Motivating the Passive Sales Candidate

I was never very good in science class, which is probably why I’m not a doctor today. Yet, I remember vividly the exercise on heated atoms. The experiment started with a flask of water and a Bunsen burner. When the flame from the Bunsen burner was applied to the flask, the atoms would dart all over the place in excitement. The excitement was uncontrollable. The energy remained as long as the heat was applied. As soon as the Bunsen burner was removed, the atoms moved back to a static state. All movement stopped.

This science experiment teaches a lot about recruiting “passive” sales candidates (those not presently looking for a job). All companies want to recruit the top-talent salespeople from other companies. However, that talent is usually locked in pretty tightly. The top salespeople are the best earners of the company, so they probably aren’t looking to leave. What would get them to leave? How do you find these candidates? What would energize passive sales candidates to be excited about another opportunity?

Years ago, my father used to take me deep-sea fishing off the Jersey shore. When we went fluke fishing, we used one kind of bait. When we went blue fishing, we used a different kind of bait. Thus, you need the right bait to attract a particular type of fish. You certainly won’t catch a shark using a worm for bait.

Once the baited hook was in the water, the fish didn’t usually grab it in a way that allows you to reel them in right away. There was a dance. You had to make sure the fish had eaten all of the bait and was firmly on the hook. Professional fishermen talk about all of the different techniques involved with playing this game well. On any Sunday morning, you can find television shows on ESPN that walk you through the steps on how to select bait and tackle, as well as techniques to bring the fish into the boat.

So, what is the right bait when looking to catch passive sales candidates? How do you motivate them into action? There are two fundamental motivators of salespeople: fear and greed. Very simply, it’s just those two. Thus, the two types of bait for recruiting passive sales candidates are fear and greed. Sales managers use techniques to direct their sales team based on those two motivators every day. Guess what happens when a “greed” technique is used on a salesperson motivated by fear? Nothing! Thus, it is critical for the sales manager to figure out the right motivator for each of his team members.

The wrong bait is also an issue for sales recruiting. Many recruiters rely strictly on the “greed” motivator. “Come to our company, and you can make oodles of money.” That will work with some sales candidates, but certainly not with all.

As sales managers have come to recognize, there is an equally-sized population motivated by fear. I might argue that the “fear” population is larger than the “greed” one. For those folks, the “greed” factor does not motivate them into action. Some of you may be thinking that some salespeople are motivated by both, which is true. However, one of those two is more dominant. One of those two drives them into action.

As you can imagine, I talk to salespeople all the time. Most lament about the goings-on in their companies. So, I ask them if they are looking for another job, and they say no. Then, an event occurs, something that gets their attention, and they call me and say that “today” they have decided to make a change. That event is different for every salesperson, but it always falls into the category of either fear or greed.

To motivate a passive sales candidate into action based on fear, do your homework to effectively use fear as a motivator. The media provides most of the tools you need to do this well. Here are some examples of the fears salespeople have:

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Leadership Change

As a whole, salespeople don’t like change. They like their territory and compensation to remain static unless they are getting more. When there is a change in leadership at the top, they get very uneasy about what happens next. Will the territory change? Perhaps the compensation plan will change?

Thus, top salespeople could be open to listening to you about a new opportunity. How do you know when there is a leadership change? The business journal of that city announces promotions/new hires at the management level of companies. A weekly read of this tool gives you new ponds for your fishing expedition. You also may learn that information from an active candidate who cites that as a reason for looking for another job.

Company Acquisition Rumors

For the larger companies, the financial news (print, online, television) broadcasts rumors like this. Whether the company is going to be acquired or is the “acquiree,” there is uncertainty in the sales team. Salespeople don’t like uncertainty. Post-acquisition, there will be changes to the sales team, but who will still have a job and who won’t?

Just like kids who, during the week before Christmas, wonder what is inside the wrapped boxes under the tree, salespeople wonder what their “gift” will be. For some, the uncertainty of the future is just enough to lead them to be receptive to a job exploration.

Company Financial Woes

Again, this information is shared in the financial news media. It is also in the local business journal. Salespeople panic when they hear this kind of news. For one, they wonder if their companies will survive. However, they also connect a few other dots. “If the company isn’t doing well, I bet it will lower the commission rate.” Or, “I bet they cut the size of the sales team. Even if I survive the cut, I’ll have to do twice the work for the same pay.”

Compensation Change

How can you possibly know when there is a compensation-plan change in another company? This information is certainly not shared in the media. When “active” candidates are asked why they are looking at other opportunities, they usually cite compensation-plan changes as one of those reasons. Hearing that should trigger a campaign to find the top performers of that company so you can apply your “Bunsen burner” tactic.

To motivate passive salespeople into action, you need the right bait. With research and technique, you can apply the heat that sends these candidates into a frenzy.

Lee B. Salz is a leading sales management strategist specializing in helping companies build scalable, high-performance sales organizations through hiring the right sales people, onboarding them effectively and efficiently, and aligning their sales activities with business objectives using his sales architecture® methodology. He is the President of Sales Architects, the C.E.O. of Business Expert Webinars, and author of the award-winning book Soar Despite Your Dodo Sales Manager. Lee is also the host of the Sales Management Minute and creator of The Revenue Accelerator. He is a results-driven sales management consultant and a passionate, dynamic speaker. Lee can be reached at or 763.416.4321.


4 Comments on “Motivating the Passive Sales Candidate

  1. This is interesting. I spent over a year and a half in business to business sales before I entered the field of recruiting exactly one month ago. I had a great car/expense plan, good commission, and a solid base. Many friends told me that I was an idiot for leaving. I think it was the best decision I could have made. Perhaps what makes me different from the type of person you described in this article is that I became an active seeker. I got bored with what I was selling. It was the same presentation about the same products every time. It probably didn’t help that, to a certain degree, I stopped believing in the product I was selling. I wanted a relationship based sell rather than the get ’em for as much as you can then move on to the next victim. I know several people in this Fortune company that share the same sentiment.

    The person that recruited me (no pun intended) stressed that if I didn’t make the move now, I would stay comfortable and then years would have went by in unhappiness. Given that I’m only 3 years out of college and can still make changes in my career without much impact played on the ‘fear’ of losing the ability to be mobile…from a career standpoint, not bodily pain. I think that the approach you are suggesting works when you use terms like fear and greed. Everything we do in life can be broken down into that. But in recruiting top sales professionals, age is definitely going to be a factor in how they pursue opportunities. I was willing to take a pay cut just to have a fresh opportunity in a sales environment where I got the personal satisfaction that the relationship management aspect of recruiting could provide. Obviously someone in their 30’s with a wife and kids is going to see things a bit differently more times than not.

    Overall, I think this was a great article. It got me thinking about why I made the move into recruiting. I gotta admit, I love it over here on the dark side!

  2. Speaking from the sales person?s perspective, which I am, I have to agree with everything you’ve discussed. I think one of the biggest objections companies must overcome when looking for a passive top sales earner is the financial gap from when that person comes on board the new company until they’ve developed their book of business. Sometimes that?s 3 months, sometimes that?s 6 months but in most cases it takes about a year to get to the point that sales person was at financially, before they left their old position. This goes back to referencing both fear and greed. The key here is the right bait. That sales person must feel like he/she can make a comfortable transition with out a financial loss and in fact, make gains with other potential benefits. I.e. more vacation time, stock/stock options and/or sign on bonus. Each person is motivated differently the key is to speak to that individual and what makes them energized and excited about a new opportunity.

  3. Lee,

    Nice article, but I think you are only hitting the tip of the iceberg with passive candidates and what it is that causes them to ‘heat up’. Fear and Greed are definitely motivating factors, but there are many more that do not fall into either category, i.e. challenge. I have recruited hundreds of individuals who were very happy with the amount of money they were making, in fact, would accept less money for a position that challenged them. They were in a very stable company, without any changes going on, so fear wasn’t a factor either. They were simply tapped out energy wise or bored. They could stay in their present position, but after hearing of a new challenging opportunity they actively pursued it. Others get tired of driving 3 hours each way in snow every day and a location closer to home is a strong motivation. And don’t forget Spouses and significant others, they are one of the key reasons an individual will become active from passive with seemingly no other motivation present.

    I agree you have to choose the right ‘bait’ and you have to fish where the fish are that you want to catch. Equally important is KEEP THEM ON THE LINE once they are hooked. Too many get away because the recruiter fails to follow through and keep them excited about being on the ‘hook.’

    Thanks for the article!

  4. no cigar. Though I don’t disagree that the conditions you cite do turn passive into active and semi-active candidates, those are situations out of the recruiter’s control. Relying on one of those conditions to be present in order to attract passive sales candidates will leave you with a very inconsistent pipeline, not to mention a really unhappy VP Sales. You really lose out in two ways.

    Certainly, learning about a competitor’s misfortunes is a ‘GO’ signal to recruit their reps, but you’re not the only savvy recruiter setting up Google alerts or tracking ticker symbols. This is the first way you lose out, because you’re run the risk of becoming just one of the vultures pouncing on the fallen prey. It is more difficult to differentiate yourself and your opportunity when part of a horde and thus your close ratios drop, and the amount of effort increases as you try to jockey for position.

    Rainmakers are the LAST salespeople an employer is going to mess with. You don’t cut your top producers’ territories – you ADD to them. You don’t reduce their earning opportunities – you find new incentives because they RESPOND to these challenges by DELIVERING. So, you lose again here by taking advantage of situations like you describe because companies will protect their franchise players, leaving you the B and C players to build your team.

    I come not to bury this discussion, but to redirect it. So what then?

    SalesPEOPLE (and I am one, and a hiring manager to boot) are people, too. As people, we respond to many of the same things that civilians do, albeit with some tweaks (but, hey think of the things you do for a software architect). Dig out your college psych book and review Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, talk to salespeople and dig into what makes them feel self-actualized in their roles.

    Once you have a handle on that, look at your client/company to see how many of those things you can find in those sales roles. Then, begin a ‘conversation’ with your targets – in an enewsletter, blog, podcast or other content generated from the company website or the numerous sales sites and blogs around.

    If you want to hire the BEST, it’s seldom fast, and never easy. They’re hard to find and cautious to change, if their current employer appreciates them at all. Fear and greed are 90’s motivators and trademarks of the journeyman salesperson. Welcome to the new millenium and salespeople who build businesses and themselves.

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