Why Can’t I Hire the Right Salespeople?

Nov 26, 2007

Candidate screening is one of the most difficult tasks that recruiters and managers face. Most will tell you that screening sales talent is the toughest of all. Why? Salespeople are trained in the art of persuasion. They know how to provide the desired responses to the questions. Even more daunting is when you are interviewing salespeople who worked for a competitor. These salespeople know the language and industry buzzwords, making it even more challenging to screen them. Fret not! It is possible to successfully screen sales talent, but there is work to be done before you even look at a resume.

The most important step a company can take is to develop a sales talent screening program. This helps bring focus to the initiative. The mission of this program is to provide data that allows for the measurement of the candidate’s pedigree versus the desired profile. Think in terms of formulating a marriage…a sales marriage, that is.

This program should be fully documented, showing step-by-step the components of the screening program. It is best to define who will be interviewing the candidates and their role in the interview process. It should define the tools that will be used as well as their purpose.

Below are seven key components of an effective sales talent screening program.

  1. Ideal salesperson profile. It has always surprised me how many companies have fully documented profiles of their ideal client. Yet, few have a profile of their ideal salesperson. How can you screen when you don’t know for what you are screening? Many of you have a clear picture in mind of the profile of your ideal mate. My bet is most of your close friends can rattle off your profile in a heartbeat. The same principle applies to sales talent. If you don’t know exactly what you are looking for, how will you find it?

    This profile should be fully detailed. Some of the areas to address in the profile are the experience you expect that candidate to already have, the skills that the candidate should already possess, and the skills you are not willing to teach. The truth is this is an extensive topic about which I have dedicated another article.

    The lack of a fully-defined profile of the ideal salesperson is the most common cause of bad sales marriages. It is also the major point of frustration between sales managers and recruiters. Recruiters often tell me that they feel they are throwing darts while blindfolded because they have so few details about the desired profile.

  2. Always be recruiting. In sales, there is an old expression: “The toughest time to make a sale is when you really need one.” The same holds true for recruiting. When a slot is open on the sales team, it becomes an all-hands-on-deck exercise to fill it. While the seat is open, revenue targets are in jeopardy. This leads many to forget the profile of the ideal salesperson in the interest of filling a seat. Playing this forward a bit, the seat becomes vacant again a short time later when either side determines that it is not a good fit.

    Sales recruiting is a year-round exercise. The best sales forces are always on the lookout for strong sales talent. Find a company that identifies a strong candidate who meets its profile and who wouldn’t find a way to hire this individual? It is a rarity, to say the least. Sales teams have turnover either driven by the company or the employee. It is better to have a candidate portfolio at the ready than to begin a process of surfacing candidates when a seat is open. Poor hiring decisions are made out of desperation to fill a seat. The open seat is a cost to the company every day it is unfilled. Yet the cost is more painful if the seat is filled by someone who doesn’t fit.

  3. Reverse interviewing. Since the intent of the process is for both sides to be able to determine if a marriage should be formulated, a wonderful technique is reverse interviewing. This is an interview performed by members of the sales team who would be peers if the candidate was hired. It is important that the individuals selected to participate in this step are loyal to the company, knowledgeable, and make a favorable impression. However, the “interviewer” does not ask any questions of the candidate. As you know, it is very easy to get yourself in hot water if illegal questions are asked. Thus, you don’t want untrained people asking questions.

    There are two purposes of this component of the sales talent screening program. The first is to provide the candidate with an opportunity to ask questions of someone who would be his peer if he were to be hired. In essence, it is a way for him to get a picture of a day in the life of this job.

    The second purpose is to measure how the candidate prepares for a sales call. A debrief is conducted with the “reverse interviewer” to see what questions were asked, specifically if the candidate took advantage of this opportunity by preparing insightful questions and writing down answers. If he didn’t do this, what kind of preparation will he do for a sales call? How interested is he in this job? Every once in a while, a candidate will ask the salesperson, “Can you take off at noon on Fridays?” Needless to say, the lapse in judgment raises a red flag of concern.

  4. Standard interview questions. Oftentimes, many candidates are screened for one job slot. This creates a need to be able to compare candidates to each other, in addition to the profile. To do this, a standard set of interview questions are needed. The responses are documented during the interview and reviewed after a candidate leaves the office. These questions are not designed to provide right or wrong answers. They are designed to see if this candidate’s thought process is congruent with the needs of your business and with the profile of the ideal salesperson.

    When formulating your list of standard questions, it is helpful to include some sales scenarios that are common in your environment, such as “Your client balks at the price of your proposal. What do you do?” It is also helpful to have questions that show what makes this person tick. Since few colleges have “sales” as a major, it is always interesting to find how someone arrived at a sales career. “Of all of the careers you could select, why did you pick sales?”

    The hot topic in today’s recruiting world is behavioral interviewing, which is a powerful tool. Behavioral interviewing, also called competency-based interviewing, focuses on past behavior. As a doctor friend of mine always says, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The idea here is not to ask arbitrary questions, but rather to ask questions that help to expose areas that affect the sales marriage. If your company is always changing, you might want to determine how the candidate handles change. “Please share with me a time when you had to adapt to change.” Like with any good interview, additional probing is necessary to get to the root of the issue. “How did you deal with that? What did you learn from the experience?”

    You can probably imagine just how hard it is to formulate questions that demonstrate if this marriage will work if you don’t have a profile against which to compare. If it will help you, send me an email and I’ll send you my favorite 28 standard questions for interviewing a salesperson.

  5. Mock sales call. What better way to see if someone fits into your company’s selling environment than to put him right in it! To do this effectively, you need to create a scenario for the candidate. I’ve found it most beneficial to give him the scenario with one day’s notice so he can prepare. The candidate should be provided with the same amount of information a salesperson in your company normally has before making an initial sales call.

    Those members of your company who participate in this exercise should be somewhat scripted. I say “somewhat” because you don’t want it to be so dry that it is unrealistic, but without any scripting it can be hard to stay in character.

    The last piece you’ll need to do this well is a score sheet. Know what you are looking to measure in the process, and score accordingly. Can he conduct a thorough needs analysis? Did he identify the challenges faced by this prospect? Would you buy from him?

    It is best if the scoring is done by a nonparticipant of the mock sales call. It is very distracting for the candidate if someone jots notes while he is speaking. What happens is that the candidate spends the rest of the exercise trying to read what was written.

  6. Online assessment testing. There are a myriad of tools that are very helpful in the screening process for both personality and skill, though some err in the application of the data from these tools. Few, if any, of the online assessment companies suggest that their tools should be used to make a hire/no-hire decision. The most appropriate application is to treat them as an additional data point in the sales talent screening program.

    Linda Moeller, product director of market leader Employee Continuum, has seen companies use this great tool incorrectly. She says:

    “We have seen many organizations fail to take the context of an organization into account when deciding the most appropriate assessment to use. For example, many organizations assume that implementing a sales assessment will guarantee them improved sales performers. This is not necessarily the case. The personality characteristics required for a salesperson selling office supplies to purchasing agents are very different than those required for a salesperson selling everything needed for a dentist’s office. In order to be successful, an organization needs to consider the type of relationship they have with their clientele and the competencies that will make these relationships successful.”

  7. The ultimate screening tool. Writing is a lost art. Yet, we are more dependent on written communication than ever before. Is there anything worse than a poorly written email that is sent to a prospect? It doesn’t matter how good your product or service is, your company now looks sloppy and unprofessional.

    An effective technique for screening sales talent is the use of the mini-business plan. When the candidate has satisfactorily completed all of the other steps of the pre-offer process, the request is made for a one-page business plan that shows how he would approach the job. I mention three times that I’m only looking for a one-page plan and ask when he can send it to me. It is important that the submission date be asked of the candidate, and not the other way around.

    Of all of the techniques that I have used over the years, this is the one with which I have the most candidate fallout, and I was always happy to learn beforehand that this sales marriage wouldn’t work.

    This technique allows you to evaluate a number of important areas:

  • Can the candidate communicate in written form coherently? If you were a client receiving this document, what message do you get about its author?
  • Does he understand what the role entails? Since this component is performed late in the process, he should have a clear picture of the job and expectations.
  • Is his approach consistent with the expectations of management? It is best to know now if you don’t feel comfortable with his game plan.
  • Can he meet a self-imposed deadline? If the plan is late, the candidate is no longer considered for the role.
  • Can he follow directions? I asked for a one-pager, not an epic.

Having a sales talent screening program has many benefits. The most obvious impact is a longer sales tenure of your sales team, which means an increase in sales performance and a reduction in personnel turnover. This can do nothing short of helping the bottom line of any company.

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