Why It’s So Hard To Hire Good Salespeople

This article has nothing to do with sourcing. I tip my hat to all those hard-working people who slave all day just to find applicants, but (unless I am totally wrong) most organizations want to do more than just find warm bodies. They expect salespeople to (gasp!) sell something. Unfortunately, many sales applicants are “long” on selling themselves and “short” on selling products. The Sales Personality I’ve studied, trained, and managed salespeople for years. They tend to be utterly charming, fun to be around, engaging, and almost totally self-absorbed. As a trend, and possibly as a demand of the profession, they tend to be great “impression managers.” Impression management (IM) means saying and doing things that ingratiate one person to another. For example, salespeople tend to dress in clothes that never wrinkle (where do they find those aluminum shirts?); they tend never to perspire (is there some secret chemical formula that shuts down sweat glands?); their hair is always perfect (some space-age polymer treatment?); and they are never at a loss for words. In short, their skills are highly tuned to developing trust and encouraging people to give them lots of money. Why am I telling you something you already know? Because, salespeople are often better at managing their impression than performing on the job. Some Recent Interview Research I highly recommend anyone in the recruiting or hiring profession to subscribe to a few egghead journals such as the Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP) or Personnel Psychology. The reading is often dry enough to dehydrate a salt-water shellfish, but these journals contain serious data that can help cast aside silly practices and help hiring professionals become, well, professional. For example, an article published in the December 2002 issue of JAP outlines a study of how people tend to behave in interviews. This is a good thing to know because it helps “lift the interview fog” of half-truths and unfulfilled expectations. Some Background About Interview Techniques There are three basic interview techniques:

  1. Structured, forward-looking (tell me about how you would handle X in the future)
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  3. Structured, backward-looking (tell me about how you handled X in the past)
  4. Silly (everything else)

Structured interviews are more than questions. Structured interviews have “structure” that ensures more job coverage and less creative fiction. They work from job analysis target lists, employ diligent probing for facts and data, and thoroughly evaluate responses using the same job analysis target lists. If you are confronted with hiring managers who change the job requirements after each interview, who cannot quite explain what they want in an applicant, or who, after a satisfactory interview, still cannot decide whether an applicant is qualified or not, then you are missing one or more of the requirements of a structured interview. Structured interviews are 1) harder than they look, 2) take months of practice to master, and 3) require preparation. As a workshop instructor, I always find it interesting to watch people return from their first “practice” interview. The majority think they gathered a bucketful of information about the applicant. But after a few questions, they discover their bucket has a gaping hole in the bottom. They were bamboozled. Even though structured interviews are the strongest interview techniques we can use, applicants ó especially sales applicants ó master impression management techniques that help them look bigger than life. Impression Management (IM) We all do it. Little babies do it when they smile at big people. Children do it with adults. Have you ever dressed to impress? Laughed at some un-funny comment your boss said? It’s natural. Impression management is an automatic personal attempt to control how we appear to others. And impression management is on full broadcast volume when people are in the job search mode. What are some of the IM tactics applicant’s use? One IM tactic includes anticipating the interviewer’s interests and adopting that interest as their very own favorite activity: “You’re hobby is macrame? What a coincidence! I was just telling my spouse how much I would like to have a macrame hanging on our living room wall! It’s one of my favorite art forms.”) IM can also sound like pandering: “Say, you ask some great questions! Do you mind if I take notes? I seldom get to talk with such a magnificent interviewer. What an honor!” IM is not a pretty sight. Even so, I’m not done. IM can also include shifting the blame onto someone else: “I tried to stop him, but my boss insisted on overriding my decision.” It can include mitigating a situation to make it seem less bad: “Yes, it did set off the sprinkler system and soak the files, but we needed to destroy those records anyway.” It can even include covering up for serious wrongdoing: “They owed me the money anyway, so I just took my share out of the register” (I am not making this one up). Finally, IM can consist of making apologies and agreeing punishment was in order: “I agree it was a bad idea to set his hairpiece on fire, and I accept full responsibility for my actions. I was bad.” IM and Interviewing Results Think of interviews as the Academy Awards of impression management. People are driven to pull out all the stops to get a job, especially if they are unemployed. Can you blame them? Haven’t we all done the same thing? Well, our researchers decided to see how much IM was actually used in interviewing*. They trained 21 interviewers in a three-hour session. Sixteen interviewers came from HR and five were jobholders. They all practiced asking interview questions. They all also listened to prerecorded tapes and scored answers using a “poor,” “average,” and “superior” ratings. A total of 136 applicants for a firefighter position were asked the same 14 competency-based questions and there answers were tape recorded. Seventeen of these tapes were not usable (there is no truth to the rumor that Richard Nixon was an interviewer). The rest were analyzed for IM. Analysis showed that over 97% of the applicants used at least one or more IM tactic; 89% used some form of self-promotion tactic to exaggerate their accomplishments and make themselves appear more competent; and 76% ingratiated themselves with the interviewer by reflecting the same values, opinions, and beliefs they believed the interviewer held. Only three interviewees did not use any form of impression management. Applicants who were asked future-oriented questions (what would you do in the following situation?) tended to use ingratiation tactics. Applicants who answered experienced-based questions (what did you do when?) tended to use self-promotion tactics. And as you might imagine, applicants who used impression management received higher interviewer ratings. Conclusion How can you make use of this kind of information? If you are hiring for a sales position, for example, you might expect an experienced applicant to exaggerate his or her accomplishments. Answers to behavioral-type questions would probably be embellished. Applicants with less job experience would probably try ingratiating themselves with the interviewer. When asked situational questions, they would probably try to second-guess what they thought the interviewer wanted to hear. Realize that interview data was, is, and probably will continue to be limited in accuracy. I know that even a baby chimp looks good to its mother, but interviews (even structured ones) are highly subjective and opinion-based. There are better tools to use when accuracy is important. “Getting to know the applicant” will always lead to more errors than “getting to know whether the applicant has skills for the job.” Anything less and you are probably getting schmoozed. Oh yes, and get a subscription to the Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP) or Personnel Psychology. You wouldn’t want your doctor to stop reading the latest medical journals, would you? *Ellis, A.P.J, West, B.J, Ryan, A.M, & DeShon, R.P. (2002). “The use of impression management tactics in structured interviews: A function of question type?” Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 1200-1208.

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