Hiring Salespeople You Only Dreamed About (Part 2)

Dec 28, 2010
from the A. C. Clarke foundation

I ended Part 1 with Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced (hiring) technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s a play on words, but describes the same reaction I get from almost everyone unfamiliar with the best-practices outlined in 1978 in the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures.

Typical question, “How do I know this really works?”

Typical reply, “You tell me. If instead of working from a job description and doing a casual interview, I thoroughly define job skills, then use a variety of hard-to-fake accurate tools that evaluate whether a candidate has those specific skills, what do you think?”


After assessing hundreds of salespeople and sales managers (i.e., observing a full complement of their sales and management skills), I began to recognize some specific trends (I’m a slow learner).

Although they vary somewhat with type and position, they break down into just four general groups: 1) not being smart enough (or, conversely, being too smart); 2) being poorly organized and unable to focus (or conversely, being too nit-icky); 3) having insufficient people skills to manage, coach, sell, service, or work in a team; and, 4) having the wrong (or no) motivations to perform. (In some jobs physical skills are also important, but I’ll skip those for now).

Did you notice these factors have less to do with the environment or how they are treated than with the individual? And, for the “give ’em a chance crowd,” they are very hard, if not impossible, to develop. That’s why these skills are so important to measure pre hire. If someone wants to take a chance on a salesperson who is dull, disorganized, has poor interpersonal skills, or is wrongly motivated, then be my guest … just do it with your own money, not mine.

How Do These Elements Play Out on the Job?

Here’s a reality check. First, have you ever felt “you know ’em when you see ’em”? If yes, then you are not alone. Now be honest, are the vast majority of the people who you hire successful salespeople? If your answer is, “ummm, no,” then I think we can all agree the “know-em-when you see ’em” technique does not work very well. You were snookered by an empty suit (just like everyone else). Now let’s move on.

Not being smart enough is usually seen early (i.e., during training when the candidate has trouble understanding the product or service) or it can be seen late (i.e., when the candidate cannot develop an account penetration strategy, ask the right questions to discover a problem that needs a solution, or cannot keep up with changing technology). Here is an example: suppose on a scale of 1 to 10, where 5 is average, your product or service needs someone with a mental horsepower level of 7. Do you think a person with a 5 could do the job? How about someone with a 10? Not matching a candidate’s mental horsepower to the job is a sure path to disaster.

What about personal organization? Anyone who has ever worked with salespeople knows keeping records and following through on commitments is not one of their natural strengths. But at what level does it interfere with performance: a 3, 5, or a 7? It all depends on the complexity and nature of the job. Aim too high on the organizational scale and you get analysis-paralysis. Aim too low and you get customer service and delivery issues. I’m sure you have seen as many examples as I have.

Then there is the whole problem of interpersonal skills. Do you think they are soft and unimportant? If a big tree falls in the woods, does it crunch slow-moving critters living underneath? Being an effective salesperson requires exceptional interpersonal skills, starting with trust builders; and, they continue throughout the sales relationship as trust maintainers. Have you ever read studies that show customer loyalty tends to increase after a problem is successfully solved? Doesn’t it make sense to you that solving the problem and maintaining trust had something to do with that? Here is some free advice: never hire someone who claims they can sell anything to anyone, unless you enjoy dealing with buyer’s remorse.

Last of all, we have the motivational pieces. In my experience, effective salespeople are driven to compete and succeed. It’s as if they have a leaky self-validation bucket that always needs re-filling. Are candidates going to tell you they don’t have the right motivations? Sure, right after you invest time, training, coaching, materials, price concessions, and let them burn through dozens of clients and prospects. Of course, if you hire someone with too much motivation, you get Attila the Hun (or if it’s a female, Attila the Honey). If you hire too little, you get soggy milquetoast. This goes for providing customer service and a host of other motivational factors as well. What about hiring a highly motivated person with inadequate selling skills? Good luck with that train wreck!

Hopefully, these examples have convinced you “know ‘em when you see ‘em” decisions might feel warm and comfy because they are supported by the balance of consequences (remember, P-I-C almost always trumps O-U-D; see part 1 for an explanation of these acronyms).

Salespeople are great at selling themselves, but only occasionally deliver the goods. As you can imagine, measuring sales skills takes more than a casual interview, scrutinizing a W-2, or selling a wastebasket. It takes a combination of job analyses and hard-to-fake tests, motivations, and simulations.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!