Hiring Salespeople: Trust or Consequences

Jan 20, 2011

This is a time when many organizations are scrambling to produce sales. Some will be successful and some will not. Sales success and trust-building skills go hand in hand; yet, a salesperson’s ability to develop and maintain trust often goes unmeasured in the pre-hire phase.

Fundamental Sales Abilities

Put on your customer hat. Do you enjoy listening to a salesperson blab? Feel like you are in a verbal contest with someone whose only objective is to get your money? Get frustrated when a salesperson does not take the time to understand your situation? These are symptoms of poor sales hiring practices.

Salespeople need four key skills to be effective: 1) trust-building skills to build and maintain customer/prospect relationships; 2) questioning skills to dig for customer problem areas; 3) presentation skills to emphasize the benefits of buying a product or service; and, 4) the motivation to face rejection again and again and again. These skills are exceptionally hard to develop. In my experience, if you don’t measure them pre-hire, you are pre-destined to live with the consequences post-hire.

In this series of articles, I’ll cover why each of these elements is key to effective selling, and why each needs to be evaluated separately.

Sales and Hiring Psychology

Thinks of a sales interview as a mixed-role mini-sales call. There is a prospect, a salesperson, and a product. The hiring manager tries to sell the company while learning as much as he or she can about the candidate. The candidate tries to sell his or her skills while learning as much as he or she can about the company. They are both motivated to hide negative information. The ultimate goal is employment. Usually, the candidate and manager openly share friendly personal experiences. They recount sales experiences and demonstrate FAB (features-advantage-benefit) by making a sales pitch. At the end of the interview, the hiring manager usually expects the applicant to ask for the job. Unfortunately, as many experienced sales managers can attest, this process is no guarantee of future success — and 80% of the salespeople continue to produce 20% of the sales.

The reasons for the 80/20 rule is many key skills are unmeasured in the sales call — ones that will later come back to haunt the hiring manager. First, the candidate and hiring manager already know why they are meeting; second, the candidate does not have to create “heat” because the manager already feels the need for more sales; third, the candidate does not have to probe and question to identify the need to hire another salesperson; and finally, a hiring offer depends primarily on whether the candidate meets the manager’s superstitious “know ’em when you see ’em” test.

Whether a candidate knows it or not, he or she already holds the high ground. Basic trust and need are clear when they agree to meet. All it takes for the candidate to close the loop is schmoozing the hiring manager.

Sales and Consumer Psychology

In the real world, people instinctively distrust strangers. Prospects especially distrust salespeople, products, and organizations. If prospects knew they had a problem, they would have already fixed it; if they have not fixed a problem they don’t think it’s worth fixing, can’t decide the best solution, or are afraid to make a decision. In other words, real-world prospects might just as well start the conversation with, “I don’t know you. I don’t know your company. I don’t have any problems. Why do you want to talk to me?”

Consider these statements: “I don’t know you. I don’t know your company”= I don’t trust you; “I don’t have any problems” = I don’t need anything you have to sell; “What is it you want to sell me?” = even if I had a need, I don’t see how your product or service can help. Overcoming this inherent obstacle rests on the salesperson’s ability to develop and maintain enough mutual trust to ask probing questions. If everything goes right, the questions will lead to a mutual “By golly, there is a problem here worth solving!” agreement.

Trust and Communication

Let’s look at this psychologically. Communication is a multi-level process; Level 1=casual chit-chat or party chatter; Level 2 =sharing thoughts and ideas; Level 3 = sharing feelings, fears, and concerns. If people don’t cozy-up during chit-chat, it’s not likely they will move to the next level and start to share thoughts and ideas. If they don’t feel comfortable sharing thoughts, they probably won’t move to the level where they share feelings. If a salesperson wants to get the prospect to feel the heat or sell the sizzle, he or she has to get to the level where feelings, fears and concerns are shared.

Now, here’s the rub. Suppose a prospect and salesperson get past Level 1 and are comfortable in Level 2. Suddenly, the salesperson sees an opportunity to get the prospect to “feel the heat” and decides to jump to Level 3.

How do you think a typical prospect will react when they are asked to discuss sensitive issues? Look at the communication circle: No rapport=no trust (NT); no trust=defensive prospect (DP); defensive prospect=no discovery questions (NDQ); no discovery questions = off-putting premature information syndrome (PIS-Off); off-putting premature information syndrome = no trust (NT).

Evaluating Trust

Sales applicants’ trust-building skills can be evaluated several ways: by interviewing the candidates’ past clients and customers (so-so); asking for behavioral examples (better); and, using tightly controlled one-on-one simulations that present multiple opportunities for the candidate to demonstrate these skills in real-time (highly accurate). I don’t care for–out-of-the box sales tests because I never know if passing scores are truthful or faked (i.e., salespeople are crafty little folks). Furthermore, experienced salespeople are generally more effective managing their personal image than they are building trust and discovering information with strangers.

I think an old story says it all.

A salesperson approaches his sales manager complaining the product has problems, the price is too high, the competition is too tough, and prospects keep cancelling appointments. The sales manager listens patiently until the salesperson is finished, and then says, “Let me see if I understand. You want a perfect product with the lowest price. It should be better than the competition and prospects should always roll-out the welcome mat for you?” The salesperson replies excitedly, “Yes! Yes! That’s it! You Understand!” The manager pauses, then looks the salesperson in the eye and says, “Then what would I need you for?”

reposted with permission from

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