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Selling Power Special Report: The 2023 Outlook for B2B Sales Opportunities

By Henry Canaday
Chalkboard with the word possible written on it with a hand covering a portion of the board and chalk in the corner.

After several rocky years fueled largely by COVID and COVID restrictions, it looks like U.S. business-to-business sales opportunities just might be poised for long-term growth, albeit with some risks based on fears of recession that could impact certain markets while bypassing others. If there is a recession, companies looking to hire reps or expand sales teams could view it as an opportunity to staff up for the economic turnaround coming out of recession. Such companies will be seeking reps who can help them exploit markets abandoned by weaker rivals and then stay to build long-term revenue growth.

With an estimated 700,000 open B2B sales positions in 2023, Selling Power asked several top sales consultants and sales leaders how new or veteran reps should approach these opportunities. Then we asked executives at Selling Power’s Top 50 Companies to Sell For how they recruited and onboarded new reps.

Choosing a Direction

Let’s start with how new or experienced reps should choose B2B sales careers that fit their goals and abilities.

Right now, candidates look chiefly for on-target earnings, notes Anthony Iannarino, a sales leader specializing in complex B2B sales. However, these candidates may not get the coaching and training they need to reach their target. Instead, Iannarino advises candidates to seek an industry they really like; they likely will make more money over time.

Candidates should look first for alignment with their own core values and an industry they have a passion for, advises Jamie Crosbie, founder of the recruiting consultancy Proactivate. Crosbie believes the fun part of sales is getting into an organization where a rep can have a lot of impact. “Of course, they have to have great tools and technologies, but it starts with alignment.”

Andy Miller, a consultant with Big Swift Kick, says candidates should first be clear on whether they are running away from a bad position or simply seeking a better position. That will affect how long they can take in seeking a new sales job – and how choosy they can be in accepting one. Of course, brand-new reps may have to take anything they can find to get a foot in the sales door, then suck it up for a year of experience.

Others should “look for companies with a good reputation,” Miller recommends. For example, companies with at least a 4.0 rating on the Website Glassdoor, or the top companies in your local business journal. Or Selling Power’s Top 50.

Avoid companies that say they can onboard new reps in three days. “Three days is an introduction,” Miller sniffs. “Three to 12 months is onboarding.”

Victor Antonio, head of the Sellinger Group, says candidates have to first decide whether they want to work in a large, bureaucratic organization that provides plenty of support (but also plenty of control) or to work more independently for a smaller company. Autonomy and mastery of one’s workday can be a very strong motivator for some reps, and robust motivation brings results in sales and compensation.

Who Will Hire in 2023?

Assuming you are looking for a good match, which industries will be hiring this year? While there have been some well-publicized layoffs at fast-growing tech companies, many of these layoffs have been in non-revenue-producing positions, not in sales.

Iannarino also sees plenty of opportunities in non-tech manufacturing. And distribution businesses “will always be around.” Logistics companies may not seem sexy, but they tend to always be profitable.

Crosbie cites recent statistics showing U.S. labor markets are still tight. “Nine out of ten companies are still struggling to fill jobs,” she notes. “And 29% see major skill gaps.” Note these statistics are for all jobs, not just sales jobs. But there is no reason to think the job market for B2B salespeople is very different.

Crosbie ticks off job openings in demand: “There’s always professional services, technology, transportation, utilities, warehouses, health at number one, financial services, construction, and manufacturing.”

Antonio acknowledges that technology has taken a hit. But staples are still selling, and that means B2B opportunities at the wholesale level for consumer staples. With less business out there, “companies now have to have real hunters.”

For there is a silver lining in any recession or slow business year. Some weaker companies fold, and their surviving competitors can go after former customers of the weak ones. “Recession squeezes out the excess,” Antonio stresses. “Now you can go after the accounts you could not get before. Recession opens the door.”

Paul Rosen is chief operating officer of ShipBob, which does fulfillment for companies that sell online but do not want to surrender ownership of customers to Amazon. ShipBob is not laying off reps or other employees, but the company is getting more cautious. “We are still adding reps – just slower than in the past,” Rosen says.

The ShipBob exec observes that layoffs have been sprinkled among several sectors, not just tech. Morgan Stanley and Spectrum have also reduced headcounts. “Investors are cautious about spending this year. That is impacting all sectors.”

Sales layoffs tend to be concentrated among three groups: the bottom 10–20% of performers, new reps who lack the experience yet to sell well, and average reps who negotiated above-average compensation.

Bob Marsh is a well-known sales speaker and chief revenue officer of Bluewater Technologies, which supports sensory storytelling with digital tools. “Broadly speaking, there’s always a market for good reps,” Marsh argues.

One especially good place to look for openings is in technologies that support the new hybrid work environment, with some staff at home and some in the office. “We need new technologies, not just Teams and Zoom,” Marsh says. These new tools would deploy cameras and audio devices that let managers jump into meetings with both remote and in-person staff.

Another sector Marsh likes is cybersecurity, because fraud and scamming are significant now, so people and companies are investing in this protection. And artificial intelligence continues to be a hot field.

Marsh’s own rule as Bluewater CRO? Always be recruiting. “You never know when you are going to find a top performer.” He suspects most current layoffs are in non-sales positions. That’s because companies need reps to sell their way out of recessions, and reps’ commission-based comp goes down in slowdowns – a nice buffer for CFOs.

Denise Hayman is chief revenue officer for Sonrai Security, which provides security for the cloud, one of Marsh’s suggested hot sectors. “Our business is still growing,” Hayman confirms.

A Matter of Compensation

What are companies offering to new sales hires – both new candidates and experienced reps?

Starting with money, Paul Rosen says financial offers differ widely according to sales role, industry, and experience. There are inside business development reps (BDRs) and sales development reps (SDRs), and then there are outside account executives, who may manage a small business, a medium-sized business, or a major enterprise account.

“Generally, most BDRs get $40,000 to $55,000 in base and $60,000 to $75,000 on-target earnings,” Rosen estimates.

Outside reps generally do much better, but their comp depends on industry and experience and varies greatly according to performance.

Recent postings for outside B2B reps on CareerBuilder averaged about $70,000 a year at the low end and $110,000 at the high end. But individual offers varied widely, with $150,000 to $175,000 at the top end. These top comp rates are most likely for experienced reps who do well in good industries. Low-end rates in the $50,000 to $60,000 range likely apply to new reps who don’t do so well in less-rich industries.

Monster.com shows a significant range according to industry. Sales engineers average $90,000 and can earn up to $130,000. Reps who sell financial services to businesses can earn over $200,000 per year, if they are experienced and do well.

In contrast, manufacturers’ reps average only $63,000 and top out at $130,000, according to Monster. Medical device reps do better on average ($70,000) but only reach $93,000 at the high end. Software reps average $72,000 and can earn up to $97,000.

Data from the U.S. Labor Department, adjusted for inflation, tells a similar story of wide differences among sales positions and performance levels. The bottom quarter of technical and scientific B2B reps earn only $70,000, but the top 10% make nearly $190,000 per year.

Other manufacturing and wholesale reps make only about $50,000 if they are in the bottom 25%, but nearly $100,000 a year if they perform in the top 25%. Finally, even badly lagging sales engineers make nearly $70,000, and the top ones can make more than $200,000 (Table 1).

Again, the lower figures are most likely for new reps whose lack of experience in markets limits them for a while, or for veterans who simply are not very good or do not put much effort into their careers.

Non-financial offers are important as well. Marsh says smart companies offer flexibility in remote work, invest in sales technology to attract good reps, and have strong customer relationship management (CRM) systems to help reps do their jobs. The Bluewater CRO thinks compensation plans will not change much in 2023, but goals and triggers for bonuses may become a bit more stringent.

Sonrai’s Hayman thinks recruiters will tailor offers to what is most important to sales recruits. “It could be cash, or equity, or something else.” She believes recruiters will definitely offer more time off if that is desired. “They will be lenient on time off, even unlimited vacation.” Hayman herself does not worry much about reps taking more time off during summer. “After all, they have goals they need to achieve.”

And Hayman thinks recruiters will be increasingly flexible about a sales candidate’s location. “Why should I care if my rep is in New York City, as long as the rep can sell in that time zone?”

The Sales Recruiting Pool

New sales recruits come from several sources: veteran reps seeking better opportunities, newbies just out of college, or non-sales employees looking for a career change. Should these last, possible career switchers, move into sales in 2023?

Rosen emphatically answers yes. “I truly believe reps are made, not born. Salespeople can start late in life and be wildly successful.” The only real qualifications are grit and the ability to handle rejection and manage emotions through the highs and lows of a sales career.

And Rosen notes there can be emotional downers in non-sales positions too. Employees who are not revenue producers may be just “overhead” for their companies and be laid off in slow times. Revenue-producing reps at least do not have that worry.

Still, career-switchers must be willing to take a temporary step back in a new sales vocation. It can take three to five years for novice reps to really learn their new job well. A 45-year-old non-sales employee might start out as an inside BDR and later move into outside B2B sales.

Marsh concurs with Rosen. “Absolutely, it’s a great time to consider switching.” One reason is the major shift in B2B buying that is going on now. According to McKinsey & Company’s latest B2B Pulse Insights, 80% of B2B buyers seek to purchase by a mix of sales channels, including in-person, remote communication, and digital self-service. “That means more remote selling,” Marsh says.

And B2B buyers want to work with experts, not traditional salespeople. “They want people who understand their industry and can advise them,” Marsh says. Very often, people from production and management understand their industries better than traditional sales reps. Marsh says workers who like to build relationships and are competitive should make ideal salespeople. “True experts are not sitting in sales in many cases today.”

Hayman cautions, “A lot depends on the traits of the individual” in considering a career switch to sales.

Automation and chat bots – which can take care of all the routine selling tasks – are changing sales rapidly and dynamically. So reps need to personalize the non-routine parts of selling. “Companies are looking for deep research skills,” Hayman says. She thinks journalists and teachers could be good at modern selling – journalists because they should be good at research and teachers because they are used to tailoring a lesson or message to an individual student or listener. A former teacher herself, Hayman says teachers can be good at “cajoling outcomes,” which is of course a major part of sales.

Like Rosen, Hayman says career-switchers need not move immediately into pure sales. They can start in any go-to-market function, customer success reps, account management, sales support “or any part of the sales ecosystem.”

And what are top companies looking for in new sales hires, whether from sales veterans, new college graduates, or mid-career switchers?

“They are looking for sales hunters – people who are very comfortable with prospecting and creating new opportunities,” summarizes Iannarino. “What they should be looking for is people who have the skills and experience to have great conversations with prospects or people who can learn to have those conversations.” But spotting these conversation champs can be very hard.

“Grit, a commitment to excellence, and determination to win, no matter what,” stresses Crosbie. “Grit matters more than skills.”

Interviewees should avoid appearing like know-it-alls, Crosbie cautions. Candidate reps should be confident but demonstrate a mindset that is open to training and learning, while showing an instinctive curiosity.

“Grit” is also the first word out of Miller’s mouth when asked this question. “Fight in the dog; without this, nothing else works.” Reps must study, learn, and recognize and correct their own flaws. Two common flaws are reluctance to talk about money and a desire to be liked too much. If hiring companies are going to spend three to 12 months onboarding new reps, they have to know these reps have the necessary character traits up front. “I can’t teach grit.”

Interviewees should prepare to tell hiring managers when they expected to fail at something (a college course, a business task, or a major sale) and stuck it out until they succeeded. “Selling is about not quitting in the face of adversity,” Miller argues. And interviewees should also ask for next steps to follow up after the interview and then be sure and take that follow-up step. The interview is like a sales call; it should be treated as one.

Antonio says companies are looking for speed to value. “They want hunters who can hit the ground running, make it a short runway.” Candidates must study the hiring industry before the interview, not after.

New reps should be able to think like the business managers they will be selling to, be empathetic to the pressures these managers are getting, and have peer-to-peer conversations with prospect managers.

Grit, resilience, problem solving, and listening are the traits Rosen looks for in ShipBob’s new reps. Customers do more research before the first sales contact these days. Reps must be able to jump immediately into problem solving with prospects who know a lot about the rep’s company and product.

“The number one quality is great listening skills,” Marsh says. “Reps must understand and take control of the conversation to drive forward the buying process.”

Another trait Marsh looks for is the judgment and decisiveness to know when an opportunity is not going to pan out, and to avoid wasting time on dead ends.

Hayman looks for how a sales candidate’s experience translates to Sonrai’s sales process. Then she looks for character traits: Is the candidate personable and influential? Can the rep not only make a financial pitch to the prospect’s chief financial officer but teach other staff in the prospect company how to make such a pitch?

Recruiting at Top Companies

How do the best companies actually find, recruit, and hire sales candidates? We asked several of Selling Power’s Top 50 Companies to Sell For to explain their approaches.

Michael Dorrington is senior vice president of sales and advertising at AMAROK, which provides perimeter security for businesses. “AMAROK uses an internal recruiting staff that is skilled and trained at identifying the type of talent that has proven to be successful in our fun, fast-paced environment,” Dorrington says. His company’s recruiting team uses an omnichannel media plan to connect with potential recruits in exactly those places where they are looking for their next career position.

This approach has borne fruit for the fast- growing company. Over the past year, AMAROK has tripled its sales organization, hiring 60 additional sales and marketing team members. “We plan to do this again in 2023,” Dorrington stresses.

Transloop Logistics, which manages transportation by Ryder trucks, is another Selling Power Top 50 Company to Sell For. “When identifying top sales talent, we focus on attracting and hiring candidates that align with TransLoop’s core values: transparency, reliability, and collaboration,” summarizes Taylor Walthers, the company’s director of human resources and culture.

Walthers attributes part of TransLoop’s success and rapid growth to its recruitment and onboarding processes. Along with alignment with Transloop values, recruiters focus on growth-oriented, competitive high performers. “As we welcome more people with this high-performance mindset and ethical approach, we continue to reinforce our culture.”

Rob Daugherty, senior vice president for talent acquisition at ZoomInfo, another in Selling Power’s list, says his best source of sales candidates is current employees. “They know what makes someone successful at ZoomInfo, and they know how great a place it is to work, so we rely on our referral program more than anything.” The company also sources candidates using its own TalentOS tool, which finds and contacts people who may not be in some of the larger, more well-known social channels. “TalentOS has been a game-changer in sourcing passive sales candidates,” Daugherty says.

Top 50 list member Shaw Industries uses many platforms and resources to find and recruit sales talent, according to Senior Talent Acquisition Manager Tatum Sprinkle. LinkedIn Recruiter has been one of the most powerful tools for identifying passive candidates. “To capture a potential candidate’s attention, we will send messages directly to their LinkedIn inboxes, emails, and occasionally even text messages,” Sprinkle explains. Shaw’s recruiters also tap industry networking events.

Finally, the company reviews and follows up with active candidates via posting sites, such as LinkedIn, Indeed, and Career Builder as well as local posting sites. Then Shaw applies digital tracking tools to candidates to manage recruitment, interviewing, hiring, and onboarding.

Sales Stays Strong

Coming out of several years of turmoil – and going into a year of potential recession – B2B sales opportunities in the U.S. are expected to remain strong. With the advice of the experts in this article, candidates looking to enter sales, and the companies looking to recruit, can take hope and fill the B2B sales positions that will be open in 2023 (see sidebar for more on this).

About 700,000 B2B Sales Job Openings in 2023

Openings for B2B sales positions in 2023 will depend on the sales force’s growth and turnover. Selling Power currently estimates that the U.S. has about 24 million salespeople; however, the vast majority of these are B2C reps. Using Labor Department data for 2021, how many of these does Selling Power estimate are in B2B?

All of Labor’s first-line supervisors for non-retail sales can be counted in B2B sales. We have assumed that about half of service reps are in B2B markets. By definition, advertising agents sell to businesses, so count these, too.

Insurance agents are mostly in consumer markets, so we count only 10% of these as likely selling to businesses. Travel agents used to sell mostly to consumers, but the Internet has enabled leisure travelers to find the best deals online. Travel agents are mostly needed for complex trips with precise, demanding schedules and often multiple destinations. These are mostly business trips.

Financial sales (like insurance) are mostly to individuals. But wholesale, manufacturing, technical, and scientific reps, as well as sales engineers, are all B2B reps. Finally, a significant portion of miscellaneous workers are likely to support business.

Even with a mild recession, the U.S. economy should grow 2–3% in 2023.

Andy Miller reckons about 20% of outside salespeople leave their B2B positions annually, as do 30% of inside reps. Even if some of these are merely shifting jobs, this means about 25% of B2B positions will be at least temporarily open this year.

So look for 27–28% of B2B jobs, or about 700,000 sales positions, to be open in 2023.