The Art and Soul of Hiring Professional Sales Talent

Nov 3, 2009

The interviewing and evaluating of sales professionals is a lot like raking leaves on a windy day in early November.

If you insist on trying to get every leaf into the bag, or uncover every last candidate in the available talent pool and scrutinize all of their credentials, the process will overwhelm you.

A process that can be truly enjoyable whether it be the freshness of autumn’s air or the dynamic interactions with engaging sales reps is often overlooked and deadened by analysis paralysis. Too often, my clients and countless others subvert their own intuitive powers and lose their ability to qualify individuals’ key characteristics, such as drive, desire (for their specific job opportunity), and focus because they are too concerned with the prospects’ resume, credentials, references, etc. as it pertains to sales hires.

Placing an emphasis on the “what” of one’s candidacy, as opposed to the “whom” only leads to superficial decision-making and detracts from genuine, honest communication.

I am not suggesting that recruiters become haphazard about the process of identifying, evaluating, and selecting sales talent. Quite the contrary!

Predicting Future Success

As an executive recruiter with almost 30 years in the trenches and approximately 600 sales personnel placements, I speak from experience. One of the truly rare, yet simple conclusions this exciting industry has taught me is that there is no substitute for candidates’ desire and emotional readiness when it comes to predictors of future success.

One would think that a strong candidate’s consistent efforts to obtain a job would be a significant factor in the prospective company’s hiring criteria. Unfortunately, those appeals are typically lost in the barrage of information-gathering that most of my clients are awash in.

To thoroughly analyze a sales candidate, take the following steps:

Analytical Tools

  • The employer needs to write out a job description that includes both mandatory and preferred criteria and/or experience necessary to do the job. (For instance, if the new hire will be required to sell an average sales price product of $2,500 once a week to hit his quota, then include a relevant mandatory criterion – i.e., must have 3-5 years of successful track record in a “transaction-based” selling environment).
  • The employer needs to write out a fairly detailed compensation plan to include base salary (range), commission/bonus plan, and first-year quota expectation.
  • Conduct both telephone and face-to-face interviews. With travel budgets tight, telesales skills are more critical every day. If you write down your observations, you will remember them more clearly as well. (Your notes can be more than just facts and figures).
  • Test their ability to overcome a challenge with a timed, written example or at least ask a question or two regarding experiences where it was necessary to overcome a significant obstacle during a sales process. Then focus on how specific the answer is — how real does it sound? Does it resonate with your experience? Or ask about how they have endured and eventually overcame a slump. We all have them in sales. How, when, why did this candidate find a way to get out of theirs? Is the answer real? Clearly, the ability to persevere may be a sales rep’s most important asset. The only way to test for it is to ask for specific examples.
  • Overall, the key is to ask sales-specific questions, not to use the same formatted Q&A to screen technical talent.

Common Sense/Instinctive Tools

  • Be conscious of everything about your first impressions of the candidate. It is likely that your client’s customers will pick up on the same attributes (consciously or subconsciously).
  • In your initial face-to-face interview, how does he or she shake your hand?
  • What does the candidate’s eye contact with you feel like? Is it consistent and natural or jittery and distracted? How does it compare with your last interview? (Write it down).
  • What does the other non-verbal behavior about the candidate tell you about their level of comfort and level of interest with you and anyone else the prospect interacts with? Can you tell anything about their intentions from their body language?
  • Probably most importantly, did he or she close you on him or her? If so, how? Was it handled professionally and convincingly or was it half-baked, canned, or weak? If your own client hires this candidate, its buying audience will be the recipient of the same critical behavior and focus or lack thereof in the future.
  • In other words, if you typically come from an analytical, engineering-oriented perspective, try to turn that off, or at least tone it down, and try to tune into how the candidate makes you feel following the interaction. Is there a positive energy that emanates from the meeting? If so, take note of it.

Uncovering sales talent is not just about credentials. It is about finding enough of the right ingredients, letting them blend with yours, and agreeing upon expectations and the potential success of the fit. Perhaps it’s credentials, plus interpersonal chemistry, plus timing.

As my search and placement practice has exposed, candidates who possess the “best” resumes are rarely the right hires at any given time for any given company. In fact, the candidate who has the best record and most relevant skills for your requirement is rarely ideal. Because the strongest teams, whether on the football field or in the conference room, are defined by a carefully blended collaboration of individuals with unique assets who believe in one another.

As unnatural as it may feel, do not fool yourself into believing that because you have identified a candidate with all of the right measurables (credentials, resume, references, etc.) that your search is over. Clearly it has only just begun.

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