Half Full or Half Empty?

Selecting salespeople is a real challenge. As I wrote in earlier articles, salespeople tend to be masters of first impressions, and sales managers tend to fall in love with people who present good first impressions. We see this all the time when managers insist on making hiring decisions based on “gut reaction,” even though (as they tend to forget) gut reactions produce just as many sales losers as sales winners. Is gut reaction (GR) any good? Yes and no. GR is silly when it is based on subjective opinion (“I know ’em when I see ’em”). But GR is valid when it is based on facts (“She demonstrated learning ability, persuasiveness, customer service,” and so forth). Half and Half This leads us to half-full or half-empty hiring strategies. Most recruiters and hiring managers tend to use the half-empty strategy. That is, they scan resumes and ask questions, secretly waiting to hear something negative. You disagreed with a manager? You did not get along with a coworker? Say the wrong words, admit you are human, mention your boss was a cross-dresser, or suggest you worked less than 60 hours each week in a dead-end job ó and you get the pre-hire kiss-off. Half-empty strategies work on a “take away points” premise. They tend to be the norm when there is no clear idea about what is needed, when different interviewers have different expectations, when you have to resort to comparing one applicant with another, or when you don’t have trustworthy tools to accurately measure applicant skills. Gut reactions are “half empty” strategies because they are almost totally unsupported by hard facts. I once knew a consultant wannabe who taught half-empty behavioral interviewing techniques to hundreds of trusting clients. He advised each of his workshops to start the interview by giving everyone a passing score, then look for evidence to raise or lower it. Quite a strategy, huh? By default, applicants who didn’t screw-up automatically passed the interview. Bad science! Why didn’t he get called on his poor tactics? He produced a lot of money for his company right up until the day he retired. Impact on clients? An abundance of employees who “passed” the half-empty test. Half-full strategies, on the other hand, start with knowing exactly what to look for, using different tools to measure each critical skill, measuring each skill at least twice, and having trustworthy scores that accurately predict performance. Half-full strategists start with an “empty glass” and “fill it up” with points. It takes more than a good impression to get hired with a half-full hiring strategy. It takes hard evidence from multiple sources. Is there a magic source of tools and techniques you can purchase off the shelf to do this? Unfortunately, no ó although, you might find something located near the do-it-yourself surgery workbooks and the do-it-yourself criminal defense team manuals. Connecting the Dots People often ask what they can do to get a line manager to shift from a half-empty (“I know ’em when I see ’em”) to a half-full hiring strategy (“Show me hard evidence”). I suggest one or more of the following:

  • The bottom dollar appeal. Get them to rank order all the salespeople from high to low, calculate the average per-person production of the bottom third, calculate the average per-person production of the top two-thirds, subtract the difference, and multiply by the number of salespeople in the bottom third. That figure represents the money lost from half-empty hiring strategies (i.e., ones that let in too many incompetent people). For example: Salesperson 1: $1,000,000

    Salesperson 2: $850,000

    Salesperson 3: $650,000

    Salesperson 4: $600,000

    Salesperson 5: $400,000

    Salesperson 6: $350,000 Average per-person of top two-thirds = $775,000

    Average per-person of bottom third = $375,000

    Difference = $775,000 – $375,000 = $400,000 x 2 people = $800,000 per year

  • The nuisance factor appeal. Ask how much coaching, training, and general management time it takes for the bottom third compared with the top two-thirds.
  • The personal recognition appeal. Calculate the shortfall between sales actual and sales budgeted. Then measure the contribution of the bottom third toward the sales goal compared with the top two-third’s contribution.
  • The in-your-face appeal. If you have the chutzpa, ask Mr. or Ms. Iknowemwheniseeem what they would do with a salesperson whose gut reaction was wrong one-third of the time.

You get the picture. Many sales managers were promoted based on sales production, not people expertise. They often need help connecting the dots. By the way, if you cannot get managers to connect the dots, either hunker-down and do nothing or find a company that does (in either case, your career may depend on it). Take the Half and Half Test Here are a few questions to ask yourself that will help you assess your organization’s hiring approach:

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  1. Do managers hire on gut reaction? If so, has anyone taken the time to show them whether past GR decisions were consistently good ones (about 90% good producers) or error prone?
  2. Is your company searching for some kind of test that will help make better pre-hire decisions? If so, get a grip on the fact that people who do not explicitly know what job skills to look for are often willing to test for anything. You have to know what the problem is before you find a solution.
  3. Do you compare applicants against each other? If so, ask what makes more sense: comparing people against each other or comparing applicants against job standards.
  4. Do you constantly revisit job standards for the same (or highly similar) sales positions? If so, ask what makes more sense: setting standards based on manager opinions or setting standards based on company job requirements.
  5. Do you make decisions based on a person’s W2 earnings? If so, what do earnings really tell you about the person’s skills? Did they lie, cheat, and steal those years? Fall into a big account? Get an undeserved bonus? W2 statements are half-empty strategies because they can only be trusted when they are low.
  6. Does HR only do pre-screening, while sales managers “evaluate” employee skills? If so, what do they need HR for? Like it or not, sourcing is a commodity than can be outsourced. Finding high performance people is an art. Artist or commodity? That is the real choice.
  7. Do salespeople tend to reject product knowledge and training? If so, that probably indicates they belong to the “pitchman” not the “problem solving” category of salespeople. If you were a customer, would you prefer to hear a sales pitch or have a problem solved?
  8. Do you work for someone who believes everyone should be given a chance or who does not believe in any kind of testing? If so, this person is clueless about hiring (i.e. interviews are verbal tests), is willing to waste the company’s money using a half-empty strategy, and will probably get the company sued because of poor professional practices. His or her department is a prime candidate for outsourcing.

Conclusion Hiring is all about performance. People who view sales hiring as a sourcing problem are positioning themselves as easily replaceable commodities ó that is, they use tire-worn half-empty strategies that can be adopted by anyone. It takes intelligence, diligence, and considerable expertise hire good salespeople. In sales, more than any other position, performance can be seen and measured in real time using half-full strategies such as validated testing, legitimate competency lists, simulations, cases studies, and so forth. Departments and managers that do not step up to the plate and become hiring experts, inevitably place themselves among an indistinguishable throng of look-alikes. The cost? About 50% of base sales payroll every year.


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