Building an 80% Sales Force, Really!

photo - can’t begin to estimate the amount of nonsense used to select salespeople: show me your wage reports; sell me the pencil; what animal best describes you; what is your greatest strength; describe your weakness; show me the fire in your belly …

It’s junk. All junk. Sales managers know it. And management knows it. If it was any good, 90% of all salespeople would be problem-free.

Reality Check

But first, let’s do a reality check. If most of your salespeople are meeting expectations, or achieving a reasonable quota, then whatever process you are using to hire, keep it up. Nothing else will make a difference. But, if you are among the majority of sales managers who just can’t seem to build a sales force of top producers, then keep reading.

Swing … and a Miss!

Sales is a tough profession. It requires more and better skills than most jobs. I know because I have been assessing and training salespeople and sales managers for an embarrassingly long time. And, aside from changes in the type and nature of the product or service, I’ve discovered all salespeople need the same five KSA’s (some KSA’s more than others). Unfortunately, when I assess them, the majority of salespeople only display two of them.

Sales assessment is not something weird or special. You do it every time you interview a candidate. It’s a fancy word for any process that separates a qualified candidate from an unqualified one — like asking for proof of past earnings, demonstrating persuasive skills, or answering nonsense questions about animals, heartburn, or pop psychobabble. But how many sales managers ever asked, “Gee, if those are such good screening techniques, why do 80% of my salespeople still only produce 20% of the business? Do you think I might not be measuring the right things? They all looked good pre-hire. How else can I explain why they failed?”

The Big Five

Here are the five major components in successful selling. Miss any one of them and you have problem. Miss two or more and you have a marginal producer. Miss three or more and you have a disaster. They include:

  1. Motivation: the emotional drive to want to do what’s necessary. It could be making cold calls, sitting glued to a chair making hundreds of phone calls, spending time on the road, cross-selling existing clients, servicing customers, strategizing, and so forth. It’s the “want” in sales. (Males seem to have fewer problems with motivation).
  2. Trust: no one buys a product from a salesperson or company that he/she does not trust. The risk of losing money or looking foolish is too strong. Warranties and service policies are designed to reduce risk associated with product and company, and three-day rescission policies reduce risk of dealing with pushy salesmen. Without trust, most prospects will hesitate to talk or answer questions. Trust building begins with the initial meeting and requires constant nurturing throughout the sales cycle. (Females seem to have fewer problems with building and maintaining trust).
  3. Fact Finding: some salespeople consider selling an Olympic event … pitch, overcome objection, pitch, overcome, and repeat until the prospect gives in. Can you remember the last time you were brow-beaten into buying something you did not want or need? True selling is a process of asking enough questions to discover problems and offer reasonable solutions. If you don’t believe that, then you better be selling the finest product on the market at the cheapest price because your clients will bolt to the competition at the first opportunity. Both male and female salespeople have considerable trouble fact finding … most can’t wait to talk, and talk, and talk. Why? They don’t have confidence to do anything else.
  4. Presentation: did you notice where this appears in the order of things? Long after our motivated salesperson develops and maintains a relationship, got the prospect to talk, and uncovered potential problems. So, can someone please tell me why the “sell-me-the-pencil” presentation is so popular? If I am a prospect and don’t trust you, your company, or your pencils and, if I see no need for using pencils in the first place then, how will I react when you start badgering me into buying one? The most popular hiring technique is one of the weakest predictors of sales success.
  5. Unanswered Questions: finally, this is where the objections arise. However, if the salesperson has done a good job in Step 2, 3, and 4, it’s probably just a random unanswered question that needs to be addressed.

Measuring Candidates

How can these things be measured? For one thing, there is no single solution that applies to all salespeople. Each tool needs to be tweaked for the job, and this process is not something an untrained individual can do any more than you can remove your own appendix using a penknife and a book of instructions. It takes a professional with sufficient experience to peel apart the sales job, discover the critical elements where people succeed or fail, and recommend tools for eliminating weak candidates.

That said, here is a typical sales screening process. First, don’t hide the warts and bumps of the job. Show a candidate what he/she is getting into. Next, use real behavioral interview questions (not a list someone brainstormed in HR) delivered by someone trained in the art of behavioral interviewing. And, finally, use a battery of tools that measure motivation necessary for your specific job, tests that measure the kind of learning and problems solving associated with job success, planning exercises when this skill is important to success, and, finally (the mother of all scales screening tests) a realistic prospect simulation using specially trained role players who can evaluate key sales relationship skills.

Loose Questions

Why not use a web-based sales test? Because selling is a human exercise, not a pencil and paper drill. Knowing (or faking) book answers are only a small part of the sales job, actually doing them is another. A salesperson’s success depends almost entirely on his/her interpersonal relationships and ability to discover problems. Don’t you think it’s a good idea to measure these skills using a technique that resembles the real job and cannot be faked?

I know ‘em when I see ‘em? Of course you do. That’s why your hiring record looks like it does. Salespeople are often masters of self-presentation, and sales managers are usually suckers for a slick presentation. But think about it. By the time you ask for a presentation, haven’t you already given the candidate a hall-pass through the first three steps … the critical on-the-job ones where most salespeople crash and burn. See the problem here?

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Do I have to give up my gut decision?… I thought we already discussed how well that works; but, since you asked, all decisions are gut-based. Your only option is whether to have an informed or uninformed gut.

Do I have the skills to do it myself? … Only if you are a professional psychometrician with years of experience in evaluating salespeople.

Is it expensive?… Have you calculated lately the cost of sales turnover, low productivity, training, coaching time, recruiting, lost sales opportunities, burned customers, and prospects?

Will I screen fewer people? No. Remember, you will be screening out more people who would ordinarily become low producers.

Perfect Foresight

Sorry. No such thing. The best that can happen is significantly reducing your odds of making a hiring mistake. The process I described eliminates unmotivated people who cannot build trust with prospects and clients, who cannot ask the right questions to discover problems, cannot make effective sales recommendations, and who don’t have the right mental skills to do the job.

Now it’s up to you to calculate what it’s it worth to have salespeople who could do most of these things right? Better yet, calculate what sales would be if 80% of tomorrow’s new hires were top producers?


21 Comments on “Building an 80% Sales Force, Really!

  1. “Males seem to have fewer problems with motivation?” Wow. Where does this statistic come from? I, personally, have a 10 month old baby that motivates me everyday.

  2. Dr. Williams, thank you for this insightful article. As the Founder of a search firm focusing on placing sales professionals across industries, I can certainly attest to the many companies that use ineffective, and sometimes outrageous, hiring techniques to “screen” potential hires. In many cases, the only thing being screened is the candidate’s ability to interview well, telling the hiring team exactly what they want to hear. They’re salespeople for a reason – they are good at selling things, including themselves. The challenge is getting to the root of their motivation and passion – is it money or flexibility, cold calling or account management, closing a big deal or consistently bringing in good deals.

    As you pointed out, it’s all about the behavioral interviewing, laying out specific scenarios and asking question that start with “Tell me about a time when…” vs. “Tell me about yourself”. It also involves 3-4 different interviews with different team members, each tasked to focus on a specific aspect of the candidate’s background and fit. When all of these components are incorporated into the process, the odds of hiring that “20% team” increase dramatically.
    Ken Schmitt
    President/Founder, TurningPoint Executive Search

  3. @Lizzie…I’m sure your baby does keep you motivated! But we are not discussing parenthood. We are talking about measuring candidates for a variety of sales jobs…When I compare equal-sized groups of female candidates with males, I find fewer people with high-sales motivation in the female group.

  4. Wendell – as always a good and thought provoking article! You know you have a good article when you hit a nerve or two 😉

  5. The key point here, I believe, is that sales executive decision makers are not taking advantage of critical resources that are out there to help drive better decisions. Sales hiring decisions can be much more fact-based than the way it’s usually conducted. Analyze data just like your counterparts in Finance and Operations do. My takeaway here is ”….. all decisions are gut-based. Your only option is whether to have an informed or uninformed gut.” Why choose the latter when the information is there for the taking?

  6. I enjoyed your article, despite the 2 gender stereotypes you claim (I’d love to see any research or empirical evidence to support this.)

    My only questions are with Motivation and Trust. These two components seem a bit subjective. How do you measure someones motivation or how do you measure trust?

    Further, I would ask how do you compare individuals motivations. Is someone who is motivated to support their family better than someone who is only motivated by money or pride?

    In regards to trust…I think this is also a foggy component. I ‘trust’ a shoe salesman to sell our stores quality product and handle our account, but I wouldn’t ‘trust’ that same shoe salesman to babysit my nieces (even a female).

  7. @Logan…The gender stereotypes I mentioned are not theoretical, they are actual observations. Motivation is measured using a self-report, somewhat hard to fake, instrument (supplemented with behavioral event interviews). The trust components are measured using one-on-one simulations scored against a list of trust-related interpersonal behaviors (supplemented with BEI).

  8. I guess my question is aren’t everyone’s motivations a bit different? How can you tell which will be the best indicator of success?

    Or are you saying that what motivate’s them is irrelevant as long as they are motivated to sell?

    I’d also love to get your thoughts on Habit and Believing. By that I mean, I don’t think people ever ‘want’ to sit down and make 100 phone calls. Instead I think the top sellers make it a habit and believe that their hard work will pay off.

    Thanks Dr. Wendell

  9. @Logan…Forget the pop-nonsense you read in sales books. Those people usually describe clones of themselves. I don’t know any who are psychometricians (i.e., experts who measure people for a living).

    Think of selling as a two-sided coin…On one side there are all the job-related sales skills (persuasion, organization, learning, fact-finding, and so forth)…and on the other side are all the associated motivations to use each of those skills.

    You MUST have the right motivation associated with the right skill in order to succeed. Otherwise, you won’t do what is necessary. For example, if you are only comfortable being a pushy motor-mouth, you will be totally uncomfortable at fact-finding.

    Are other kinds of motivation helpful? It depends on the job.

    Motivation comes in many flavors…the definition depends on the job. For example, hunting, farming, long-term strategic selling and so forth all require slightly different motivations.

    Habits are operationalized motivations. Believing works when it is backed with motivation and skills.

  10. Wendell,
    Excellent, grumpy, entertaining and true, as usual. One day I hope you will also acknowledge that technology is and can increasingly be a very good, very reliable aid to measuring what predicts performance. (Technology can also be mis-applied, of course, but psychologists err, too.) We don’t need trained psychologists every step of the way – although we absolutely need them – any more than we need highly trained medical doctors for every bit of diagnosis and test and analysis. Technology is your friend.

  11. Thanks, Dr. Williams. I’ve heard an anecdote that hiring “jocks” for sales is often effective….
    A thought: if tests were highly (as opposed to somewhat) effective in getting the best hires, wouldn’t there be tremendous pushback from those who are actually in positions to hire, as it would take away some of their (real or perceived) power, particularly if the tests were better at hiring than the people were? Would most Directors give up their hiring authority in favor of a more-effective algorithm?


    Keith “Remember the GAFI Principles” Halperin

  12. @Paul…like everything else, there is good technology and bad technology..I strongy believe in using good technology, although it is exceedingly rare. The bulk of tests marketed to the public are pure junk…unstable, unvalidated and misrepresentative junk that would never pass the most basic criteria specified by the 1990 Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Since you are always suggesting I endorse your product, I would welcome the opportunity to review it for compliance with the ‘Standards.

    @Keith…The assumption is that jocks are aggressive team players…too bad the hit rate for hiring jocks is not any better than any other system. Push back? Yes. Like I said, every decision is ‘gut’…it can either be an informed one or not. My observation is that many people in decision-making positions complain about poor performers and turnover, but never do anything to change how they hire people. If someone always tried to force square pegs into round holes, do we blame the pegs?

  13. Thanks for the advice Dr. Williams! There are so many articles out there about recruiting Sales talent, it’s difficult to know what to believe.

  14. Thanks, Dr. Williams. I’m glad to know that assumption is false…

    “If someone always tried to force square pegs into round holes, do we blame the pegs?” No, we blame the recruiter…



  15. @Logan…selling activities are basically common sense…not mumbo-jumbo. Think about it…Would you buy something from someone if you did not trust the product, company or sales rep? If you felt manipulated or pressured? If you saw no need to the product or service?

    Now think about measurement…are scores from a self-reported test honest?..faked?..self presentations?.. idealized? Sales is a person to person job…can a self-reported test really indicate real-world behaviors? How are the score-norms set…opinion? apply to all sales jobs? do they apply to all sales jobs?

    There is a VERY good reason why pro sports teams have athletes demonstrate skills before joining the team. What do you think organizations could learn from them?

  16. Nothing beats the tried and tested and proven methodology of case study. With this I do not mean your typical run of the-mill one, but one that goes into true depth and lenght in exploring and qualifying why a candidate may be a good fit. Those that are constructed well, those that involve a range of business stakeholders and those that are set out for a minimum of 2 hrs (most candidates can ‘hide’ and manage for one hr, after that and severe grilling their true ability will start to shine through) It is about giving this some preparation, to plan and to know what methodology that need to be applied that will ensure only best fit chosen

  17. Dr. Williams,

    I think there is A LOT organizations can learn from professional sports. The most basic being how to run a system. In an environment where not every team can be the New York Yankees and buy all the top talent, most teams rely on having just a few ‘All Stars’ and the rest are role players or young talent. (Seems similar to that 80/20). Teams run a system and rely on their role players to buy into the system and believe if each player contributes what they are asked, they team will be successful.

    I read tons of articles about A’s and B’s and C’s and “all star” employees. I think that is all great. But there are countless examples of sports teams that have all “A-Players” that never win because they are not a team. They players don’t buy into a system, just themselves. I think any organization, with the right ‘systems’ in place, can be successful no matter how we might grade the employees.

  18. @Logan…I understand where you are coming from, but don’t forget sports teams only hire athletes who show exceptional performance during tryouts. Superstars are another matter. They are seldom identified early in their career. Once they get on the team, they tend to rise from among the masses of other highly-skilled players.The same goes for salespeople, or any other occupation, for that matter.

  19. I can think of a couple other analogies between professional sports ands recruiting.
    1) You need skilled pros in both to make sure things go well. Arrogant owners locked out the refs, and it was a mess. Arrogant founders, CXOs, and sr. execs try to have recruiting done their way without using our expertise, and it’s a mess.

    2) Pro teams con cities into building publicly-funded stadiums, arguing there will be net economic benefits to the various communities and threaten to leave if they don’t get their way- they usually get their way, and it costs the tax-payers money. Recruiting goods-and -services con-artists offer the latest and greatest tool or techniques at conventions, other meetings, and webinars, arguing it will there will be net economic benefits to the various customers, aka “marks”. When these tools and techniques are not merely common-sense dressed up in market-hype, whatever advantages they may actually have (rare, but it has been known) are quickly duplicatable by competitors and the advantage quickly diminishes through overuse/misuse (think LinkedIn). They usually get customers- there is no shortage of recruiting goods-and-services con-artists or of willing corporate “marks”.


    Keith “Not Making Too Many Friends Today” Halperin

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