Developing a Sales Profile (That Works)

Yesterday: “Get me someone who likes a challenge, enjoys traveling, and can sell big-dollar products!” Tomorrow: “What a disappointment! Never even came close to potential! Good thing he/she quit before I fired ’em!” Anything familiar? When I managed a sales staff, I repeated those words so often that they became a personal mantra. I never knowingly hired a low producer, but somehow they managed to slither past our many interviews and screening systems. These folks were very good at getting themselves a job, but seldom delivered on their promise to sell product (although they did seduce a few employees and tried to market our accounts to the competition). Needless to say, I lost thousands in sales opportunities and irreplaceable time. What went wrong? Developing a Performance Matrix This part may sound simple. But believe me, it is much deeper and more complex than one could imagine. Sales jobs have four “clusters” of competencies (they really aren’t “competencies,” but we’ll use that term for clarity) that directly affect performance. I’ll describe them below, one at a time.

  • Mental ability. The first cluster includes the mental ability to learn and solve problems. Mental ability includes things like successfully learning the product line, using that information to solve customer problems, seeing the big picture, special technical knowledge, and so forth. Complicated products and complex markets require more mental ability. A hiring system that does not accurately measure mental ability will produce salespeople unable to quickly learn the product, grasp the big picture, or who have trouble understanding client needs.
  • Planning and organizing. The second cluster includes planning and organizing. It addresses things like time and territory management, call planning, selling strategies, account penetration, and product expansion, and so forth. Many salespeople are “planning-challenged.” Like the mental ability cluster, the planning cluster becomes more important depending on the degree of personal autonomy and complexity of the sale. Weaknesses in planning are characterized by people who have trouble managing time and poor follow-through or who are disorganized.
  • Interpersonal skills. The third area includes critical interpersonal skills for the job. These might include making public presentations, being persuasive, fact-finding, providing customer service, working with team members, and so forth. A hiring system that is weak at interpersonal measurement may select salespeople who are insensitive, unable to close, make poor presentations, or who can’t stop talking.
  • Attitudes, interests, and motivations. The final area I call attitudes, interests and motivations, or “AIMs”. All three of the previous clusters are worthless without AIMs to put them to work. Think of AIMs as being either like gunpowder or sticky mud. They either get things moving or slow them down. AIMs include things like personal drive, ego resilience, fear of success (or failure), and so forth. As mentioned earlier, AIMs are not really competencies, but a set of deep underlying psychological drivers that affect a salesperson’s willingness to apply the skills he or she has.

You can watch the four clusters in action by examining sales force performance. Any weakness can usually be assigned to one or more of these clusters. Understanding the Position A performance matrix can help define a sales job. But who defines the matrix? Sometimes, when I ask different sales managers in the same organization about the job, their answers often sound like their people sell entirely different products or work for totally different companies. This is a problem. If people are selling the same product to the same marketplace, there should be agreement among sales managers. If managers cannot agree on elements of the job, then recruiters and managers alike will be forever shooting at a moving target. Do customers come to the salesperson? Does the job include cold calling? Is the product tangible or intangible? Is the sale simple or complex? Are dollars big or small? In many cases, job characteristics are mutually exclusive; that is, a majority of people are either strong in one area OR another, but only a few are strong in both. For example:

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  1. Good rule followers are often not creative sellers.
  2. Skilled cold-callers usually don’t make good client developers.
  3. Fast decision makers are usually poor long-range planners.
  4. Highly intelligent people are usually unsocial.
  5. Highly persuasive people are usually poor problem solvers.
  6. Detailed people are not usually persuasive.

Although training companies may profit from promising to fit square pegs into round holes, hiring one type of person to do another type of job is usually very counterproductive (not to mention frustrating). Even a talented athlete like Michael Jordan couldn’t make it as a baseball player. Understanding the Organization Some organizations say they want one thing, and then reward another. Banks, for example, often want their tellers to cross-sell financial products, but they hire people who are detail-oriented risk-avoiders. Customer-service organizations often want their employees to sell products, but their internal tracking systems reward representatives for keeping calls short. Some organizations want people to make cold calls, but hire salespeople whose major strength is client expansion. Organizational systems will always trump personal effectiveness. Sometimes it is best to forget hiring good people because they would only be frustrated and turnover quicker. On the other hand, a marriage of good people and good organizational systems will produce the best of all working environments. Don’t underestimate the value of matching people to the organization. Understanding the Applicant “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” “You can’t teach a pig to sing.” “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” You can take a man out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of a man.” “You can’t put a square peg into a round hole.” We have heard them all. How many colloquialisms does it take before realizing that sales talent can’t be smeared on like thick stage makeup? There may be an occasional miracle story, but more often than not what you measure is usually what you get. More precisely, the “upside quality” of salespeople will always be more affected by screening than by managing or training. Frog Kissing The average HR or recruiting department usually wants nothing to do with good hiring systems. Why? It takes a lot of time and trouble to measure mental ability, planning skills, interpersonal strengths, and AIMs. In fact, experience shows only about one frog in seven is really a prince or princess. It is much easier to hold a 60-minute conversation, get schmoozed, and then pass the responsibility for the hiring decision off onto a hiring manager. This is not rocket science. If, when they were hired, the low producers looked just like the high producers, then something was missed. Was it mental ability, planning, interpersonal, AIMs, or some combination? Frog kissing helps weed out the sales imposters. What’s It Worth? Do your own math: Divide your total sales dollars in half: $_________. How many salespeople contribute the top half of your sales revenue? #______ How much would sales increase if you were able to double the top people? $_________ What’s Next?

  1. Start with a performance matrix.
  2. Agree on each component.
  3. Measure each applicant using each component as a target.
  4. Stock up on Compound W!


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