Hiring Top Sales Performers Is Certainly No Accident
Determining the right person to hire isn’t easy, and when it comes to hiring a top-performing sales superstar, it’s even more difficult.
Let’s face it: there is a sea of apparently strong candidates looking for a job. And don’t kid yourself; any sales person worth their salt is going to be able to talk a good game.
But making a poor hiring decision will cost you dearly. Depending on which expert you listen to, the cost of making a poor hiring decision is anywhere between one and two and a half times the candidate’s annual fully loaded salary.
What should strong leaders do to mitigate the risks and maximize the return on investment pertaining to hiring top-performing sales professionals? What can an organization do to not only greatly reduce hiring mistakes, but also build a highly effective sales organization? We need to paint a very clear picture of the perfect fit before we start looking for the candidate. Then, we can objectively determine if the candidate truly fits in our picture. Here’s how.
Managers must follow a systematic, step-by-step recruiting, hiring, and on-boarding process. This system begins with identifying the primary function indicators (PFIs) of the sales role you are attempting to fill. PFIs are the basic tasks that a salesperson must be able to accomplish, such as prospecting, negotiating, and closing. Next, a professional manager must identify and determine the winning attributes of the best-fit candidate. Finally, the manager must ascertain whether or not the candidate is a proper fit for the team by building a team matrix.
To accomplish this, the manager utilizes these three core components (PFIs, winner attributes, and team matrix) to develop a series of questions designed to uncover the information needed to make a good hiring decision. The questions are constructed so that the answers reveal how well the candidate fits the desired job profile. Scores to all answers are summed, and the best-fit candidate is revealed.
Let’s break down each of the three components and reveal how questions are developed from each area and give some sample questions that could be used.
Step one of building a hiring template includes identifying the actual functions the sales professional will be expected to perform. We call these functions primary function indicators because they reveal the actual functions the candidate must be able to accomplish and the behaviors at which the candidates must be proficient to perform these functions. Finally, we must determine the questions we should ask that will help us determine whether or not the candidate can perform these behaviors to the desired level of proficiency.
For example, if you are attempting to hire a sales professional capable of bringing in new business, he would have to effectively prospect. A question might be, “if we hired you to build this new territory to $2 million in one year, how would you do it?” The answer to this question will speak volumes. And you should be able to differentiate a made-up answer from one given by a sales professional who has actually lived it.
To make this step easier, we incorporate the SEARCH model. SEARCH is an acronym that stands for skills, experiences, attitudes, results, cognitive skills, and habits. If we can create questions that reveal the candidate’s relative strengths and weaknesses in these six areas, we are well on our way to determining if they can actually perform the tasks. Once you’ve determined the questions needed to determine a candidate’s PFIs, you are ready to proceed to step two.
Step two is to identify whether or not the candidate has what it takes to be a top performer (winner) in your specific organization. We call these ‘winner attributes.’ To figure out whether or not the candidate has the winner attributes you require, it is helpful to use the BAT method. BAT stands for behavior, attitude, and technique. Behavior is all about what they do, technique concerns how well they do it, and attitude is how they feel about doing it. Let’s take a look at each.
Behavior involves understanding the planning, goals, and actions necessary to be successful in that role in your organization. For example, how well does the candidate set long-term, short-term, and daily goals, and how does this compare to how well your top performers set goals? You might ask, “tell me about your experience building and executing a plan to hit your sales objectives,” followed by “tell me what you did when you found yourself behind your target goals.”
Again, the answers will reveal how the candidate thinks and should give you a good idea of whether or not they have actually successfully built plans. If you ask the same question pertaining to goals to 20 different candidates, you’ll get 20 different answers. It is our job as managers to understand the required behaviors our top salespeople have and to identify the candidates whose behaviors are the closest match.
Next is technique, which consists of personal presence, tactics, and strategy. These are all measures of how well they are able to perform the behaviors that are necessary for success. Finally, attitude involves what’s between your ears. For example, some people don’t mind attending networking events and actually enjoy meeting and talking to new people. However, others dread networking events and would sit in the corner, check their e-mails, and talk only to people they know. The difference is their attitude toward, or how they feel about, networking. You might ask, “what are your favorite and least favorite prospecting activities, and why?”
Some examples of winner attributes for top-performing salespeople are the desire to win, strong internal motivation, superior discipline, and the ability to build and nurture relationships. Again, the key is to develop written questions that will help you determine whether or not the candidate has these desired attributes.
The final step in developing the hiring template is to determine how well the candidate will fit within your team. When filling a position in an existing department, it is important to find a candidate who fits best with your specific team. Often, managers try to hire the best producers, only to end up with a group of ‘fighter pilots,’ when what they really needed was a group of strong team players who can work and play well together for the good of the organization.
The key questions to ask are, do they supply skills needed by our team, or do they have skills that everyone else has? Are they a match for the current team or for the future team that we’re trying to build? For example, if you need to land new business and you have a stable of account managers, you need to ask questions that reveal the candidate’s ability to bring in new business because it complements the skills of your existing sales staff.
Once you develop four or five questions from this area that will help you uncover the facts, add them to your previous questions from PFIs and winner attributes. By now, you should have a good 30 core questions to use for each and every interview. Score each candidate on a scale from one to 10 for each question and determine, before you start interviewing, a lowest acceptable summed score from all questions. Create a list of ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves.’ If any candidate doesn’t achieve the minimum score or have all the ‘must haves,’ they are eliminated from the process.
Once you’ve developed this approach to recruiting and interviewing candidates, you’ll be able to choose the best fit objectively based on relative, objective scores. Once you’ve chosen the best-fit candidate and informed the others that they are no longer in consideration, it is now time to implement your 90-day on-boarding plan.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, who’s got time to do all this? Before you decide this is too much work, ask yourself how much time you spent talking to poor performers last year. Think of how many hours were spent writing up politically and legally correct ‘fix-it-or-hit-the-road’ letters last year. How many hours did you spend trying to coach or motivate poor performers who weren’t hitting their sales objectives? How many hours did you agonize over a weaksales person that you wish you would have never hired in the first place, but now that you have, you are hoping they’ll finally provide an acceptable ROI?
Consider having to fire them and start back at the beginning of the hiring process all over again. Think about the recruiter fees, the advertising costs you spend to place the ad, all the time your real performers wasted trying to bring them up to speed.
Perhaps it’s less expensive to invest time now finding the right salesperson for the role and properly on-boarding them, instead of spending all the time on the back end when you are stuck with a bad hire. We’ve all heard the saying, ‘pay me now, or pay me later.’
Jim Mumm is CEO of Sandler Training, serving Western Mass. He is an award-winning trainer, author, speaker, and successful entrepreneur; (646) 330-5217; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.jimmumm.sandler.com
Using Psychological Science to Hire People Who Can Sell
“Do you know what you can learn about someone from an interview?” I like to ask potential clients. My answer: “Plenty, and it begins with how well someone performs during an interview.”
Now, some think that in sales, if the candidate sitting across from you can sell themselves to you, then they can sell. But can they really? You know that they can sell you on them. And for some products and services, potential customers need to be sold on the salesperson. But other components loom large: can they sell to others? And will they sell to others? And can they sell what you are hiring them to sell?
Résumés and interviews (behavioral interviews, specifically) can provide valuable information, and, of course, no job offer — even for commission-based positions — should be made without a careful review of prior experiences, reference checks, and probably more than one interview. But that information is still amazingly limited, and tells us little about whether this person can and willsell your product or service to others. This is where small or mid-sized businesses can benefit from the millions of dollars that large companies have spent on selection testing and assessment.
While using psychological testing to predict performance has a controversial, and some would say problematic, history, work being done over the past 15 years has led to a clear conclusion: we can predict work-related behaviors with great accuracy legally, quickly, and easily through the use of reputable assessment tools.
It’s important to note that there are currently no regulations for claiming accuracy in the sale of pre-employment tests. Therefore, unless taken to court, test publishers and distributers roam freely about the commercial countryside, making outlandish claims regarding the ‘science’ and usefulness of their hiring tests.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining here. industrial/organization (I/O) psychologists and other psychometricians have been setting guidelines for the design, construction, validation, and reliability of these tests for more than 25 years. As a result, reputable test publishers adhere to these guidelines and can easily back up their claims with detailed (and frequently updated) technical manuals, validity and reliability studies, and published peer reviews. In the case of selection tests, it can’t be said often enough: let the buyer beware.
If you know where to look, and can assess the assessment, you will save time, effort, and great expense in the hiring process. As much as human beings are complex creatures, no two people are the same, and measuring something as complex as personality can feel insulting to our egos, the selection-testing industry has learned which traits, values, and emotional and social skills are far more likely to lead to those behaviors that result in actual sales. Although seemingly complicated, if there is a magic bullet, it’s this: the more psychometric data you have on someone, the more likely you are to hire the right person and avoid a hiring disaster.
There are an amazing variety of pre-employment assessments available, and they generally fall into one or more of these categories: personality, values and motivators, interests, emotional intelligence (maturity and polish), cognitive ability (intelligence tests), skills, and knowledge.
Even once this data is gathered, there needs to be a clear differentiation between what can be scientifically justified for the specific position and what is simply a personally desirable characteristic. For example, while a hiring manager may believe that successful salespeople have a strong desire to be acknowledged for their achievements (this particular motivator is known as ‘recognition’), that may be true of all salespeople, not just successful ones. One of the most basic mistakes managers make is assuming that a high level of a specific attribute, trait, or skill is responsible for success when, in fact, it has little to no actual impact on performance.
A client of mine told me that he didn’t need to study his salespeople (i.e. determine what traits, motivators, etc. differentiate high performers from low) because he knew that his top people all had two particular behavioral styles (from a test known as the DISC): dominance and influence. I explained to him that almost all of his salespeople probably have those styles regardless of potential because he only hires people with those styles, not to mention the fact that the impact of these two styles on sales has no basis in science whatsoever.
His desire to simplify and find a single score, result, or number is very common and, unfortunately, very misguided.
To answer the question of whether they can do the job, we must look first at personality traits. Based on studies using the most accepted model of personality in business (the five-factor model, or FFM), the following are a few of the traits that predict this ability:
• Self-confidence — demonstrating a belief in oneself;
• Experience seeking — enjoyment of new opportunities and adventures;
• Openness to others — concern for others’ experiences and feelings; and
• Drive — ambition and eagerness to advance and succeed.
However, that only answers the question of whether they can do the job. Whether they will do the job is answered by looking at the key motivators and values of the candidate. From other studies, we know that these values and preferences are key:
• Connection — the desire to build social networks and collaborate; and
• Business — the desire for financial success and wealth.
Unfortunately, a great salesperson can have these traits and motivators, but can still cause major problems internally. For example, ego can get in the way of working with others in the office, impulsivity can result in frequent mistakes, and a lack of common sense can turn into unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. Here is where one’s EQ (emotional intelligence) comes into play.
In short, EQ tells us how well someone understands and manages themselves, others, and the world generally. While EQ increases with age and can also overlap with personality traits, it can also be developed. Therefore, personality is more about hardwiring, while EQ looks at skills. The following are a few EQ scales that are important to sales, but can also be problematic if they are too high:
• Assertiveness – expressing oneself appropriately and not aggressively;
• Optimism — Staying positive despite setbacks, seeing opportunity; and
• Self-regard — Knowing and accepting oneself and one’s strengths and weaknesses
Lastly, many clients ask about the accuracy of self-assessment testing. “What good is this if the job candidate is not answering the questions honestly?” “Can’t they just answer how they think we want them to?” The good news here is that many tests now utilize questions that are difficult to game. For example: “would you like to be a race-car driver?” To a test taker, answering this affirmatively might mean that they interested in exciting experiences, or, alternatively, it could mean they are someone who is an adrenaline junkie or someone who takes too many risks.
The tests are constructed in such a way that we know how successful salespeople answer (or, rather, their patterns of answers) as opposed to focusing on any one question. When good science is involved, it becomes far less obvious to the test taker, as well as the fact that it’s the combination of responses that tell us something.
In addition, psychological self-assessments have developed ways of identifying faked results — again, because of developers doing their homework during test construction. So, for many tests, we receive a report that tells us the likelihood that someone has attempted to present himself or herself less honestly than hoped.
Finally, no test can determine on its own if a person is a good job candidate. Psychological assessments or pre-employment testing must be only one part of a larger selection process that includes many other sources of information, including thorough background checking. To reiterate, if there is a magic bullet in the process of hiring effective salespeople, it is this: the more information we have on someone before they start, the better-positioned we are to make a good decision.
Michael A. Klein is president of Northampton-based MK Insights2. He has more than 16 years of experience as an assessment specialist, consultant, speaker, and facilitator. He focuses on the application of psychological data for the selection and development of individuals in organizations, including executives, leaders, salespeople, and highly trained professionals, with a specialty in family-owned firms. He has worked both internally and externally in human capital, including positions in organizational development and human resources. He has experience in healthcare, financial services, publishing, entertainment, pharmaceuticals, construction, and private equity, and is a full member of the American Psychological Assoc. and Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology; (413) 320-4664.