Don’t Hire Dysfunctional Salespeople

In a few of my “past lives” I have been a salesperson, a sales manager, and a sales trainer. It did not take me long before I began to notice dysfunctional sales personalities sneaking past hiring screens. These folks interviewed well, talked a great game, and had the right “gut feel” from the hiring manager’s perspective — but they still turned out to be chronic low performers. Was it the salesperson’s fault? Was it the hiring manager’s fault? What went wrong in the hiring process? Well, the answer was hiding in plain sight. The “factory standard” sales hiring process — e.g., “Sell me this pencil,” “Discuss your toughest sale,” or “Hey, how about that game last night!” — earned applicants a membership in the know-em’-when-I-see-’em club, but it missed critical job skills that led to job failure.

Is Hiring a Social Event or a Science?

Psychologists in the field of occupational testing have identified specific behaviors that most affect performance on the sales job. A variety of tests are commercially available to measure these factors. The best are carefully validated to ensure that they accurately predict results, and many are even tailored to specific sales jobs. It’s important to evaluate all four sales performance areas ó thinking, planning, motivations, and interpersonal skills — using tools such as attitudes, interests, and motivations (AIMs) surveys; mental ability surveys; behavioral-based interviews; and simulations. But before choosing a specific measurement tool, you need to start by examining salespeople for dysfunctional behaviors. Following are some common examples, along with a few suggested cures.

Plannus Disorganizus Syndrome

Plannus Disorganizus Syndrome (PDS) is epidemic among many salespeople. Sufferers hate structure. They prefer spontaneity and freedom to act when and how they please. Their minds are often frozen in a childlike state of self-absorption and selfish freedom. PDS sufferers are an enigma. On the one hand, they can organize a zillion people for a spontaneous golf outing or wine-tasting party in the space of an afternoon. On the other, they will do almost anything to avoid filing call reports, expense reports, or sales reports. On the job, they fail to follow through on promises; they overlook or ignore deadlines; and they are terrible time and process managers. Happy customers quickly become unhappy ones. It is difficult to determine whether the source of their problem is ability, willingness, or both. Therefore, a combination of carefully crafted behavior-based interviews, planning exercises, and personality tests (such as AIMs) are required to diagnose PDS in the pre-hire phase.

Talkus Allatimus Syndrome

Talkus Allatimus Syndrome (TAS) is prevalent among salespeople who believe “selling” means talking and talking and talking, until the prospect either submits or commits suicide. I know of only one sales situation when TAS can be used safely: TV infomercial audiences. For the rest of us, the Surgeon General has determined that long-term exposure to TAS can cause cancer of the ear lobes. Never Listenitus Syndrome (NLS) is a milder variation of TAS. People with NLS still talk unceasingly, but they do it internally. That is, they impatiently wait for opportunities to interrupt. The conversation becomes a your-turn-my-turn confrontation. Both TAS and NLS disorders can lead to Chronic Overcomer’s Disease (COD), the belief that effective selling consists primarily of overcoming objections. COD sufferers fail to understand that when a salesperson talks too much or fails to listen, the prospect’s unanswered questions inevitably become “objections.” These related disorders are often temporarily suppressed in standard interviews; however, they quickly become apparent if hiring organizations use realistic simulations delivered via phone or face to face. On the other hand, if the hiring manager and recruiter do not understand the underlying nature of the problem, they will often misdiagnose COD as a “productive” skill in sales professionals.

Please Lova Mea Disease

Please Lova Mea (PLM) disease is generated by a deep belief that everyone should always like us. Salespeople with chronic PLM can be compared to puppies that roll over on their backs waiting for someone to rub their bellies. But belly-rubbing rarely makes for effective sales performance — and it can lead to both serious interpersonal misunderstandings and potential litigation. PLM sufferers expect people to buy from them because they are friendly. Social comfort is indeed part of selling, and a mild case of PLM may actually encourage repeat business (although it comes with the attendant risks of “giving away the store”). But these folks miss the core dynamic of sales: discovering problems and offering compelling solutions. PLM backfires when the sales prospect expects more than a “feel good” relationship. Candidates with PLM tend to be very charming and likeable in the interview. Therefore, the primary way to diagnose this syndrome pre-hire is to test the candidate’s personality traits using assessments such as AIMs tests.

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Scaredey Catus Syndrome

Scaredey Catus Syndrome (SCS) afflicts many salespeople. While sufferers may possess effective selling skills, they are motivationally “stuck in first gear” and cannot seem to break their own self-imposed sales plateaus. SCS is often a deep-seated psychological problem characterized by irrational fears and insecurity. Salespeople with SCS often avoid certain groups of prospects they perceive as intimidating, such as high-level executives and people with advanced educations. In an insurance sales position I studied, for example, agents were comfortable calling on homeowners but uncomfortable with business owners and professionals. SCS is difficult to evaluate using tests and exercises because sufferers can appear very successful on the surface. Discovering SCS takes carefully constructed behavioral interview questions and reference checks that go beyond the usual post-decision formalities.

Learnus Avoidus Syndrome

The symptom of Learnus Avoidus Syndrome (LAS) is an inability or refusal to learn the product. It tends to occur in conjunction with other disorders described above. Victims are often recognized by their absurd statements: “I don’t need to know that stuff,” or “I can sell anything to anyone!” LAS sufferers can be successful — if the product has less than one moving part or can be fully explained in a 30-second elevator pitch. Some have even learned to compensate for their mental weaknesses by “dressing for success” or emphasizing social impressions (psychologists call it “impression management”). LAS sufferers lack the confidence to answer unanticipated questions, lack the motivation to learn the product, or actually lack the intelligence to understand it. Deep probing, AIMs testing, and simulations testing can often uncover this disease. Be especially cautious with candidates who object to pre-hire testing requirements — this is their first line of defense against being diagnosed as an LAS patient.

Evaluate These Disorders Before It’s Too Late

Don’t blame salespeople for their dysfunctional behaviors; they often can’t help themselves. As for the people who hired them, these diseases are often hard to catch without using modern methods — but unfortunately, many smart managers learned the sales business from the old school. Times have changed, however. Tools for candidate assessment, along with the technologies to deliver them effectively and affordably, can effectively overcome minimize dysfunctional sales behaviors.