In Sales, Attitude is Everything, Right?

The sales manager booms: “Get me someone with a winning attitude!”

“Sell me this pen (ashtray, placemat, or anything else handy)!”

“I need a team player!”

“I know a good salesperson when I see ’em!”

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“Send me an athlete!” Sound familiar? I don’t know about you, but I must hear these comments from every sales manager I meet. Only one problem. It takes more than attitude to be successful in sales. But don’t take my word for it, look at your salespeople. Are they all high performers? No? Well then I guess somebody missed something, didn’t they? Think about it. Did you ever take a “can-do” attitude, only to find yourself in over your head? Have you ever exaggerated past accomplishments? Did you ever spin a fast-talking sales line? It happens all the time. It also leads to poor hiring decisions, and poor hiring decisions will always lead to the 80% effect (i.e., 20% of the salespeople producing 80% of the sales). What goes wrong? It’s simple: Sales Manager: Don’t need all this fancy hiring stuff. I know a good salesperson when I see ’em! Consultant: Are all your salespeople high performers? Sales Manager: No. Consultant: Then, if you know ’em when you see ’em, why doesn’t everyone perform equally? Did you knowingly hire some low performers just to make the high performers look good? Sales Manager: “Don’t you have a meeting, seminar, flight, or something important to attend to?” Separating sales-losers from sales-winners requires more than matching the candidate with a mental stereotype. Show Me the Beef A few years back I worked with sales managers in a large Canadian organization. They sold big-ticket, complicated items to complex customers. These managers also claimed they knew ’em when they saw ’em ó that is, until we did a little practice with four real sales applicants. We started by doing a quickie job analysis (quickie = better than nothing, but only marginally adequate), practiced a few behavioral interviewing techniques, and learned how to conduct a sales simulation. The four applicants entered their interviews cocky and self-assured. Not so fast, Sherlock. The freshly trained sales managers used their shiny new interview techniques to “blow” through each applicant’s sales pitch by pressing for details and accuracy. Down went three out of the four! They could not support their competency claims. Well, we wanted to give everyone a second chance (this being a training program and all), so we next had each candidate participate in a tightly controlled sales simulation. The sales simulation reflected a typical sales scenario that would be faced by the salesperson (based on the organization’s product or service). It started with a three-hour session that taught the sales managers how to act as role players (role players’ behavior is an integral part of the test). The simulation required the “candidate” to read a sales situation that was similar, but not identical, to ones faced on the job, to prepare for a sales meeting, and to meet with the “prospect.” We watched for some basic things like listening skills, empathizing with the prospect, asking questions, presenting solutions, and overcoming objections. Bam! Bam! Bam! Plop! Not one person met our basic standards. They all blew off the prospect and rushed right into a sales pitch ójust like they would probably do on the job. I’d Rather Not, Thank You People generally don’t like simulations (perhaps because they are hard to fake?). But simulations are among the most accurate measures of one-on-one skills. If you are familiar with behavioral-type interviews that use background and behavior results questions, then you are already familiar with simulations. Every applicant is presented with the same background (a typical customer having typical problems); trained observers watch how they behave; and we evaluate the results using uniform standards. Think of a simulation as a behavioral interview question without the question. We don’t use simulations to measure too many things at once ó that leads to error and mistakes. And we don’t ask anyone to “sell us the pencil” ó that would be silly. We ask applicants to engage in a semi-realistic sales situation and watch them perform. Because they represent a “slice” of the real job, simulations are about 60% to 70% accurate (for the techie types in the audience, that’s the estimated amount of criterion variance accounted for). Why Simulations? It’s Only What You Do. That’s All! People generally like to buy things (just look at their credit card debt). But they hate to be “sold to” or “pitched.” Yet whenever salespeople engage in simulations, they almost always look for a chance to “sell the pencil” ó regardless of whether the customer can write or not. There is almost no fact-finding or relationship-building observed, but there is an almost overwhelming tendency for them to drop into “yak-yak-yak” mode. Well that may work for some folks, but in my experience, most people would rather be locked in a small room debating the meaning of life with Anna Nicole Smith than listen to a salesperson talk at them for an hour. It helps to think of “sales” as something more than making a good presentation. Sales is actually “professional problem solving”. A good salesperson:

  1. Discovers whether a prospect has a problem (no problem = no need).
  2. Learns if the problem is important enough to solve (no importance = no hurry to solve it).
  3. Recommends a solution (no solution = no help resolving the problem).
  4. Answers questions (objections = unresolved questions).

The astute reader will note that “sell me the pencil” comes way down the list, in step three. The first two steps belong to the customer ó getting them to talk and getting them to discover whether they have a problem that we might be able to solve. Then, and only then, is it time for the salesperson to start persuading. (If you need convincing, reflect on how you felt the last time a salesperson tried to make a pitch before earning your trust and discovering something about you). So, if your organization wants to minimize sales mistakes, then there is only one path to follow:

  1. Come to grips with the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the current hiring system for sales people.
  2. Clearly understand what you are looking for (e.g. perform a job analysis).
  3. Use only hiring tools that accurately measure applicant skills: i.e., mental tests for learning and problem solving; planning tests for sequencing and implementing; simulations for fact finding, presentation, customer service, and overcoming objections; and AIM tests for discovering hidden attitudes, interests and motivations.
  4. Use the same rigor to hire sales managers as you use to hire salespeople.

Gut instinct won’t get you any further than where you already are, but following these steps will.

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