyard isn't alone. Employers worldwide report a shortage of sales skills from senior executives to junior staff, says HR consulting firm Manpower, which does an annual survey of employers to find which skills are toughest to find.

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"Sales is in the top five hardest jobs to fill every year, not just in Canada but internationally," says Yvonne Tennenbaum, Manpower's regional director for Ontario. "In 2014, it was second worldwide and fifth in Canada. When you look at smaller startup firms, they want people who are experienced and have technical skills – and right now there's a lack of candidates in the market."

It's a big problem for startups because they can't get bigger without sales – and they can't just rely on their reputation or on pre-existing sales like a massive company can.

"People are so used to being in big companies that when they have to pick up the phone and create their own opportunities, they start to flounder," Mr. Litt said. "There are no startups who have cracked the sales code – sales at BlackBerry meant going into Rogers stores and demanding that they take a bigger order, but that doesn't work for us."

The lack of sales talent in Kitchener-Waterloo has sparked Wilfrid Laurier University to set up a sales training program that will launch this fall. Getting people interested in a sales career can be a tough sell, said Hugh Munro, professor and director of Laurier's MBA program.

"There's a stigma to sales – people think of Herb Tarlek," said Dr. Munro, referring to the sleazy, polyester-suited sales manager on seventies sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. "I think a lot of people's exposure to sales is as somebody who's worked in retail – it's certainly not something they want to do for a career."

Sales today, especially for a startup, isn't about trying to push people to buy things "they don't need and don't want to buy," Mr. Litt said.

"Sales traditionally has been about how do you reach across the table and grab them by the throat and force them," he said. "The problem is: That stuff doesn't work."

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Instead of hard-selling tactics and persuasiveness, salespeople need to understand the product – and how it can solve a problem for the customer.

"In sales today, you're working on behalf of the customer trying to make a difference for their business," said Dr. Munro, who has a PhD in marketing. "You can have a very effective salesperson who is on the quieter side of things – he or she is empathetic and they need to know what the company can bring to the table."

Vidyard has a sales team of about 50, and they don't use "Jedi mind tricks," Mr. Litt said.

"Our salespeople are educators – they're experts in video marketing," he said. "So we need people who are truly passionate about what we offer – we almost prefer people who don't have sales experience."

Sales can be a daunting career choice for some because it's often based on commission, Manpower's Ms. Tennenbaum said.

"More often it's a pay-for-performance roll," she said. "They will try to keep the base salary at a lower level, but the earning potential can be unlimited at some of the larger tech or pharmaceutical companies."

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But it's also a role that's crucial for a company's success, Dr. Munro said.

"You can earn a lot more than some senior executives earn," he said. "And, it's a whole lot more rewarding than other jobs where you're just one of the crowd making small contributions."

To get sales talent, "companies need to be way more innovative in where they're recruiting and sourcing people from," Ms. Tennenbaum said. "Maybe older retirees to help stop the gap. Or maybe they need to get people right out of university and have a better training or mentorship program."

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