Hiring the Right Salespeople

Any experienced sales manager knows four things:

  1. Sales is the lifeblood of the organization
  2. Hiring managers only hire applicants who will be “top tier.”
  3. Eighty percent of sales people consistently produce just 20% of the sales.
  4. Sales applicants are accomplished fibbers.

What is the bottom line? Hiring managers habitually set themselves up for failure. To better understand why this happens, hirers need to tease apart the sales and sales-hiring process into four areas: the sales cycle, the salesperson interview, selling and buying skills, and sales motivation.

Sales Cycle

Anyone who really understands the sales process knows that selling involves a complex collection of specialized skills:

  • Developing and maintaining trust and rapport. No one buys a product he doesn’t trust, from someone he doesn’t trust, supplied by a company he doesn’t trust.
  • Probing and questioning to discover a need for the product or service. If the prospect knew she had a need for the product, she would have already filled it, right?
  • Effectively presenting the product’s benefits. If the prospect trusts and respects the salesperson, product, and company, and admits having a problem, then the salesperson has to show that her suggestion is the right one.
  • Helping the prospect overcome the risk of actually making the decision. Risk can include being wrong, looking bad, or not appealing to personal feelings.

Anyone who doubts the need for trust, probing, and reducing risk should pay attention to the emotions that arise when watching car commercials. Car commercials provide good depictions of salespeople who think that selling consists entirely of attracting attention and promising low prices, rather than about developing buyer trust. After all, what sane buyer trusts a costumed salesperson wearing a diaper and promising the lowest price in town? Let’s see how developing rapport and probing for needs are glossed over in the sales interview.

The Salesperson Interview

What was your toughest sale? What kind of animal would you most like to be? Show me your last three years’ earnings statements. How do you prospect? Sell me this pencil! These are all earnest, yet ineffective, attempts to identify effective sales employees. The above challenges are earnest, because they screen out blatantly incompetent sales applicants. But they’re also ineffective because applicants are not evaluated for critical selling skills. Did we mention that salespeople are outstanding fibbers? This salesperson interview falters because the hiring manager only looks at an applicant’s presentation and ability to overcome objections. Trust-building skills are not evaluated and probing skills are taken for granted. Furthermore, the “motivation” aspect of selling is hidden. What is the bottom line? Because the four selling skills and sales motivation are not fully evaluated, only 20% of the people hired become high producers. The rest are left to flounder.

Selling and Buying

Anyone who examines his buying experiences can agree that people like to buy things. But customers don’t like to buy products from salespeople they distrust, when they don’t perceive a need or believe the product is the right one, or when they feel at risk. A fully competent salesperson invests considerable time and energy into developing a personal relationship. The foundation of this relationship leads to thoroughly understanding the prospect’s situation and problems. The clueless salesperson simply believes that he can talk anyone into buying anything. To most people, that sounds like manipulation, not solution selling. When a sales manager asks the sales applicant to “sell the pencil,” both parties have already taken the two most important sales skills for granted: rapport-building and skilled probing. The only way to evaluate whether the sales applicant has the right discovery and trust-building skills is to put him into a sales simulation that specifically evaluates the full range of sales factors. If not, today’s ace pencil-seller has an 80% chance of becoming tomorrow’s bottom producer.

Sales Motivation

This is a tricky area to evaluate. Did I mention that salespeople are skilled fibbers? Sometimes they even fib themselves into the wrong sales jobs. They’re hunting when they would rather be farming. A while ago, I developed a short survey to help hiring managers learn more about job motivation. Items evaluated how people felt about the world around them (for example, was the world benign or untrustworthy?). In the beginning, I presumed that everyone would score low on the scale, but I was surprised to see that salespeople tended to “max-out” ó especially the ones who were hunters. The survey results showed that hunters tended to view the world as a hostile, competitive place where social Darwinism separates the winners from the losers. Time and again, the same pattern emerged. Recruiters, software salespeople, entrepreneurs, and even fellow consultants also saw the world this way. Hunters scored off the chart on motivation, and farmers scored low. Based on the hunters’ high scores, one would not want to be stranded on a desert island with one of these folks unless they planned to be part of the menu. Why? Basically, high-scoring people believed the world was a hostile place filled with people who were out to get them unless they were able to get them first. On the surface, they were cheerful and outgoing, but trusting their motives was like getting an irresistible urge in the woods and using poison ivy for a sanitary product: big mistake! What is a typical attitude, interest, and motivation pattern for a sales hunter versus a farmer? Here are some examples.

“I Could Do That!” Ivan

Here’s an example from a salesperson who expressed an interest in jointly developing new products. The order of importance indicates how much of a priority it is for him. The percentile score indicates “strength.”

  • 99% on “the hunter scale”
  • 93% on the impulsive scale
  • 87% on expressive and outgoing
  • 47% interest in solving complex problems
  • 40% willingness to follow rules
  • 33% interest in innovation and creativity
  • 27% interest in quality and teamwork
  • 1% expressed interest in work
  • 1% willingness to change

What can we expect from looking at these scores? We see someone who is friendly and charming (high expressive score), right up to the point where he steals your company’s secrets and markets them as his own (high impulsive and hunter score, combined with low teamwork score). The low innovation and problem-solving scores indicate someone who likes other people to come up with new ideas.

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“Hunt and Share” Harry

Here is a second example:

  • 99% on “the hunter scale”
  • 99% interest in innovation and creativity
  • 93% on the impulsive scale
  • 87% on expressive and outgoing
  • 60% interest in teamwork
  • 60% interest in being flexible
  • 47% interest in solving complex problems
  • 40% willingness to follow rules
  • 15% expressed interest in work
  • 10% interest in quality

What can we expect from this profile? This person is a hunter who likes to come up with innovative ways to approach sales (high scores in hunting and innovation) and is willing to work with others to accomplish his goals (middle scores in teamwork). Of course, someone will have to pick up the pieces left behind, because he scores low in rules, commitment to the company, and quality.

“Looks Good, But No Cigar” Larry

Here is a final example:

  • 93% on the impulsive scale
  • 93% expressed interest in work
  • 73% interest in solving complex problems
  • 60% interest in being flexible
  • 53% on expressive and outgoing
  • 53% on “the hunter scale”
  • 33% interest in innovation and creativity
  • 15% interest in quality
  • 10% willingness to follow rules
  • 10% interest in teamwork

This profile suggests a hunter, but the candidate is actually more of an office steamroller (high impulsive, commitment to the job, and problem-solving scores). There is not enough “hunter” (he’s in the middle range) to make this person a sales competitor. In other words, he might look good in the interview, but might fail on the job.


Selling is a complex formula of skills and motivations that applicants seldom reveal ó it is up to the hiring manager to use a broad range of tests and simulations to identify whether the applicant has the requisite skills or not. What is the cost of identifying someone with the right skills? In dollars, it is relatively cheap. In “warts,” the average hiring manager has to kiss seven frogs for every prince or princess (which makes it a lesson in managerial patience). In other words, six out of seven candidates cannot make the grade. Of course, one could always default to the usual way, go back to the 20/80 rule, and spend his free time coaching.


7 Comments on “Hiring the Right Salespeople

  1. I disagree with some of the statements in this article, including salespeople being fibbers. This is too broad of an assumption. I believe many salespeople provide honest straightforward solutions to meet the needs of their customers. Selling can be a complex formula, depending upon what is being sold. Kids selling lemonade on the corner have a much easier job then selling a proposition for a multi-million dollar product proposal. Trust is important for the complex solutions, but for simple sales, many people buy on instinct, compulsion, advice of others, etc… Trust comes into play when you are looking for repeat sales and a working relationship. I think it is important to note that selling is not for everyone, and that does account for most of the 80/20 rule. However, even an 80% can learn to sell well with the right training and practice. Which may make the percentages more 60/40.

  2. You said three times that sales people are skilled fibbers.

    Repeating the same statement throughout the presentation is a common sales technique that sales people use to get a message across.

    Are you selling us an idea/product/service and therefore based upon your statement, should we assume that you are also fibbing?

    Sales is a profession some people do.

    Some people are fibbers and sometimes they become sales people, not the otherway round. Fibbing is not part of the criteria of a sales person, successful or unsuccessful. In fact it has nothing to do with being a sales person, but rather all to do with being a dishonest person.

    Testing has it’s place as a small part of the hiring process when used effectivley but for accurately assessing sales people in a future environment? Why not ask for their star sign.

    Sales people hired based upon having similar traits as someone else misses out the most important part of any successful sales person. Their personality.

    I’m with Dr Sullivan on this one. (At last)

  3. If I was trying to sell a Saab to my client I know I could find tons proof and refernces to validate why the Volvo was better than the Acura..

    Doesn’t necessarily make it so, even if all the data proves it to be..

    Why not? Because I can also find Documents to prove how Acura is better than Saab (if I look Long enough) 😉 (sorry preferences to Acura)

    It is all in the perception..

  4. I agree with Anthony Haley. I stopped reading when I came across the statement that salespeople are fibbers.

    I am in sales and I am successful. My success is not based upon a one time buy, but on the fact that I produce results that benefit the client. I work hard at research, motivation and followup.

    As far as fibbing, Roy Willams said it recently ‘In the short run, these cashier cons are likely to elevate profits. But can you think of a faster way to grind away brand image and erode brand loyalty? I traded with these companies because I believed in them. And now I don’t anymore. I let them keep my money. But I did not let them keep my heart.

    I share these stories with you only to alert you to the dangers of shallow, short-sighted marketing. Quicky-tricky profits often come at a terrible long-term price.’

    Paul Spell
    Clear Channel Radio
    New Business Developement

  5. What part don’t you agree with?

    1) interviews are verbally delivered tests (i.e., they have something to measure, use questions, and are scored)?

    2) hiring based on the competencies required for the job is ineffective?

    3) people who screen applicants should use the most trustworthy and reliable screening tools at their disposal?

    4) trying to convice people to use screening methods that have lesss adverse impact and better on-the-job-results is a bad idea?

  6. Karen: To be precise, the definition of ‘best’ or ‘better’ would be in the ‘specs.’ What are the task abilities, expections, performance requirements, etc. for the auto/person? For our frame of reference, that is the documented ‘job analysis.’ Thatis set out in the EEOC ‘selection guidelines’ which are truly a blueprint for good hiring, sourcing, as well as legal protection.

    Tim Bonansinga

  7. I think this is a great article. I also agree with Tim B. It is only through a Job Analysis that you will find out specific competencies required for success, as well as build a legally defensible selection process. Gut reactions are mis-leading and the buyer in this time an era are smarter and wiser.
    I disagree with with (2) and believe that (1) should be the final stage in the hiring process after you have all the facts in front of you.


    Account Executive for PreVisor

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