An Egghead’s View of Hiring Salespeople

A very long time ago, I ran a sales department. It was an interesting experience. I would ask sales applicants about their sales accomplishments, have people observe the interview, ask applicants about their greatest strengths and weaknesses, probe their toughest sales situations, ask salespeople and sales managers to also interview them, and even ask a few “deep-seated” questions about what kind of animal they most admired (shame on me!). We asked every question and reviewed every area we could read about or imagine. We even checked out the kind of cars they drove (Beetle drivers were a no-no). Finally, we never hired anyone unless all interviewers were in 100% agreement. We became very good at separating applicants into two groups: “grossly unqualified” and “I’m willing to bet my company’s money.” Our success rate was less than 50%. A not-so-long-time ago I thought the secret of sales success rested with training. I didn’t buy just any old training program; I spent a year traveling the U.S. looking for the best of the best. I then trained trainers to train, managers to manage and marched the entire sales force through training programs. We serviced tough markets. One job involved setting up an entire training curriculum for stockbrokers and managers, and another job involved setting up an entire training curriculum for insurance agents and managers. Our success rate was less than 50%. A short time ago, I went to work for a company that had a different approach to hiring sales people. They started with a behavioral-style interview, administered an in-basket exercise, had applicants make a fact-finding sales call to a trained role player, had applicants make a sales presentation to a group of trained role players, conducted two more behavioral-style interviews, and gave a mental ability test. Overkill and redundancy? Probably. Nevertheless… Their success rate was about 80%. Common Reactions A few common reactions to the above revelations:

  • “That’s a lot of work!” Oh really? Their sales job required phone-based fact- finding, mental ability, presentation skills, as well as a few other competencies. I don’t know about you, but disclosing weak applicants BEFORE they were hired seemed like a good idea.
  • “We don’t have the time!” What a shame. Although organizations are accustomed to playing “survival of the fittest” after hiring, wouldn’t it be cheaper to do some additional screening beforehand? You know, to make sure salespeople can do more than just talk a good job?
  • “It’s too expensive!” Compared to what? I suppose hiring low performers to practice on customers is cheap?
  • “We can just train salespeople to be high producers!” Sure. When pigs fly.

Flying Pigs and Football Coaches Ever watched one of those motivational videos starring a well-known sports coach who wins a lot of games? Listening to them talk would lead you to believe that all you have to do is set challenging goals and encourage people to follow them. (At least one coach has added his own form of motivation: aggravated assault. I don’t remember seeing that technique in the video. But, I digress.) But enough about coaching already! Did anyone ever think about the “raw materials” these people take credit for? Did anyone ever consider the talent scouts who travel the world recruiting the best of the best for these coaches? Did anyone ever think about the rounds of exhaustive tryouts that only the best players survive? Did anyone every wonder how long less-qualified players last? Come on! Do we all really believe coaching is the primary reason for success? Poor coaching can screw-up a player, but these coaches only work with the best athletes in the world! And they didn’t rely on interviews to select them. So it is with hiring salespeople. You hire the best, polish their talent, and — unless you have a lot of time to kill — don’t try to change incompetence to competence. Test Your Organization Here are some clues to see if your organization gets the point. Start with 100 points. Subtract 10 for every one of the following practices your organization follows:

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  1. Your organization selects people using only interviews.
  2. Your organization believes sales test scores that are completed by the applicant.
  3. Your organization trusts references.
  4. When it comes to qualified candidates, your sales managers insist they “know ’em when they see ’em.”
  5. Your organization never learns from mistakes.
  6. Responsibility is divided between recruiter and hiring manager.
  7. Your organization is always searching for “best practices” among competitors and product vendors.
  8. Your organization works from job descriptions and revisits the job description every time you have an opening.
  9. Your organization never follows up on past hires to compare results from a specific hiring tool with on-the-job performance.
  10. Your organization continues to use hiring tests based on folklore. Folklore sounds like this, “I never saw a person who…” or “We always…” or “That training test was nice. Maybe we could use it for hiring!”.

How did you score?

  • 80-100. Congratulations. You are either on top of your hiring game, lied through your teeth, or are totally clueless about what goes on.
  • 50-80. Not bad. On the right rack if you were honest. Keep up the good work.
  • 20-50. Not good. You’re probably losing a lot of money and making a lot of mistakes (like taking this test).
  • Under 20. Take early retirement if offered and insist on a lump-sum benefits payout. The company may not be there in a few years.

Explanations In case you weren’t sure, here’s what’s wrong with the practices that were listed in the above test.

  1. Most organizations never seem to get the point that salespeople are usually great at selling themselves, that interviewers are often biased, and that salespeople are inclined to “exaggerate” their accomplishments. Do you think a good coach would hire an athlete based only on an interview?
  2. Most organizations never seem to figure it out that smart applicants know how to “shape” answers on a self-descriptive test. Have you ever tried to make yourself look good on a test? Think of a written test as a teensy-weensy bit of fact and a mumbo-jumbo of opinion. How much truth can there be in a test that has no way to verify the answers?
  3. Unless you know the referral source personally, all you are likely to get is name, rank, and serial number. Also, how likely is it that the future job is like the last job? If it is not the same, how much can you really learn about future performance?
  4. If your sales managers “know ’em when they see ’em,” then everyone in the sales department should be a high producer, right? Get real. If there are performance differences between salespeople, then why did your sales manager intentionally hire the low producers? That “gut reaction” probably had more to do with bad chili than good karma.
  5. The “learning organization” is an almost impossible goal to achieve when learning remains a spectator sport. Creating feedback loops is essential to learning. No feedback, no way to learn what is going right in the hiring process and what is going wrong. You might as well go bowling wearing a blindfold. As long as no one screams, the ball is probably headed in the right direction.
  6. There are two major roles in hiring: finding and qualifying. Too many recruiters see themselves as “finders” and leave the “qualifying” to the hiring managers. This usually means that everyone is asleep at the switch. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that few hiring managers are qualified to evaluate job skills. They may be good at doing a chemistry check, but they are seldom able to do more than separate people into the two piles mentioned above.
  7. Best practices were defined over 25 years ago (see the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. Bad hiring can earn plenty of expenses and bad press.
  8. Job descriptions are not competency lists. They are usually limited to describing things like scope and responsibility. They seldom describe “how” a job should be done. If you don’t know “how” a job should be done, then it is going to be very hard to determine if the applicant has the right skills.
  9. Not knowing where the hiring system is strong and where is it weak leads to an organization that does not learn from its mistakes.
  10. You recognize folklore by the complete absence of supporting data. No studies. No facts. Just unfounded opinions.


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