Hiring Salespeople: Pitch or Woo?

In my last article about hiring salespeople I focused on the need to evaluate trust pre-hire. In this article, I’ll discuss the need to evaluate candidates for questioning skills, and why this skill is more effective than delivering a sales pitch. But some might be asking where I learned this stuff.

Over the years, I have been a salesperson, sales manager, sales trainer, and sales assessor. In other words, I have sold, managed, developed, and formally evaluated people who make a living in the strange world of selling. While filling these roles, I kept going back to grad school to learn the difference between what I was doing and what I should be doing. Along the way, I was forced to put aside many wrong-headed ideas while I learned new ways to look at the sales job.

Discovering information is key to consultative selling. Consultative salespeople acquire new business, expand existing business, and develop long-term productive relationships through learning, and people don’t learn while they are talking. So, if you are looking for the world’s best “sell ‘em while you got ’em” sales pitch, this is not the article for you. However, if you want to hire people who can deliver long-term business relationships, read on.

Cone of Trust

Maxwell Smart (Don Adams’s character in the TV program ‘Get Smart’) used to invoke the Cone of Silence with Chief whenever he wanted to discuss secret stuff. Although Max’s Cone never worked as planned, I like the concept so well that I invented the term “Cone of Trust”; or, the special place where salesperson and prospect share a mutually productive environment. Imagine that!

Think about it. Most people like to buy things (e.g., just look at the success of capitalistic economies). But, they hate to be sold (e.g., consider the reputation of auto salespeople). The key difference between “just selling” and relationship-based selling is pitching or wooing. Pitching is battling someone into submission by overcoming objections. Wooing is building a Cone of Trust where problems and concerns are shared. Unlike pitching, wooing uses only the assumptive close technique.

A Cone…Yet More than a Cone

It goes without saying that if trust is the bread of selling, then questions are the butter (I made that up, actually!). People normally don’t like being told they have a problem. It makes them all huffy and irritated. A great consultative salesperson manages the conversation so both prospect and salesperson agree about a problem at the same time. This is much different from sales programs that recommend imitating techniques borrowed from “The Art of War.” I suppose imitation (i.e., behavior modeling) is better than nothing, but I have found highly successful people don’t imitate someone else’s behavior. They modify their own to fit the situation.

Let’s look at the conscious competency model. I don’t know where people got the idea that conscious competency means operating on automatic pilot, unaware and clueless. In my world as a psychometrician, consciousness=awareness and competency=skilled. Translated: a consciously competent salesperson is someone who is both good and can explain why. On the other hand, an unconsciously competent salesperson may be good, but if asked, cannot explain it. Consciously competent salespeople who can clarify and explain the wooing process to their staff make better managers than ones who can only suggest imitation. They keep the best interest of the prospect foremost, and while they may not push for a sale today, their strong personal relationships will almost always lead to better opportunities tomorrow. Trust, and discovery you see, depends on knowing when to discover information and when to back off.

Real-Worldly

Mind-blowing movies like Inception and the Matrix trilogy grab our attention by taking us to a place where reality and imagination blur together. Pre-hire sales simulations do that for the candidate. A well-designed sales simulation is not like a practice role-play in a workshop. It is a tightly controlled experience where the candidate has to leave his or her learned experience behind and demonstrate innate talent. For example, if we were looking for a salesperson to sell chickens we would not use a barnyard simulation; instead, we would put candidates in situations where they would have to sell an unfamiliar product. In an unfamiliar world, all their prior Rhode Island Red experience would be useless. We would observe their core sales skills.

Now, what happens on the skilled role-player side?

Not everyone can be a skilled role-player (SRP). Some people just don’t get it and others insist on bringing their personal agendas to the table. Bad dog! The skilled role-player (SRP) actually becomes a controlled part of the exercise whose purpose is to provide stimuli that invite a response from the candidate. For example, an SRP acting the part of a prospect might complain about a prior experience the candidate is unprepared for. That is the stimulus. Now, we listen for the response. Did the candidate blow it off, empathize, change the subject, try to learn more, and so forth? These are all responses that indicate whether he or she has the discovery skills to be a top salesperson.

Article Continues Below

We don’t expect a candidate to close a sale in the simulation. That rarely happens in real life, either. We expect to hear key behaviors that advance the sale, build trust, search for more information, and so forth. In short, we peel-away the veneer of well-rehearsed replies and go to the heart of selling: learning about the prospect’s situation.

Learning About Learning

Before you suggest such-and-such a written test that you believe predicts sales performance, I‘d like to point out that a simulation is a test as well. Unlike written tests, simulations are almost impossible to fake well and realistically represent the kind of environment faced by a consultative salesperson. If the candidate cannot perform in the simulation, it’s unlikely he or she will do a good job in the field. The same is true for simulations measuring a manager’s coaching ability, customer-service skills, and so forth. If interpersonal skills are important to doing the job, then you better see them in action before making a hiring offer.

I once asked a group if anyone would hire a commercial pilot without asking him or her fly a simulator. A few recruiters quickly raised their hands. The operational people in the room looked at them and just rolled their eyes skyward as if waiting for a plane to fall out of the sky. If you want to know whether your candidate has the critical skills to do the job, then accurately measure them pre-hire.