Abraham Maslow, SPIN Selling, and Recruiting

Understanding human behavior can help you recruit more passive candidates.

When filling a job order, most recruiters search through virtual stacks of resumes hoping one stands out, matching most of the skills and experiences listed on the job description. When calling a person, the recruiter attempts to gain this same information by first describing the job and then asking the person to describe his or her background. If there’s a fit, the selling process begins.

If you want to hire more top performers, this is exactly what you shouldn’t be doing.

A little understanding of human nature and solution selling offers some guidance on how to approach passive candidates and quickly get them more interested in what you have to offer. If you follow the instructions closely, you’ll even be able to get two to three great referrals on each call. You’ll want these, especially if you decide you’re not interested in pursuing the candidate.

In the last sentence, pay notice to who decides to move forward or not. It should be the recruiter, not the candidate. If you’re letting your candidates decide if they’re interested in your opportunity, you’re not recruiting, you’re just box-checking and order-taking. Making this decision is the first part of the applicant control process essential to good recruiting.

For the sake of brevity and making a point, let me narrow the passive candidate recruiting process down to two small, but critical, first steps. The first relates to a candidate saying they’re not interested in considering your opportunity, even before you’ve told them anything about it.

The second relates to those who don’t say “no” right away, but instead ask about the comp, title, and location.

I’m sure you would agree that getting past these two pivotal points will dramatically increase the number of top candidates you put into your pipeline.

Being familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will give you some of the insight you’ll need to address these candidate roadblocks. Abraham Maslow was a mid-20th century psychologist who studied the behavior of high-performing individuals. In a 1943 paper, he suggested that people make fundamental and predictable decisions based on different behavioral needs. These needs range from primitive, e.g., requiring water or food, to being completely fulfilled. He separated these states into five distinct levels and referred to them collectively as a hierarchy of needs.

The first level had to do with satisfying basic human needs including biological, food, and shelter. The second level related to fulfilling security needs like a steady income and healthcare. The third level addressed social needs like friendship, intimacy, and family. The fourth level covered esteem needs including achievement, self-respect, and confidence. Maslow referred to the fifth and highest level as self-actualization, growing and becoming as well-developed as possible. According to Maslow, one could not move to a higher level until the lower-level needs were met.

While Maslow has his distracters, and this is certainly not a complete summary, knowing this basic “needs concept” can be useful when a candidate says “show me the money” or something equivalent. Instead of responding, you might ask the candidate directly where she is on her hierarchy of needs scale.

This probably won’t work in such a direct fashion, but these two comparable questions might:

“Considering your current and past few positions, which one gave you the most sense of personal satisfaction?”

Pause and let the person respond. Then ask whether this satisfaction was due to the type of work or the amount of salary. Phrased properly, this can only be answered with something about the quality of the work, not the money being earned.

Unless the person never had a great job or never did anything worthwhile, the candidate will select a situation that addressed a higher order or self-fulfillment needs. With this as the setup go on to ask:

“Under this basis, wouldn’t it then make sense to talk just five to 10 minutes to determine whether the job I’m working on provides both satisfying work coupled with a competitive compensation?”

Done properly, don’t be surprised if 90% of your candidates agree. Of course, you’ll then need to prove your case, but at least you’ve started conversing on a positive note.

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I call this the Maslow advance. When confronted with a recruiter or any cold-call from a salesperson, a person’s normal reaction is to say no or ask questions that allow them to get out of the conversation as rapidly as possible. Good recruiters know this.

To overcome this roadblock you’ll need to use some type of decision-shifting question that allows you to engage with the person in a brief-but-meaningful dialogue. As you begin the discussion, don’t provide much information about the job other than a vague title. The key here is to get the person to tell you first about her background. If you describe the job first, you risk the chance the candidate will respond with a “not interested.”

The reason I call this an advance and not a close has to do with the concept of SPIN Selling. Knowing SPIN Selling will also allow you to overcome the “not interested” hurdle.

SPIN Selling is a sales technique developed by Neil Rackham and thoroughly described in his 1988 book of the same title. SPIN refers to a four-step sales process relating to first understanding the situation (S), determining whether there is a problem (P), figuring out the implication (I) of the problem and situation, and asking a need-payoff (N) question to engage the person in another step.

Rackham refers to this step forward as an advance, as opposed to a close. In larger sales or influencing someone into making an important decision (like changing jobs), obtaining more information in a logical series of steps is the key to ultimate success. Good candidates, especially the passive ones, tend to be reluctant to move quickly, so it’s important to engage with them in a series of conversations and interviews sharing more and more critical career and job information at each step.

Another aspect of SPIN Selling is to avoid asking questions that can be answered by a “no” or “not interested.” So for next time, don’t ask the person if he’s interested in a senior firmware job; instead, ask if he’d be interested in exploring opportunities on a new state-of-the-art project your firm is launching. Then get the person to tell you a little about himself (understand the Situation), find out if the person is fully satisfied in his current role (is there a Problem), find out if there is anything in the short term likely to change this (determine the Implication), and then ask the person if he’d be open to talk for 20-30 minutes to see if one of the opportunities you have open would be more satisfying. Of course, the last question combined the Maslow advance with Rackham’s Need-payoff question.

If you forget to do this, and the candidate says “not interested,” you might want to try the “deer in the highlight” advance and say something like “that’s exactly why we should talk.” (I heard this on one of Brian Tracy’s Nightingale-Conant audio selling programs.) This will get the candidate’s attention.

If he doesn’t hang up, but in the dead silence that follows, suggest to the candidate that he just made a long-term decision with short-term data. Continue by suggesting that if it could be demonstrated that your open position represented a great long-term career move, wouldn’t it make sense to discuss it for five to 10 minutes, even if the title isn’t exactly perfect? At least 50% of people will agree to proceed on this basis.

Now, while Maslow and Rackham can keep you in the game, you won’t make the sale unless your job truly offers a better career move than others the candidate is considering. For this you’ll need to have a thorough understanding of real job needs and future opportunities for the firm you’re representing. In addition, you’ll need to use subsequent phone screen and interviews to probe for gaps and voids in the candidate’s background. In this way, the interview can be seen as the SPI part of SPIN selling, with the N the recruiting part.

For example, at the end of the interview, convert a gap in experience into a test of interest by asking the candidate if she’d be open to meet the hiring manager if the job offered significant learning even if the comp increase was modest.

A series of methodical advances like this is how you can use SPIN Selling techniques and an understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to engage more top performers and make more hires. Recruiting is a form of highly sophisticated consultative selling. Unfortunately, too many recruiters try to use transactional selling techniques and wonder why their candidates aren’t interested.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).

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2 Comments on “Abraham Maslow, SPIN Selling, and Recruiting

  1. I agree that effective use of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be an effective screening tool, but Lou you describe a use that is further downstream – with resumes you have, that you are mining for referrals than it should be. For over a decade, I’ve used Maslovian needs to generate responses, weed out undesirable candidates and differentiate the position from similar ones at different companies. Here is where I think one gains the most “value” from its utilization.

    For whatever position you may be recruiting, there is something different about it than the same position at a competitor. Determine what that difference is (talk to recent hires and tenured people in that position), and put that right up front, in a prominent place. Sometimes, I’ve even phrased it as a question, for example: “Do you thrive in a fast-paced entrepreurial environment?” For candidates that feel they do, this will attract them and make them read the rest of the ad/posting. Candidates that don’t do well in this environment tend to self-select out.

    The magic here, is that the most valuable differences are in the soft skills rather than in the skillset. Since most hiring decisions are made on the basis of soft skills, why not recruit for them upfront, too?

    Differentiate or die, sell what’s different not what’s the same. Otherwise, the only way you can differentiate is through comp and not many are willing to play that card right now.

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