Best-in-Class Hiring: Salespeople

In Part 1, we discussed how to simplify hiring systems and use a few good hiring tools. Part 2 discussed hiring better technical professionals and Part 3, hiring better managers. In Part 4, we will discuss hiring better salespeople. The Sales Position Salespeople are the “life’s blood of the organization.” Hire a poor salesperson and you can lose market share, fail to make sales goals, waste time coaching the “uncoachable,” and lose some of your best customers to the competition. Most sales managers have highly selective memories. On the one hand, they will agree that 80% of their sales comes from 20% of their salespeople, while on the other they insist, “I know a good salesperson when I see one!” I always wondered what these managers would say if I asked, “If you always know ’em when you see ’em, did you intentionally hire the bottom 80% just to make the top 20% look good?” Give me a break! Hiring salespeople is not a place to rely on “gut feelings.” Good decisions require good data?? particularly when the job is as critical as sales. What about cost? If we used our sales manager’s 80%/20% productivity estimate, we could quickly compute that a salesperson in the top 20% produces about 400% more than a sales person in the bottom 80% (80/20 = 400%). Dare to put some dollars on that figure? Measuring Sales Competencies “Sell me this pencil,” is a favorite question asked of new salespeople. It tells you a lot about why salespeople tend to fail: they spend too much time listening to themselves and not enough time asking questions to discover the customer’s problems. Other reasons include lacking confidence to initiate sales calls, not asking the right questions, focusing on their own needs, being disorganized, belief they can persuade anybody to buy anything, or not learning about their product. The following section outlines a few common competencies for a salesperson (they may not be all inclusive for your positions, but that’s the reason why “job analyses” are necessary). You might also notice that competency names are similar to other jobs. That’s normal, because even though competency names may sound generic, they are always defined by specific job activities (e.g., “problem solving” for selling cars and “problem solving” selling IT products are significantly different):

  • Ability to learn
  • Problem solving (client-based)
  • Industry knowledge
  • Strategic account planning
  • Prioritizing time
  • Persuasion
  • Formal presentation
  • Teamwork (internal)
  • Communication (oral and written)
  • Primacy of work
  • Learning attitude
  • Client focus
  • Product knowledge

Once again, it helps simplify things if we organize competencies by skill area. This way you can see the risk of not measuring a specific competency and identify tools that will provide the highest degree of predictive validity. As always, each tool should be either content (or criterion) validated before use.

1. Skill area: Ability to learn, solve problems, and make decisions.

Job risk What to measure Competency name
Not having sufficient knowledge to do the job General knowledge of the business, industry, department, or technical subject Industry knowledge

Product knowledge

Not being able to learn new product or client information Ability to quickly learn and apply information Ability to learn
Making wrong decisions Ability to overcome sales objections Problem solving
Most effective hiring tools: Product knowledge tests; customized problem solving simulations; behavioral event interviews

2. Skill area: Ability to plan, organize and follow courses of action.

Job risk What to measure Competency name
Failure to meet deadlines or deliver projects Ability to plan complex projects to achieve goals Strategic account planning
Missing critical issues, project confusion, mixed messages Ability to set priorities when presented with conflicting objectives Prioritizing time
Most effective hiring tools: Project planning case studies; behavioral event interviews

3. Skill area: The ability to get things done through people.

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Job risk What to measure Competency name
Not able to discover or expand client needs Ability to develop trust or probe for information Persuasion
Failure to close sales Ability to persuade others to follow a course of action Persuasion

Formal presentation

Inability to communicate effectively Ability to present ideas and write effectively Oral and written communication
Inability to rally internal support Ability to work effectively with co-workers Teamwork
Most effective hiring tools: Project planning case studies; behavioral event interviews; teamwork problem simulation; presentation simulations; writing exercise.

4. Skill area: Specific attitudes, interests, and motivations associated with doing a job (these are really not “competencies,” but we will stick with the term to avoid confusion)

Job risk What to measure Competency name
Not productive unless closely supervised Internal drive to succeed Primacy of work
Poor attitude toward clients General attitude toward work Client focus
Unwillingness to learn new products or markets Attitude toward learning Learning attitude
Most effective hiring tools: Behavioral event interviews; tests of specific attitudes, interests, and motivations

You can also use this list as a sales diagnostic tool. Just look over some of the reasons why your salespeople tend to fail, and you will see which skill areas are not being measured. In the next article, we will describe competencies for hiring customer contact people. These folks are often overlooked because the position is taken for granted?? yet customer service is a key strategy to keeping all those hard-earned customers.