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8 Ideas to Help You More Successfully Hire Salespeople

When hiring, we weigh known facts along with many unknowns, and frequently to do that within a framework of assumptions. What should be failsafe is verifying the facts – for example, dates and timelines; positions held; involvements; and schools attended. Where we are far more likely to stumble is over the unknowns, which mostly relate to what the candidate has personally accomplished in previous jobs and how, and to what talents and personality traits the candidate possesses.  More ill-defined and open to interpretation, these are frequently left to the vagaries of inference and personal opinion. When we factor in some assumptions about job requirements, more likely based upon beliefs than upon analysis, we create an even bigger obstruction. It’s no small wonder then that the hiring process seems so haphazard in so many instances.

The Cost of the Wrong Hire Continues to Escalate

Since success in many sales jobs is greatly dependent upon personal attributes, it’s not surprising that the list of unknowns surpasses those of most other positions, making these hiring decisions more fraught with uncertainty and risk.  Although the past 50 years have spawned a great variety of hiring tools and techniques, across the board they haven’t seemed to move the ball forward. With more complex and more demanding sales jobs, turnover is no less a problem today than it was in the past, and the costs associated with hiring mistakes have escalated substantially. The net result is that every bad hire today is more expensive and disruptive to a company’s business than it was a generation or two back.

Hiring, like so many other matters in life, comes down to using common sense and doing right things. Based upon my 50 years of experience implementing hiring and candidate assessment systems in all types of sales organizations, I believe that the solutions are simpler and more obvious than what people might expect, and that any company can make a dent in the problem if it incorporates these eight recommendations.

 1. Add Insights and Objectivity with Psychometrics

Use a valid psychometric as part of the assessment process. They offer objective as opposed to subjective information about behavior and motivation, and the good ones can discern small but often important differences among candidates. Even the best interviewing techniques are still subjective in nature and can’t measure traits or personality attributes with any degree of precision. Our studies have shown that the actual differences between top and middling performers are often a matter of degree, so subtle and nuanced that they are indistinguishable in an interview. The Law of Small Differences – small differences in input are accountable for large differences in output – applies to job performance, so you had better be able to measure those small differences.

2. Simulation Exercises… Hold Tryouts for Your Candidates

Use simulation exercises to observe how your candidates behave in important job-relevant situations. Simulations, when properly constructed and used, are the equivalent to a tryout in the world of sports. They are your opportunity to see how the candidate’s personality, intelligence, knowledge, and skills work together in high-impact sales activities. Such simulations don’t have to be lengthy or overly complex, either. Many years ago, based upon our assessment center experiences, we helped pioneer the concept of mini-simulations – 20-minute exercises where the interviewer roleplays with the candidate while observing and documenting. Use three and you’re done in an hour. Particularly important, you can also correlate your observations with the results of your psychometric, an extra layer of behavioral validation.

3. Question Assumptions and Stereotypes

Make the effort to question accepted beliefs and stereotypes and to look at your sales job with a new pair of eyes. Don’t blindly accede to notions such as our sales job is the same in every territory right across the country, or our people must be competitive hunters who are motivated by closing. They might be true, but they might not be. These are just simple examples, but repeatedly over the years our studies have produced findings that have challenged such assumptions. There are, in fact, plenty of sales jobs where too much intensity and drive to win are counter-productive; there are also poorly structured sales jobs where the traits necessary to perform well against one criterion actually produce lower performance against some other criterion! Talk about a no-win situation! And finally, avoid, the service-sales pitfall. Realize that sales motivation is not similar to service motivation, so don’t expect that one person can perform well on a sustained basis against both expectations. You will either have a bored, unengaged sales person who will leave, or a frustrated service personality who hangs in but never achieves the sales goals.

4. Job Analysis Is an Absolute Must!

The fourth recommendation is really an extension of the above point. I never cease to be amazed at how few companies make the effort to undertake a comprehensive job analysis periodically and produce a job behavioral profile or screen. Disinterest, a lack of time, over reliance upon intuition, or a know-it-all attitude, whatever the reason, too many companies fall back on those simple stereotypes that may be well off the mark and have little in common with their sales jobs. To quote Lewis Carroll, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” You need a target, not the proverbial broad side of a barn! Good job analysis is a collaborative activity and it takes time. You need to get into the weeds, distinguish the trivial many activities from the vital few that drive performance, and then build a behavioral profile based upon what is essential to top performance. When your profile is complete, you must reality-check it against top and bottom performers to test your hypothesis and/or to validate it. It’s not easy, and it took us years to refine our JAX tool that does this type of analysis for our clients. The bottom line is that, regardless of how good your assessment tools may be, their value is greatly diminished if your job models aren’t rooted in robust, factual analysis.

5. Understand Can-Do Versus Will-Do Motivation

Understand the motivational differences in the people you evaluate for sales roles in your business:

a) can’t do the job and is not motivated to do the job;
b) can’t do the job but is motivated to do the job;
c) can do the job but is not motivated to do the job; and
d) can do the job and is motivated to do the job.

This advice may sound like it comes from a grade school primer, but time and time again we encounter recruiters and hiring managers who just assume that if a person can do the job, he or she will stay in the job. It’s just not so. There are lots of jobs people can do but do not want to do or do not want to do for more than a short period of time. Outbound call centers in particular hire many people with high potential who depart within a few months. It’s mis-hiring – they want salespeople with some degree of sociability, some degree of personal drive, and some degree of urgency, but lacking precise assessment tools, they hire people with too much of those qualities to be comfortable in the more limited and constrained call center environment. In your business figure out who can do the job and then figure out what attributes will motivate a person to actually stay in the job. If those two elements cannot be reconciled, then you need to make a trade-off: will you settle for higher performance or lower turnover?

6. Train, Train, Train

Regardless of the size of your business, train your salespeople. And not just any sales training, because all the marketplace offerings are not alike. Specifically, you need training that is relevant to your selling context and model, and that addresses the necessary behavioral adjustment issues new hires are expected to understand and make. There are millions of salespeople in this country and it’s just incredible how many have had little or no training and how few have even read any books on selling. The notion that if you hire someone with sales experience, the person is likely to be more successful is a fallacy. The reality is that you may be hiring someone who has learned the wrong things, or someone whose sales experience is not relevant to the critical factors that drive sales in your business. Even if candidates can claim some training, don’t assume that you can just bring them on board and turn them loose on your valuable customers and prospects.

7. Managers Need to be Skilled Coaches

In partnership with training, recommendation number seven is be dead certain that your field sales managers really know how to coach and are measured on their coaching performance. As Jim Collins said, getting the right people on the bus is essential to business success, but that’s only part of the performance equation. When they are on board you have to do the right things with them, and that means regular, personal, performance-related feedback and possibly behavioral redirection. I always challenge assumptions, and one of the big ones is that if you are a manager you can surely sit down and coach someone else. Coaching is not some universal human talent, and the reality is that most managers for a variety of personal reasons struggle with it. Some avoid disagreement, some never ask questions, some are too controlling and give solutions, and others perform a one-and-done. The process gets derailed in a million ways. So, if you want to protect the investment you are making in your sales representatives, make certain your managers really know how to coach and don’t simply follow some 5-step process that vendors claim works with all managers. Nice idea, but one size does not fit all.

 8. Go with the Odds… A Winning Strategy

My final recommendation is that when you use a psychometric, really use it. Don’t just pay lip service to it, referencing it only when it supports your personal interview impressions. We see this a lot with tests. Many interviewers and recruiters think they are smarter than a test, and they disregard it when it conflicts with their interview perceptions. They fail to understand that there are so many variables that affect sales performance that hiring decisions really come down to playing the odds. Studies make it clear that good psychometrics, even though they may account for only 40 to 50 percent of performance variance, are more predictive of job performance than interviews. After all our experience with both psychometrics and with interviewers, I’d put my money on the psychometric any day when it does not align with the interviewer’s or even interviewers’ personal impressions. Just like gamblers, for the best outcomes over the long haul, your best strategy is to go with the odds.

I hope that some or all of these ideas help you in your future hiring. They are the product of thousands of observations with interviewers and in the field with sales managers, a myriad of statistical analyses using psychometrics, and the common sense that causes you to just shake your head when you hear some of the outlandish things that people believe and say about evaluating and hiring candidates. At the very least, I hope I have caused you to think about and even question some of the things you may have taken for granted about hiring and developing salespeople.

Sorting Out the Junk Science in Psychometrics

Valid psychometrics are highly beneficial tools. By helping us objectively measure and describe human attributes, they offer us important insights into candidates and employees, which are otherwise very difficult to pull from either interviews or work observations. By comparing test results to accurate job profiles or benchmarks, potential context-relevant job behaviors can also be predicted. And if those psychometric tools use a normative design to compare respondents to a broader population, as they should do if used for decision-making applications, they further enable us to more precisely compare candidates.

Today, under the growing influence of big data and with AI (machine learning) knocking on the door, it is not surprising that some test vendors are seeking competitive advantage with these and other fascinating scientific developments. Behavioral economics, being all about numbers and predictability, certainly holds the promise of some exciting changes in psychometrics, but it is important that we distinguish what are real advances from the mere illusions of junk science.

One constant over the years is that we all look for silver bullets to simplify our decisions. However, not all decisions can be simplified and not all simplifying solutions are what they are touted to be. We live in a world of exaggerated claims and all sorts of products and services fall short of their marketing hype. In some areas that’s no big deal, but with people decisions, when careers and management plans are on the line, the consequences and costs can be very significant.

The issue is all about prediction. How precisely and accurately can we use a psychometric to predict job fit, behavioral differences among people, or job performance. Since more and more test vendors are claiming they can provide these answers, it’s worthwhile to take a hard look at the veracity of these claims.

Junk Science in Psychometrics

Actually, junk science crept into the field of psychometrics many years ago, but we just never called it that. The most obvious example is the deceptiveness of face validity. Any vendor website insinuating that a sampling of test respondents who are in high agreement with their test results connotes meaningful validity is either ignorant or deceptive. Reading the works of Dan Ariely or Daniel Kahneman on the irrationality of behavior will make it very clear that validity has no relationship with agreement or personal likes and dislikes. Validity is a statistical measure not an emotional one, and emphasizing face validity, which is not validity at all, likely indicates that the vendors don’t have real validation or certainly don’t want you to see what numbers they do have. Take a pass!

Another scientific stretch has to do with the job profiles that many tests use in a rather absolutist way. Job profiles are critical to accurate decision-making, but with too many tests, a simple set of generic templates or stereotypes replace actual job analysis. Having undertaken literally thousands of job analyses over the years, many employing content and criterion validation methodology, there’s simply no question that one size does not fit all.

Job Analysis Should Be a Context-Relevant Process

For the more complex jobs for which behavioral assessments are generally used, job analysis should be a context-relevant process taking into account unique situational variables, for example, the personalities of the “boss” and the other people involved, along with variations in cultures, performance standards, job expectations, management styles, training, quality of supervision, etc. In our experience, we have found numerous instances where, because of such variabilities, seemingly similar positions in different organizations required very different personalities. Granted, some jobs can be cloned, but they tend to be task and specialist roles and/or entry level, including service functions, non-transactional retail sales, data entry, and reporting roles, etc.

Getting the job right – understanding both nuanced and unique factors that drive performance – is at least 50% of a selection decision. But all too frequently, simple assumptions and inference supplant what should be a thorough analytical process, resulting in inaccurate job profiles that lead to flawed candidate searches.

Test Design Matters

Fitness for purpose is yet another area where claims are sometimes misleading. Such is the case with normative and ipsative tests. Simply stated, a normative instrument uses a questioning format (for example, yes and no response variations) that enables norms for some population to be developed and individual responses compared to those norms. One candidate might score at the 80th percentile in a certain construct and another at the 40th percentile, so we have a statistical basis for comparing the two people.  The variance in their scores further provides us with a means of determining how their behaviors would differ in specific situations. Since the intent in using a psychometric in decision-making applications is to objectively compare people, this manner of test design is essential in applications such as hiring, internal placements, and succession planning.

Ipsative instruments use a different questioning format and are intended for different purposes. Using variations of forced choice questions (for example, Most or Least like me), MBTI, and the many versions of DISC, provide only a relative indication of traits or attributes as opposed to a score measured against a statistical norm. Ipsative means self-referent, which translates to using oneself rather than others or a defined population as a norm. So, although ipsative tests indicate how one individual prefers to respond to problems or people, etc., they offer no meaningful correlation of comparative strength or visibility of traits when attempting to compare that person to another. If a respondent scores high in dominance, for instance, that simply means that dominance is a more prominent behavioral factor than the person’s other traits, but it cannot be said that the person is more or less dominant than someone else with a similar test configuration.

Suitable for coaching or other self-awareness applications where comparisons to others are unnecessary, ipsative tools are neither designed for nor adequate for decision-making purposes like hiring. But in the marketplace, it’s a case of the blind leading the blind: many vendors either do not understand or choose to just ignore the limitations, and buyers do not really understand what they are buying or using.

Knowing how excited people are to get on the big data train and find that silver bullet, the latest trend is for vendors to attempt to translate what is essentially descriptive data into a single, simplifying comparative number. One vendor, for example, claims that they can provide a number score showing how each candidate compares to the job. It sounds good, and it may attract some buyers, but claiming a degree of predictive precision that is not psychometrically possible is a real stretch of the imagination.

False Assumptions Result in Inaccurate Results

The problem is with the assumptions that are being made about the data being used, all of which have no margin for error. The first assumption is that the job benchmark is accurate and complete. We know that if it’s a standard job template or a stereotype rather than a context-relevant creation, the target is questionable and might even be way off the mark. How meaningful is a predictive value if the candidates are being compared to the wrong target information?

The second assumption, also about the job profile being used, is that in its entirety it captures what is behaviorally significant in the job. The reality is that this is very unlikely. Over the years we have undertaken scores of criterion studies on diverse jobs and in these analyses, we correlate test constructs with the objective performance data for a group of people. We generally find anywhere from one or two to maybe a handful of statistically significant correlations out of almost 50 possibilities. So, whereas individual traits or combinations of several traits may be predictive of some aspects of performance, the entire personality syndrome is not. Thus, comparing a candidate’s test results to a behavioral profile, even if it is accurate, means comparing characteristics that may have little or no relevance to actual performance, and which may actually run counter to the several characteristics that actually do matter. The bottom line is that the predictive value assigned to that candidate’s results may be attenuated by other characteristics that have little bearing upon job performance!

The third assumption tends to gloss over the fact that psychometrics, at best, is an imperfect science, and there are practical limits to what can be predicted and how precise the prediction can be. Start with the well-accepted general assumption that behavior (traits, whatever) account for maybe 40% of performance variance in most jobs. That variance factor can be lower in some jobs, for example a nuclear physicist, and higher in others, for example retail sales. So, behavior is an important decision-making consideration, but it cannot stand on its own.  Even the most positive or negative potential effects can be countered by such factors as knowledge and skill, cognitive ability or intelligence, attitudes, as well as physical and emotional constraints. Factor in the effects of randomness, which is always a consideration in measuring human abilities, and you then realize how unrealistic and unstable any specific number might be. A more plausible approach would be to use ranges of compatibility, for example, highly compatible or low compatibility, because that is about as close to the target as you can reasonably get.

As I stated right at the top of this piece, psychometrics can be very informative and very beneficial in so many applications, but they need to be used the way they are intended to be used and within a framework of reasonable expectations.

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