The Secrets of Hiring Great Sales People Finally Revealed

Over the years, I’ve been involved in developing hiring tools for sales representatives in a variety of industries including high technology, financial services, industrial products, consumer products, auto sales, woman’s cosmetics, business services, medical products, pharmaceuticals, and healthcare.

Surprisingly, most sales managers make the same bad decisions, regardless of the product or industry.

Here’s the list of where most sales managers go wrong. Start eliminating these error-producing behaviors and just about all of your sales hiring mistakes will go away.

  • They think their job is unique. They’re not. There is a common sales process behind each one, that when understood can be used to benchmark any candidate’s past performance against.
  • They overvalue first impressions. First impressions don’t predict performance. People with great first impressions are frequently incompetent and people with marginal first impression often have a track record of great success. It’s best to measure first impression at the end of the interview and then determine how the candidate’s first impression affected their performance in consistently achieving quota. From what I’ve seen, the best sales managers don’t worry about first impressions, they worry about the candidate having a track record of achieving good sales results selling similar products, to similar buyers, in similar situations.
  • They overvalue their gut or instinct. This is only acceptable when the sales manager has a track record of hiring all top performers who all make quota in combination with very low department turnover. Emotions, intuition, or instinct are poor predictors of on-the-job success. A track record of past performance selling similar products or influencing similar buyers is a great predictor.
  • They don’t know the job. Sales is a process that starts with lead generation and ends at closing. Certain aspects of the process are more critical than others. If a sales manager doesn’t know what these are, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to accurately assess them in the candidate. As a result, the sales manager shifts the decision criteria to first impressions and gut instinct.
  • They assume they’re great managers. Most great sales people aren’t great managers, yet this is the person most likely to get promoted. It takes a great deal of work to build, develop, and manage an effective sales team. As part of the assessment process, the sales manager has to assess the fit between her style of management and how each person on the team needs to be managed. This directly relates to Hershey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model.

Flipping this over, here are some things you need to do to achieve better results hiring sales reps:

1. Know the sales process from beginning to end before ever interviewing another candidate.

Whether the sales cycle is 30 minutes long or months, there are some typical steps that ultimately determine how successful the sales rep will be. Breaking your company’s sales process into these steps enables the sales manager to identify the critical drivers and then assess the candidate’s past performance against these. At a broad level most sales processes can be categorized into these big segments:

  • Prospecting and lead generation
  • Qualifying the lead and conducting needs analysis
  • Proving your product’s worth in comparison to the customer’s needs
  • Preparing some type of offer or proposal
  • Closing and negotiating the offer

Of course, there are multiple variations to this depending on customer need, the complexity of the offering, the type of buyer involved and how the buying decision is made, the dollars involved, budgets available, economic conditions and competitive positioning, to name just a few.

A performance profile summarizes these details in the form of a series of prioritized performance objectives including specific results and time frames. For example, a performance objective for a sales rep developing a new territory might have an objective like, “within 30 days prepare a detailed territory plan including target clients to meet.” A similar performance objective for a outbound telesales person might be, “within 30 days after completing the training convert 35% of all sales calls into minimum $100 orders.”

Once these performance objectives have been determined put them into priority order. The top two or three (out of 6-8) tend to become the critical success drivers. For example, conducting needs analysis with a decision-maker might be relatively easy, with the real key to success being the ability to get past a gate-keeper and arrange the meeting with the decision-maker. It is essential that the members of the hiring team understand these critical success drivers and then hone in on them during the interview. (Here’s more information on how to prepare performance profiles and interview for a wide variety of sales positions.) From what I’ve seen lack of understanding of real job needs is the primary cause of bad hiring decisions, not only in sales, but for all jobs.

2. Benchmark the candidate’s performance against the performance profile by asking about these issues:

  • Get specific details about how the person managed the process and how well they did.
  • Find out their track record of making quota and how they recovered when things went sour.
  • Walk through the sales process at a few major successful accounts and compare this to yours.
  • Walk through the sales process where the person was unsuccessful and compare this to yours.
  • Find out how the person learned the product line and compare this to yours from a complexity standpoint and the amount of training provided.
  • Go step-by-step through all of the team issues including managing and processing leads, orders, and pre- and post-delivery issues.
  • Compare your typical buyer to the types of buyers the candidate successfully handled.
  • Find out how successful the candidate was working for different sales managers, ask about their styles, then compare these to the hiring sales manager’s style.

3. Benchmark the candidate’s past performance to the performance profile, especially against the critical success drivers.

We use our 10-Factor Candidate Assessment template as a guide to evaluate the candidate against ten factors we’ve seen to be strong predictors of on-the-job success.

Article Continues Below

For sales, the primary keys to an accurate assessment include a comparison of the sales process, the types of buyers involved, the sales cycle, the complexity of the product and associated terms, and the degree of competition. Of course, the behavioral issues can’t be ignored including persistence, learning the product line, organizational skills, and team leadership, among others, but these are secondary to having a track record of sales success in a comparable situation.

4. Assess managerial fit.

This is probably the most important, yet it is almost always overlooked. A sales manager must be dedicated to training and developing his or her sales team. This requires significant direction, on-the-job training, constant follow-up, the ability to motivate others, and involved planning.

In situational leadership terms these are the classic Director and Coaching styles. A self-managing Delegating style rarely works in sales, especially for a new hire. A Participating style involving territory planning and target account tactics would be appropriate for an experienced sales person who can achieve his goals with limited direction and support.

From what I’ve seen too many sales managers aren’t as involved as necessary to keep their teams on track. If a sales manager isn’t willing to devote 100% of her time to developing and managing her team, even it’s comprised of good people, it will underperform. That’s why choosing the sales manager is the first step in getting the sales hiring process right.

As part of the sales hiring process, we also recommend the use of some type of cognitive and behavioral questionnaire for all finalists. While there are many of these tests around, we’ve been using Profiles International’s for over 20 years with great success.

Knowing that some type of formal test is being used keeps the interviewers more focused, increasing overall assessment accuracy.

Hiring sales people is relatively easy if you don’t get emotionally involved. This alone will eliminate many common hiring mistakes. Regardless of your underlying sales process, the process of hiring great sales people is exactly the same whether you’re selling ERP software or part-time vacation villas. That’s the real secret to hiring great reps.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


4 Comments on “The Secrets of Hiring Great Sales People Finally Revealed

  1. Mr. Adler,

    Thank you for the great article. Could you share your thoughts regarding the use of personality screening tests with regards to incorporating them in the sales interview process? The first example that comes to mind is Stryker Corporations use of Gallup. I look forward to your thoughts.


  2. Say Lou,

    I have developed my own list of 22 Core Competencies of Successful Salespeople, with some details that clarify the content, contest, and some sub-text of those competencies.

    1. Develops Written Goals and Objectives:
    ? Clear.
    ? Specific.
    ? Realistic and attainable.
    ? Measurable.
    ? Compelling.
    ? Time-related.
    ? Is committed to them.
    ? Has internalized them.

    2. Follows Their Plans of Written Goals and Objectives:
    ? Knows what must be done.
    ? Knows why things must be done.
    ? Has developed action plans.
    ? Follows action plan.
    ? Has determined probable and possible obstacles.
    ? Has determined likelihood and importance of each obstacle.
    ? Has a plan to deal with each obstacle.
    ? Has intermediate checkpoints. (uses in-process checkpoints and uses them)
    ? Debriefs daily.

    3. Maintains a Positive Attitude:
    ? About self.
    ? About company.
    ? About marketplace.
    ? About learning.
    ? About growing.
    ? About value of what they have to offer.
    ? About value of what company has to offer.

    4. Takes Responsibility:
    ? Doesn’t externalize (doesn’t blame others, company, prospect, their past, etc.).
    ? Knows it’s up to them.
    ? Knows the only things they can control are their activity or behavior and their attitude.
    ? It’s OK to “fail” if it is a learning experience that leads to future success.
    ? Doesn’t play psychological games such as:
    ? “If it weren’t for you …”
    ? “Ain’t it awful? Yes but . . . ”
    ? “Kick me.”
    ? And other dysfunctional “activity traps” . . .
    ? Does the behavior or activity that is needed at the appropriate times.
    ? Learns from inappropriate behavior or activity.
    ? Accepts challenges.
    ? Doesn’t rationalize.

    5. Demonstrates Strong Self-confidence:
    ? High self-image.
    ? Is not overly effected by what others think.
    ? Understands that getting a “no” is usually a good thing.
    ? Doesn’t take a “no” as a permanent failure.
    ? Learns from each activity or behavior they perform.
    ? Realizes that there is a lot to learn and it’s OK not to be perfect.
    ? Understands that the most appropriate “role” failure is a good way to grow and that does not inherently affect how they should feel about themselves.

    6. Possesses Supportive Beliefs or Belief Systems; (is self-affirming):
    ? OK to hear no.
    ? OK to fail.
    ? OK not to get approval.
    ? OK if I upset someone.
    ? Calls at the right levels.
    ? Knows she or he has “rights.”
    ? Has a self-image of 10 (on a scale of 1-10).

    7. Controls Their Emotions:
    ? Controls ones own emotions.
    ? Is not lost for words.
    ? Doesn’t take things personally.
    ? Knows what to say or do at the appropriate time.
    ? Is a “third party” at the event.
    ? Is prepared for what ever the prospect does.
    ? Doesn’t panic.
    ? Doesn’t become excitable.
    ? Doesn’t strategize “on the fly.”
    ? Stays in the moment.
    ? Doesn’t over analyze.

    8. Doesn’t Need External Approval:
    ? Will ask the tough questions.
    ? Will go for “no.”
    ? Will bring things to closure.
    ? Won’t accept “wishy-washy” statements.
    ? Will confront.
    ? Gets good “up-front contracts.”
    ? Gets “personal needs” met outside sales.
    ? Deals with stalls and put-offs.

    9. Recovers Well from Rejection:
    ? Doesn’t affect their self-image.
    ? OK with “no.”
    ? Understands that they aren’t being rejected personally.
    ? Willing to put themselves in “high risk scenarios.
    ? Puts last episode quickly behind them.
    ? Probes for alternatives.
    ? Offers options.

    10. Comfortable Talking about Money:
    ? Able to bring it up in interview.
    ? Brings it up timely.
    ? Knows what prospect will invest before they present solution.
    ? Knows and believes how important margins and profitability are for an account.

    11. Supportive of the Prospects, Departments, Company’s, or Industries Buy Cycle:
    ? Make quick decisions about personal purchases when they find what they want.
    ? Establishes goals for what they want.
    ? Doesn’t care much about price when they buy.
    ? For a major purchase (other than a car) they usually shop only one store.
    ? A major purchase is usually over $1000.
    ? Usually doesn’t do research for a major purchase.
    ? A major purchase usually takes less than a day.

    12. Prospects Consistently and Effectively:
    ? Knows how many calls they have to make daily.
    ? Makes the agreed upon calls.
    ? Is on track number of calls wise.
    ? Debriefs calls daily.
    ? Learns “lessons” from each call.
    ? Is proactive at getting referrals (has a plan).

    13. Reaches Decision Maker and Key Recommenders:
    ? Goes for the top.
    ? Gets past gatekeeper.
    ? Able to talk the decision maker’s language.
    ? Is comfortable talking to tough decision-makers.
    ? Is not intimidated by them.
    ? Gets their attention.
    ? Get appointments.

    14. Poses Questions and Listens to Responses Effectively:
    ? Helps prospect do the talking.
    ? Knows what questions to ask.
    ? Asks lots of How and Why questions.
    ? Knows why they are asking them.
    ? Knows the “pains” your company can solve.
    ? Doesn’t get emotionally involved.

    15. Develops and Maintains Rapport Throughout:
    ? Helps prospect to relax.
    ? Gains comfort level.
    ? They are relaxed themselves.
    ? Knows when they don’t have rapport.
    ? Shares with prospects when they sense that they might be uncomfortable.
    ? Deals with problems up-front.
    ? Establishes good up-front contracts.
    ? Displays sincerity, trust, believability, warmth and trust.

    16. Uncovers the Actual Budgets:
    ? Is able to establish what prospect has in the budget.
    ? Helps prospect discover what they are willing to invest.
    ? Is able to help prospect quantify their “pains.”
    ? Helps prospect find the money if they don’t have it.
    ? Helps prospect gain conviction that they must spend it or closes the file.
    ? Is creative in helping prospect overcome their concerns about investing what it will take.
    ? Is firm when it comes to money.
    ? Sells Vs Negotiating.

    17. Discovering Why Prospects do Buy and Why They Don’t Buy:
    ? Has taken the capabilities of the company and translated this information to questions that will elicit pain.
    ? They understand their prospects business and the related pains.
    ? Has internalized the “pain finding” questions.
    ? Has internalized the “pain funnel” questions.
    ? Helps prospect discover their own “pain.”
    ? Is not afraid to ask the tough questions.
    ? Doesn’t solve problems before their time.
    ? Helps prospect to “own” their pain.
    ? Gets 3rd or 4th degree pain.
    ? Makes sure there are compelling reasons to buy.
    ? Gets prospect to quantify the pain.
    ? Will attempt to “close the file” if there is no pain.
    ? Gets to the business results and personal wins of the prospect.
    ? Doesn’t do “dog and pony shows.”

    18. Qualifies Proposals & Quotes:
    ? Knows when to bail out.
    ? Gets to all the key players.
    ? Knows decision criteria.
    ? Helps influence decision criteria.
    ? Knows where he or she stands all the way.
    ? Understands what it costs to play in the game.
    ? Asks the “right questions” before they complete the quote.
    ? Is willing to walk away.
    ? Knows decision making process.
    ? Knows for sure how well bases are covered with each buying influence.
    ? Knows the time line for decision.
    ? Knows the probability of sale.
    ? Knows the probability of your company getting the deal.
    ? Knows how they stand against the competition.
    ? Has inside “white knights” (coaches, champions) in all their accounts.
    ? Always knows what will happen next.
    ? Good “Up-Front” contracts.
    ? Deals with potential concerns, apprehensions and potential risks prospect may have.
    ? Has qualified for money.
    ? Doesn’t have “happy ears.”

    19. Gets Commitments and Gets Decisions:
    ? Knows how to get a “monkey’s paw.”
    ? Has good “Up-Front” contracts.
    ? Gets yes or no decisions.
    ? Doesn’t “roll over” when they get a “no”.
    ? Finds out the “conviction” level.
    ? Is willing to hear “no.”
    ? Always knows what will happen next.

    20. Possesses a Very Strong Desire for Success:
    ? Has clearly specified, written goals.
    ? Is “money” motivated.
    ? Willing to take risks.
    ? Has the incentive to perform tasks that may be uncomfortable.
    ? Is self-motivated.
    ? Undying urge to become the best.

    21. Maintains a Strong Commitment to Do What It Takes to Achieve Success:
    ? Is a winner.
    ? Does what non-winners won’t do.
    ? Is willing to risk.
    ? Will put themselves in “high risk” situations.
    ? Willing to force a “no” from the prospect.
    ? Unconditional even if: afraid, uncomfortable, or in disagreement over goal.

    22. Can Demonstrate a Track Record of Successful Sales Performance:
    ? Has a track record of successful performance.
    ? Possess proof of relevant past sales successes.
    ? The percentage of relevant sales time rated with the top 10%.
    ? The percentage of relevant sales time rated with the top 25%.

    Did I miss anything?

    All the Best!

    Ray “VirtualRecruiter” Towle

  3. Ray,
    Yes, you have missed a few things…about 5000 – 6000 competencies. But that will only place you in the “2/3’s of all hiring decisions that are wrong” crowd (Peter Drucker), because until you benchmark top performers and then hire to that benchmark, Core Competency all you want. All you will get is about 12 to 14% success rate.

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