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The Secrets of Hiring Great Sales People Finally Revealed

Oct 10, 2008

Over the years, I’ve been involved in developing hiring tools for sales representatives in a variety of industries including high technology, financial services, industrial products, consumer products, auto sales, woman’s cosmetics, business services, medical products, pharmaceuticals, and healthcare.

Surprisingly, most sales managers make the same bad decisions, regardless of the product or industry.

Here’s the list of where most sales managers go wrong. Start eliminating these error-producing behaviors and just about all of your sales hiring mistakes will go away.

  • They think their job is unique. They’re not. There is a common sales process behind each one, that when understood can be used to benchmark any candidate’s past performance against.
  • They overvalue first impressions. First impressions don’t predict performance. People with great first impressions are frequently incompetent and people with marginal first impression often have a track record of great success. It’s best to measure first impression at the end of the interview and then determine how the candidate’s first impression affected their performance in consistently achieving quota. From what I’ve seen, the best sales managers don’t worry about first impressions, they worry about the candidate having a track record of achieving good sales results selling similar products, to similar buyers, in similar situations.
  • They overvalue their gut or instinct. This is only acceptable when the sales manager has a track record of hiring all top performers who all make quota in combination with very low department turnover. Emotions, intuition, or instinct are poor predictors of on-the-job success. A track record of past performance selling similar products or influencing similar buyers is a great predictor.
  • They don’t know the job. Sales is a process that starts with lead generation and ends at closing. Certain aspects of the process are more critical than others. If a sales manager doesn’t know what these are, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to accurately assess them in the candidate. As a result, the sales manager shifts the decision criteria to first impressions and gut instinct.
  • They assume they’re great managers. Most great sales people aren’t great managers, yet this is the person most likely to get promoted. It takes a great deal of work to build, develop, and manage an effective sales team. As part of the assessment process, the sales manager has to assess the fit between her style of management and how each person on the team needs to be managed. This directly relates to Hershey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model.

Flipping this over, here are some things you need to do to achieve better results hiring sales reps:

1. Know the sales process from beginning to end before ever interviewing another candidate.

Whether the sales cycle is 30 minutes long or months, there are some typical steps that ultimately determine how successful the sales rep will be. Breaking your company’s sales process into these steps enables the sales manager to identify the critical drivers and then assess the candidate’s past performance against these. At a broad level most sales processes can be categorized into these big segments:

  • Prospecting and lead generation
  • Qualifying the lead and conducting needs analysis
  • Proving your product’s worth in comparison to the customer’s needs
  • Preparing some type of offer or proposal
  • Closing and negotiating the offer

Of course, there are multiple variations to this depending on customer need, the complexity of the offering, the type of buyer involved and how the buying decision is made, the dollars involved, budgets available, economic conditions and competitive positioning, to name just a few.

A performance profile summarizes these details in the form of a series of prioritized performance objectives including specific results and time frames. For example, a performance objective for a sales rep developing a new territory might have an objective like, “within 30 days prepare a detailed territory plan including target clients to meet.” A similar performance objective for a outbound telesales person might be, “within 30 days after completing the training convert 35% of all sales calls into minimum $100 orders.”

Once these performance objectives have been determined put them into priority order. The top two or three (out of 6-8) tend to become the critical success drivers. For example, conducting needs analysis with a decision-maker might be relatively easy, with the real key to success being the ability to get past a gate-keeper and arrange the meeting with the decision-maker. It is essential that the members of the hiring team understand these critical success drivers and then hone in on them during the interview. (Here’s more information on how to prepare performance profiles and interview for a wide variety of sales positions.) From what I’ve seen lack of understanding of real job needs is the primary cause of bad hiring decisions, not only in sales, but for all jobs.

2. Benchmark the candidate’s performance against the performance profile by asking about these issues:

  • Get specific details about how the person managed the process and how well they did.
  • Find out their track record of making quota and how they recovered when things went sour.
  • Walk through the sales process at a few major successful accounts and compare this to yours.
  • Walk through the sales process where the person was unsuccessful and compare this to yours.
  • Find out how the person learned the product line and compare this to yours from a complexity standpoint and the amount of training provided.
  • Go step-by-step through all of the team issues including managing and processing leads, orders, and pre- and post-delivery issues.
  • Compare your typical buyer to the types of buyers the candidate successfully handled.
  • Find out how successful the candidate was working for different sales managers, ask about their styles, then compare these to the hiring sales manager’s style.

3. Benchmark the candidate’s past performance to the performance profile, especially against the critical success drivers.

We use our 10-Factor Candidate Assessment template as a guide to evaluate the candidate against ten factors we’ve seen to be strong predictors of on-the-job success.

For sales, the primary keys to an accurate assessment include a comparison of the sales process, the types of buyers involved, the sales cycle, the complexity of the product and associated terms, and the degree of competition. Of course, the behavioral issues can’t be ignored including persistence, learning the product line, organizational skills, and team leadership, among others, but these are secondary to having a track record of sales success in a comparable situation.

4. Assess managerial fit.

This is probably the most important, yet it is almost always overlooked. A sales manager must be dedicated to training and developing his or her sales team. This requires significant direction, on-the-job training, constant follow-up, the ability to motivate others, and involved planning.

In situational leadership terms these are the classic Director and Coaching styles. A self-managing Delegating style rarely works in sales, especially for a new hire. A Participating style involving territory planning and target account tactics would be appropriate for an experienced sales person who can achieve his goals with limited direction and support.

From what I’ve seen too many sales managers aren’t as involved as necessary to keep their teams on track. If a sales manager isn’t willing to devote 100% of her time to developing and managing her team, even it’s comprised of good people, it will underperform. That’s why choosing the sales manager is the first step in getting the sales hiring process right.

As part of the sales hiring process, we also recommend the use of some type of cognitive and behavioral questionnaire for all finalists. While there are many of these tests around, we’ve been using Profiles International’s for over 20 years with great success.

Knowing that some type of formal test is being used keeps the interviewers more focused, increasing overall assessment accuracy.

Hiring sales people is relatively easy if you don’t get emotionally involved. This alone will eliminate many common hiring mistakes. Regardless of your underlying sales process, the process of hiring great sales people is exactly the same whether you’re selling ERP software or part-time vacation villas. That’s the real secret to hiring great reps.

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