How to Hire Better Salespeople

Let’s start this article with two BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals). The first one: reduce turnover of all newly hired sales people by 50%. The second one: reduce the time to their achieving quota by half. These goals are in the bag if you do these three things before you hire another salesperson:

  1. Make sure everyone who is interviewing the candidate knows what it takes to be a successful salesperson at your company.
  2. All interviewers must learn and ask my two favorite interview questions (Question 1, Question 2)
  3. Don’t let interviewers vote.

Let me share with you results of in-depth studies of the sales processes at two international financial institutions, a major retailer, one of the largest auto dealership consortiums in the world, a large outbound call center, a Fortune 100 insurance company, and an international software supplier. Most had implemented behavioral interviewing in some form and all were in the process of trying to figure out why it wasn’t helping them hire better sales people. (Note: email me if you’d like to find out more on these studies or talk to the people involved.) In all of the situations, the root cause problems were not attributed to bad interviewing skills even though just about every manager was weak at this. While improving interviewing skills seemed like the obvious solution, this masked the true problems.

The first one was pretty obvious: most managers didn’t understand the real sales process at their companies, although they all thought they did. The second was far less obvious, but far more onerous: each company was using a flawed interviewing and assessment process. This consisted of a quick decision made in a few minutes or less, based largely on presentation skills (“Sales people must make good first impressions”) and equivalent industry experience. This was followed up with a series of questions that were clearly asked to gather information to confirm the manager’s initial biased decision. Finally, everyone voted before sharing information or debating ? with one “no” vote often eliminating an otherwise highly regarded candidate.

Surprisingly, many managers trained in behavioral interviewing only used these techniques to prove a candidate was bad. They used more emotional and intuitive approaches when describing candidates they liked.

Now the solution.

Step One: Map out your company’s sales process and determine the drivers for success.

Whether you’re selling widgets from a catalogue or a piece of high-tech customized equipment, every sales process has a number of basic steps. These typically consist of the following:

  • Lead development
  • Customer contact
  • Product presentation and/or development
  • Proposal preparation and pricing
  • Negotiation and closing
  • Follow-up and customer support

Typically, it only takes an hour or so to prepare the basic sales process map. But it’s what takes place after you’ve validated the process that determines the key to hiring better sales people. The problem with the basic map is that it changes based on factors like the maturity of the territory, the sales manager, the quality of the marketing support, the quality of the product and support infrastructure, and the training provided ? to name the most obvious. To get a quick handle on these variables, ask your best sales managers the following questions:

  1. What does the best sales rep do differently than the average sales rep?
  2. What’s the hardest aspect of the job?
  3. Why do most sales reps fall short of expectations?

Their answers will surprise you.

For the call center mentioned above, the best reps weren’t the most friendly or those with the best phone presence or those who had the best product knowledge. Instead, the best reps wouldn’t let the customer hang up when they made their first pitch. At the insurance company, it was the ability to process new enrollees in a diligent and low-key manner in order to develop a long-term consultative relationship. This allowed them to subsequently sell related financial services. At the software supplier, it was intense product knowledge combined with the ability to hunt for “C” level technical buyers in undeveloped territories. For bank tellers (this is a sales job), it was the ability to generate leads during the idle conversation when customers were making deposits.

Surprisingly, most of the companies had competency models, but none were specific enough to identify these success drivers. In fact, most of the competencies were quite similar among all of the companies, even though the sales processes were quite dissimilar. But that’s a different article.

Based on these studies, it was apparent that every sales position had two to three unique deal-breakers ? like those described above ? that determined ultimate success or failure. Rarely were they obvious, but they were always critical. Better yet, they were easy to figure out with the questions noted earlier.

Step Two: Use two basic questions to match the sales rep candidate to the critical success factors.

Once you have the basic sales process mapped out with the critical success drivers defined, it only takes two questions to determine if the candidate is both competent and motivated to do the work. First, ask the candidate to describe his or her greatest sales success. Make sure you ask enough follow-up questions to ensure that you’ve created a comprehensive word picture of this accomplishment. Find out how the lead was developed, how the customer was contacted, who the customer was, how needs were understood, how the product was learned and how it was presented, how long it took to close, what support the person had in presenting and closing the deal, the role the person’s manager played, how the negotiations took place, what the big challenges and objections were, and how these were handled. Now do this same thing again for a number of different sales accomplishments.

Pretty soon, a pattern will emerge. Specifically, look at the situations where the person excelled or went the extra mile. Then compare these to the success drivers identified earlier. The gaps will be obvious. So will the strengths. Now hire only those sales reps who show great success in the areas in which you must have great success.

For the second question, ask how the person would handle an actual sales problem you’re now facing. For example, if your sales rep needs to approach a new customer with a new product that has little marketing support, ask him how he would get the meeting and what he would do once he’s there. Be concerned with a textbook answer or a shoot-from-the-hip response. Instead, get into a give-and-take dialogue to understand the process the candidate would use to figure out the challenge and develop a course of action. Challenge the candidate and ask how he would handle realistic “what if?” scenarios. This type of questioning gets at vision, planning, job-specific problem solving and creativity. There is a caution here, though. While valuable insight is obtained through this type of questioning, it’s still more talk than action. So to validate what you’ve learned, ask the candidate to describe something he’s accomplished that’s most comparable to the problem you’ve described. This is question one again, but now you’ve forced the candidate to justify his ideas with proof.

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To put any doubting minds at ease, SHRM has validated this as an effective alternative behavioral interviewing methodology. So has the third largest labor law firm in the U.S. So has both the PhD program at UCLA and Charles Handler. More important, each of the companies noted above have implemented it successfully.

Step Three: Change the voting procedure ? disenfranchise managers.

Now the bad news. Even if you do all of the above, you won’t get the results you want. The problem is human nature. The decide-collect-vote procedure described earlier can’t be trained out of managers. It must be systematized out. Here’s how: don’t give managers a yes/no vote. Instead, conduct a collective and formal debriefing session for each candidate where the interviewing team shares information before voting. Then use the detailed information collected using the two questions described above to rank the candidates on at least these factors:

1. The ability to successfully meet the critical success drivers determined in step one.

2. Demonstrated tenacity in meeting comparable performance objectives required for success.

3. The ability to learn and present the product line.

4. The ability to thrive in the culture, sales situation, and with the available infrastructure support that exists at your company. (Some people need more support, some less.)

5. Demonstrated success working with a manager like the new manager. (Some need more hands-on support, some don’t want any.)

6. The ability to handle comparable job-related problems.

We actually use a few more factors, but you get the picture. (Here is more information on this.) The real point to be made here is to implement a formal debriefing process forcing the interviewers to share information before voting. This results in a more accurate, balanced and unbiased assessment by evaluating candidates across a broad range of skills and competencies using comparable performance as the benchmark.

There are probably other ways to reduce new sales rep turnover by 50% and get newly hired sales reps achieving quota in half the time, but it’s unlikely they are any easier than this three-step process. Just consider the potential ROI from these changes. This alone should be enough to get any VP of Sales to justify a small pilot study involving a few sales managers. Within 90 days, you’ll know if this program is worth rolling out throughout the company. Better still, this is a great way for HR/Recruiting to prove they can make a bottom-line difference. Now imagine the impact that would make.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).