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.

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