Recruiting and Hiring Account Executives

Lianne is a sales recruiter with experience hiring hundreds of sellers for companies like Gong, Pluralsight, Zscaler, Anaplan, and SuccessFactors. In this guide, she outlines what to look for when hiring SMB, Mid-market, and Enterprise AE’s, how to apply outreach and sequencing best practices to recruiting, and how to close great candidates.

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Questions covered in this guide

What are the different “types” of Account Executives that you might need to recruit?

SMB AE’s – targeting small business, traditionally going to be more of your “mom and pop” shops. Usually selling into companies with under 250 employees, with lower-priced products and faster sales cycles.
    → Look for: a younger profile with 1-2 years closing experience. SMB sales are often very transactional, so often a BDR/SDR background works well. This person will be calling on small companies, with a quick deal cycle (a couple of weeks).
Mid-market AE’s – targeting mid-market companies with 250-2,000 employees (pre-IPO). As companies get bigger, sales.
    → Look for: middle tenure sellers with experience with longer deals into larger accounts. Typically five years of closing experience.
Enterprise AE’s – selling into enterprises with 2,000+ employees (Fortune 1000 companies). Enterprise AE’s tend to be the most experienced sellers, because there’s more red tape and a longer transaction cycles.
    → Look for: someone who’s more of a strategic thinker who can plan ahead and define their process along the way. They should have a longer tenure, with 7-10+ years selling experience.

Sales Development Reps (SDRs) – technically not AE’s (but part of sales recruiting), responsible for led generation, not closing. 

For each type of AE, what quota and compensation ranges are typical?

What qualities or skills should be on your hiring scorecard?

Did they hit quota – how much was it, how did you perform against it, what percentage of quota did you make, what was their stack rank? A good AE will know all of that info off the top of their head. 

Motivators for movement – such as “why are you leaving?” You don’t want to hear, “I want more money or I didn’t hit quota and they’re booting me out.”

Career history, looking for longevity in role – you don’t want a salesperson who’s only been in a role for a year because it shows nothing. Especially on the enterprise, and even the mid-market side, it takes a minimum of six month to even start building your pipeline. So if they’re only there for a year, that’s a huge red flag. 

Deal size, deal cycle & targeting – do they understand what they’re selling, but also do they have the background (e.g. if it’s a more technical sell, do they have technical sales experience?) Can they articulate who the actual customers are. 

For enterprise – ask for logos from companies that they’ve sold into. If you don’t recognize 70% of the logos they show you, they’re probably not truly an enterprise rep. 

How should you think about writing an AE job description?

Be super succinct – AE’s have a low attention span. Leave out the garbage stuff e.g. excellent communicator, great at Excel, good at Microsoft. It’s better to keep the job description short, and that stuff goes without saying.

About your company – who we are, what we’re doing, and what we’re hoping to accomplish. 

We’re looking for – “an account executive to do X.” Including titling in the role. Consider having different names for AE and account manager roles (this will help to attract different kinds of candidates), or at least define whether it’s a role that deals with whitespace accounts (new logo deals) or accounts that have already been worked (account management/upselling). 

Responsibilities – personalize based on company and role specifics, you might need things like:
  • Consistently hitting quota, you can have something like, “historically have hit quota X number of years out of X number of years.”
  • Ability to forecast closings and billings (depending on the level).

Qualifications – where you’re going to try and weed out the unqualified folks. List things like years of experience, do they need a certain background, do they need to have sold to a specific market. These aren’t necessarily deal breakers, but they can help you determine who’s best. 

How should you think about describing your company to entice AE candidates?

Highlight the product – AE’s have to be really excited about what they’re selling otherwise it’s hard for them to do their job. 

Show growth trajectory – highlight the growth trajectory of your product because AE’s want to know there will be a future for them at the company. Showcase how your product/service/platform is useful to your customers. 

Showcase your culture – if you don’t sell a “cool” product. People will have different things that motivate them to look for a different job; some will be looking for a work/life balance or a quirky company and others will be searching for a company that seems like it has the potential for hyper growth and is currently a pre-IPO.

How should you think about posting job recs for AE positions? Do job postings work, and if so where and what should you post?

Don’t rely on postings to bring in high-quality candidates – everyone thinks they can sell software, even if they have no background in it, so postings bring in a lot of unqualified applicants. And because there’s high demand for their skillset, good SaaS reps are already well-employed (and not looking at postings).

But, still make postings to get the word out on sites like:
  • LinkedIn, including groups – Join groups on LinkedIn (e.g. SaaS sales pros) to reach a much narrower focus of people.
  • The Ladders – a boutique site for high-paying ($100K+) jobs that can be good to post on if you have the funds for it.

Where are the smart places for a young company to take a risk on salespeople?

Grow BDRs – BDRs/SDRs can turn into great salespeople if you teach them to close. They’ll need  mentorship on later aspects of the deal, such as contracts and price negotiations. 

Non-tech B2B sellers can make good SaaS reps – because they can understand the complexity of working in an enterprise B2B company. 

Take a risk where you can give mentorship – if you see that someone is a decent hunter, that’s at the heart of being a salesperson. So it comes down to how much mentorship you’re willing to give this person in a specific area that they’re missing out on. This depends upon the skillset and bandwidth of the hiring manager.

How should you screen respondents to your posting?

Have the hiring manager put together their top 3-5 requirements – and then weed people out based on if they fit the requirements or not. You can be flexible if someone is strong in a different area.

Look for longevity – if you see that someone has been jumping jobs every six months, that can be an automatic cut. 

If you’re doing outreach to recruit AE’s, how should you think about defining your target profile?

Develop it for your company, look for
  • Industry (SaaS) experience – and get more specific if you need to, e.g. has sold into sales, marketing, or operations organizations (whatever function you sell into).
  • Experience in your vertical – if vertical knowledge is important
  • Experience at one of your competitors – consider a boolean search for candidates who have experience with your competitors, or other relevant companies in your space

Try a tool like Hiretual to create Boolean searches (as a cost-effective substitute to LinkedIn Recruiter) – it’ll search through LinkedIn for you, in the same way that LinkedIn recruiter does, but the process is much more manual in terms of how you’re going about opening up the profile. You might not get all of the information that you would in a recruiter seat, but you’ll still get the profile. So you can do the Boolean searches, and the search functionality is greater than the free LinkedIn version, but cheaper than the recruiter function.

What messaging works well in AE outreach?

Keep it short, 1-2 sentences – usually my outreach is, “Hey, I saw your profile, I’m hiring for X and I was impressed because of your background at X. I have an enterprise sales position available. Are you open to a chat?”

I like Inmail, but you can do a connect request – if you don’t have the funds for enough Inmails. 

How should you think about recruiting outreach cadences and tracking?

A tool like Gem is helpful to use a marketing approach – import the candidate profiles into the ATS and build campaigns around them; you can have messages sent on behalf of the hiring manager or CEO, but when they respond, the recruiter gets the AE. Gem also helps you find the email address too.

Set up sequences – create folders to build campaigns around them. If they don’t respond in three days, follow-up. If they don’t respond again in a week, follow-up. If they don’t answer again, move them to unresponsive. 

Who should be involved in the AE hiring process? What’s the role that each participant plays?

Don’t let your interview panel get too long – if you don’t have a good feeling about someone by interview number three, then move on. 

Usually the sequence is:
  • Interview with recruiter  
  • Interview with the hiring manager
  • Have them pitch – usually it’s, “here’s a deck of a high level overview of who we are, here’s our elevator pitch, here’s a pre-recorded salesperson or founder talking about what we do”. Then have them present in front of the hiring manager and a peer as if they were presenting to a prospect. Alternatively, you can have them do a video pitch as they submit their application. They can be selling anything (e.g. water) but it helps to filter out a lot of really poor candidates. 
  • Interview with cross-functional groups would work with – such as customer success, solutions engineering, or both. 
  • Interview with a peer – that’d they work with on a routine basis. 
  • Final interview: hiring manager and/or founder (C-suite), this is also an opportunity to bring in an exec to help close candidates you like.

How many candidates should you plan to evaluate for every AE that you hire?

For every 1 person you hire, you could look at 100+
  • Only 20% of people who submit a resume make it to the recruiter
  • Only 20% of people the recruiter talks to make it to the hiring manager (I have 30 minute calls all day, every day, and some days I only pass one person forward)
  • At a minimum, the hiring manager looks at 5-6 people for a position

Salespeople are often great at selling themselves – what interview questions or tests help cut through that?

Ask specific questions about quota attainment – what’s your dollar quota and how have you performed against it. What was your percentage of quota and your stack rank? If they don’t know the answers to those, they’re not great salespeople. 

Culture is important, especially at small companies – so include behavioral questions that tell you how well they can play with others. E.g. – tell me about a time when you had to work with a team member to solve a problem that no one was able to solve and how did you do it. 

What reference checks should you perform and what should you look for?

Try backdoor references – if I saw that they worked with X at whatever company ten years ago, so I’m going to reach out to them to get an unfiltered view. I also tell my hiring managers to wait until the end of the process to do that reference check. 

Check multiple references – if you love someone you’re hiring, but talk to someone who didn’t like working with them, keep checking. Everyone has someone who doesn’t like them.

How should you present an offer?

Usually the recruiter presents the offer – to the new AE because they typically have a better approach for talking about comp without getting in trouble with legal. 

Focus on how good they are – say something like, “you blew everybody out of the water and no one else compared. We’d love to extend an offer.”

Start with compensation, then discuss soft benefits – define every piece and be very accurate on the offer.  Explain base salary and their variable. Tell them, your variable is based on your quota (and your quota is going to be X) and explain the accelerators you have in place. Define overall compensation too. Be very accurate on the numbers because salespeople are all about numbers. 

How do you entice great salespeople to accept your offer? 

Signing bonuses and accelerators help – because a salesperson is always going to be leaving a commission behind. OTE accelerators help if they can help a new AE hit 100% of their earnings, and those accelerators stand out because that’s not something that every company offers. 

Offering a non-recoverable draw is very appealing if you can afford it – the non-recoverable draw is money that’s paid at 100% of their commission rate for X number of months as they ramp, regardless of whether they close any deals during that time period or not.  

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Define your target profile (both buyer and candidate) – understand what you’re offering and who your target audience is, along with who you want your AE’s to sell to. 

Be ready to talk about your marketing engine – who’s going to be developing the sales pipeline? The AE’s or a marketing engine? The AE’s will want to know how the “name gets out” especially if it’s a small company that’s competing against name brands. Possibly showcase a “success” story with an AE to show candidates. 

Be ready to talk about % of reps hitting quota –  this will tell a rep how realistic the expectations for them to hit quota are.

Know what your company wants to live by – have your ideal candidate profile together so you can try and hire for the company’s mission and values.

What are the common pitfalls?

Don’t hire too fast – you’re better off waiting to hire the right person than you are just trying to fill a seat. You don’t want to waste money on training and onboarding someone that, in two months, is going to fail. The AE hiring process normally takes three – four weeks.

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