Building an 80% Sales Force, Really!

Sep 27, 2012

photo - can’t begin to estimate the amount of nonsense used to select salespeople: show me your wage reports; sell me the pencil; what animal best describes you; what is your greatest strength; describe your weakness; show me the fire in your belly …

It’s junk. All junk. Sales managers know it. And management knows it. If it was any good, 90% of all salespeople would be problem-free.

Reality Check

But first, let’s do a reality check. If most of your salespeople are meeting expectations, or achieving a reasonable quota, then whatever process you are using to hire, keep it up. Nothing else will make a difference. But, if you are among the majority of sales managers who just can’t seem to build a sales force of top producers, then keep reading.

Swing … and a Miss!

Sales is a tough profession. It requires more and better skills than most jobs. I know because I have been assessing and training salespeople and sales managers for an embarrassingly long time. And, aside from changes in the type and nature of the product or service, I’ve discovered all salespeople need the same five KSA’s (some KSA’s more than others). Unfortunately, when I assess them, the majority of salespeople only display two of them.

Sales assessment is not something weird or special. You do it every time you interview a candidate. It’s a fancy word for any process that separates a qualified candidate from an unqualified one — like asking for proof of past earnings, demonstrating persuasive skills, or answering nonsense questions about animals, heartburn, or pop psychobabble. But how many sales managers ever asked, “Gee, if those are such good screening techniques, why do 80% of my salespeople still only produce 20% of the business? Do you think I might not be measuring the right things? They all looked good pre-hire. How else can I explain why they failed?”

The Big Five

Here are the five major components in successful selling. Miss any one of them and you have problem. Miss two or more and you have a marginal producer. Miss three or more and you have a disaster. They include:

  1. Motivation: the emotional drive to want to do what’s necessary. It could be making cold calls, sitting glued to a chair making hundreds of phone calls, spending time on the road, cross-selling existing clients, servicing customers, strategizing, and so forth. It’s the “want” in sales. (Males seem to have fewer problems with motivation).
  2. Trust: no one buys a product from a salesperson or company that he/she does not trust. The risk of losing money or looking foolish is too strong. Warranties and service policies are designed to reduce risk associated with product and company, and three-day rescission policies reduce risk of dealing with pushy salesmen. Without trust, most prospects will hesitate to talk or answer questions. Trust building begins with the initial meeting and requires constant nurturing throughout the sales cycle. (Females seem to have fewer problems with building and maintaining trust).
  3. Fact Finding: some salespeople consider selling an Olympic event … pitch, overcome objection, pitch, overcome, and repeat until the prospect gives in. Can you remember the last time you were brow-beaten into buying something you did not want or need? True selling is a process of asking enough questions to discover problems and offer reasonable solutions. If you don’t believe that, then you better be selling the finest product on the market at the cheapest price because your clients will bolt to the competition at the first opportunity. Both male and female salespeople have considerable trouble fact finding … most can’t wait to talk, and talk, and talk. Why? They don’t have confidence to do anything else.
  4. Presentation: did you notice where this appears in the order of things? Long after our motivated salesperson develops and maintains a relationship, got the prospect to talk, and uncovered potential problems. So, can someone please tell me why the “sell-me-the-pencil” presentation is so popular? If I am a prospect and don’t trust you, your company, or your pencils and, if I see no need for using pencils in the first place then, how will I react when you start badgering me into buying one? The most popular hiring technique is one of the weakest predictors of sales success.
  5. Unanswered Questions: finally, this is where the objections arise. However, if the salesperson has done a good job in Step 2, 3, and 4, it’s probably just a random unanswered question that needs to be addressed.

Measuring Candidates

How can these things be measured? For one thing, there is no single solution that applies to all salespeople. Each tool needs to be tweaked for the job, and this process is not something an untrained individual can do any more than you can remove your own appendix using a penknife and a book of instructions. It takes a professional with sufficient experience to peel apart the sales job, discover the critical elements where people succeed or fail, and recommend tools for eliminating weak candidates.

That said, here is a typical sales screening process. First, don’t hide the warts and bumps of the job. Show a candidate what he/she is getting into. Next, use real behavioral interview questions (not a list someone brainstormed in HR) delivered by someone trained in the art of behavioral interviewing. And, finally, use a battery of tools that measure motivation necessary for your specific job, tests that measure the kind of learning and problems solving associated with job success, planning exercises when this skill is important to success, and, finally (the mother of all scales screening tests) a realistic prospect simulation using specially trained role players who can evaluate key sales relationship skills.

Loose Questions

Why not use a web-based sales test? Because selling is a human exercise, not a pencil and paper drill. Knowing (or faking) book answers are only a small part of the sales job, actually doing them is another. A salesperson’s success depends almost entirely on his/her interpersonal relationships and ability to discover problems. Don’t you think it’s a good idea to measure these skills using a technique that resembles the real job and cannot be faked?

I know ‘em when I see ‘em? Of course you do. That’s why your hiring record looks like it does. Salespeople are often masters of self-presentation, and sales managers are usually suckers for a slick presentation. But think about it. By the time you ask for a presentation, haven’t you already given the candidate a hall-pass through the first three steps … the critical on-the-job ones where most salespeople crash and burn. See the problem here?

Do I have to give up my gut decision?… I thought we already discussed how well that works; but, since you asked, all decisions are gut-based. Your only option is whether to have an informed or uninformed gut.

Do I have the skills to do it myself? … Only if you are a professional psychometrician with years of experience in evaluating salespeople.

Is it expensive?… Have you calculated lately the cost of sales turnover, low productivity, training, coaching time, recruiting, lost sales opportunities, burned customers, and prospects?

Will I screen fewer people? No. Remember, you will be screening out more people who would ordinarily become low producers.

Perfect Foresight

Sorry. No such thing. The best that can happen is significantly reducing your odds of making a hiring mistake. The process I described eliminates unmotivated people who cannot build trust with prospects and clients, who cannot ask the right questions to discover problems, cannot make effective sales recommendations, and who don’t have the right mental skills to do the job.

Now it’s up to you to calculate what it’s it worth to have salespeople who could do most of these things right? Better yet, calculate what sales would be if 80% of tomorrow’s new hires were top producers?

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