Separating Sales Wheat From Sales Chaff: Hiring Salespeople Who Sell

Salespeople provide the life’s blood of organizations. No sales. No business. I once encouraged a reluctant management team to rank salespeople from high to low productivity. They hesitated, because they had no idea what to do with the results. In fact, the president (who also did some selling) said he was sure rank ordering would “discourage” low producers. He also “assured” me that sales managers would have no idea what to do with the data anyway. I had no idea how to respond to this kind of muddle-headed sales management. Imagine what this organization could have achieved if sales management had actually known what they were doing? But I digress. Rank ordering salespeople will usually show that a minority of salespeople ó often as few as 20% ó generate 80% of sales. This is scary. This is true. Sales applicants all might look equally qualified (except for the boss’s kid), but a few months later some of the most promising ones will become bottom feeders and some of the least promising ones will excel. I don’t know about you, but this seems to represent a major disconnect between hiring, managing, and performing. Perfect Hiring Accuracy? It would be wonderful if we all could predict sales success with 100% accuracy. Unfortunately, there are just too many other variables at work such as product ó competition, personal issues, managerial talent, economic issues, and so forth ó so we have to be satisfied with measuring what we can. To start with, unstructured interviews and past performance are inadequate. Better hiring techniques can achieve about a 90% success rate (i.e., the person will have the right skills for the job about 90% of the time). But what does 90% mean in practice? Well, imagine what it would be like if 90% of your salespeople had skills equal to the current top 20%. How much would individual productivity increase? How about profitability? Costs? Would management become easier? I hope I made my point. Visionaries Don’t Wear Blinders Truism: People have a remarkable way of remembering success and forgetting failure. In business, selective amnesia is often vital to career survival. Who among us has not tried to hide bad-hiring decisions from a boss while boasting about our good ones? (“I think you are being overly sensitive, boss. I’m sure Leo had no idea your hairpiece was flammable. Have you seen Leslie’s excellent sales report?”). Blinders have, do, and will, block progress improvements. Unless every applicant who interviews well performs well, hiring managers either must take off their blinders, go back to direct selling, or settle in for a career of long-term mediocre sales performance. Start Smart Truism: Sales selection cannot be improved until sales activities are thoroughly understood. There is a silly idea that managers know everything about jobs they supervise. Too bad it’s wrong. Most of the time, unless they also perform the job, managers don’t have a clue about the day-to-day activities of people they supervise. Catch them on an unusually good day, and many will even publicly agree. Managers know a great deal about results, but not what it takes to get there ó sort of like knowing whether their team won or lost, but not being able to describe how each person played. This is fact. Not opinion. Have fun with this next activity. First, list in order, the top ten skills important to doing your job each day. Next, ask your boss to make the same list (for your job). Compare the list. Take a few days to re-compose yourself. Update your resume. The only complete information about sales jobs comes from three sources: 1) jobholders (for job details), 2) managers (for job performance) and 3) visionaries (for job changes). Skip any step and you lose valuable pieces of information about what it takes to perform. For example, how much does your manager know about the details of your job? How much do you know about changes planned for your job in the next two years? Sound easy? Well, only until you try to do it. Without job details, hiring managers are pre-destined to overlook important areas, overemphasize unimportant ones, and rely on personal opinions (“I know ’em when I see ’em”). Hiring Smart Truism: What you don’t measure, you don’t control. Every sales job is slightly different. One thing salespeople have in common, though, is persuasion. Whether a sales job is long-term, short-term, proactive, reactive, tangible, intangible, big ticket, small ticket, direct, cross, phone-based or personal, eventually someone is expected to sell something. Sales is a four-step psychological process:

  1. Develop enough trust to start a client-centered dialog.
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  3. Gather as much information as you need about prospect’s problems (the ones you might be able to solve).
  4. Recommend a solution that involves your product or service.
  5. Help the prospect overcome hesitation.

Simple? Sure. So simple that most salespeople “blow” right through Step 1, skip Step 2, plow headlong into Step 3, and wonder why they cannot get past Step 4. Only about one in four salespeople take time to develop rapport and ask questions. The rest just try to pummel the prospect into submission. That leads us to how to measure each of the steps. Last I heard, most of the psychic hot lines were defunct (you would think they could have predicted that?). And the present system of interviews, self-report tests, and the ever-popular “sell-me-the-pencil” simulations deliver consistently marginal results. Why? Interviews and self-report tests are short on facts and long on personal opinion. The only good way to measure an applicant’s ability to perform the four sales steps is to start with learning critical sales competencies, using structured behavioral interview strategies, testing for mental alertness when it is important, digging deep into AIMs, and observing the applicant complete a pseudo-realistic sales simulation. Finally, validate everything. Sorry. No shortcuts. Screen-’em out early or watch ’em fail later because they don’t have the skills. Managing: Don’t Mess It Up Truism: You can’t teach pigs to sing. First, pigs can’t sing. Second, it ticks off the pig. Who has not seen a top salesperson promoted to management only to watch the inevitable career flameout? Being a manager requires more and different skills. In an old WRKP sitcom plot, for example, the inept station manager rents a helicopter to hover over a shopping mall and toss out live Thanksgiving turkeys. Pandemonium ensues among the shoppers as turkey after turkey plummets in a feathery flurry onto the asphalt. Splat! Splat! The manager didn’t know the turkeys couldn’t fly. Because of their significant role, sales managers should be selected with even more scrutiny than salespeople. Not only do they have to know the product, the client, and how to sell, they have to know how to coach and develop salespeople. Big job? Only the most important in the company! Like our company president and his or her sales managers, they secretly suspected they were part of the problem, but had no idea how to fix it. Coaching For Success? In spite of everything I have experienced, read, studied, or was told in internationally famous training programs, I have yet to see a manager, no matter how skilled, turn a sales dud into a sales pro. I have, however, consistently seen managers effectively destroy morale, fail to develop salespeople, or set them up for failure. Moral? You should always do a flight check before throwing someone off a cliff. Another analogy. Consider the effect of a good coach on an inept player. How about on a talented player? How about a poor coach’s effect on an inept player? On a talented player? See what I mean? Finale Rank order your salespeople to see how much work you have to do. Study the sales and management jobs to identify critical competencies. Select salespeople with care (sales won’t get any better than their skills permit). Select sales managers with exceptional scrutiny (same reason). And, finally, be willing to eliminate (or reassign) deadwood if it won’t get you where you want to go.


2 Comments on “Separating Sales Wheat From Sales Chaff: Hiring Salespeople Who Sell

  1. Very good overall, although I found that one crucial link was missing from the “four-step process” that Dr. Williams described. I would add prospecting as Step One and note that one could be competent in all four steps he listed, but who are still not successful because they either lack the skills or desire to achieve competency in the prospecting arena.

    Francoise Bergan
    FMB Consulting
    Denver, CO

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