Identifying Talented Salespeople and Sales Managers

People are strange. I know, I’m one of them. Being human, I’m afflicted with the same decision-making foibles that affect everyone. Normally, this is not a problem, but when it comes to choosing salespeople and sales managers, it can be expensive.

A Tale of Two Positions

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. We were growing and needed new sales blood. Being an experienced sales trainer and sales manager, we liked to think we knew ’em when we saw ’em. Admitting anything less would have been professionally embarrassing. Imagine our surprise when the sales managers we hired ran off with our attractive salespeople, skimmed commission dollars from subordinates, and offered our customer list to a competitor. Some people might say we hired a “bad” applicant, but this happened with three different managers over the course of ten years! If we grudgingly admitted we were no good at hiring sales managers, could we do better with salespeople?

Salespeople were less demanding. They told us about their most difficult sale, showed us earnings records, interviewed a panel of employees, and sold us dozens of wastebaskets. We were all impressed. We screened out the weaklings. So you can imagine our surprise when they sold to unqualified clients just to make quota, refused to learn the product line, sandbagged sales at the end of the month to boost commissions, and failed to follow up. We were not stupid. We never hired applicants who looked shady. But we overlooked the obvious: Applicants who passed our interviews were “impression management” experts. Their expertise convinced us to buy their product — in other words, to put them on the payroll. In the end, the good-looking salesperson we thought we hired was only a good-looking cardboard cutout — all surface and no depth.

Why We Failed

Practical experience showed that bad hires consistently slipped through the screening process! We caught the blatantly unqualified candidate, but the rest were a coin-toss. Where did we go wrong? We misunderstood the sales process. We put too much emphasis on the presentation, and not enough on trust and discovery skills. Our applicants knew how to “schmooze” — presentation was their strength, not their weakness. But salespeople failed more often because they either didn’t ask enough discovery questions or the prospect did not trust them. In addition, sales managers failed because they also could not coach. There was more to making quota than selling wastebaskets. It started with building trustworthy relationships, followed with gentle probing and questioning. We were so “wowed” by their personal impressions, we took relationship and fact-finding skills for granted.

What About Written Sales Tests?

After losing our confidence in interviews, we started using written “sales” tests. We thought they could tell us about an applicant’s ability to develop rapport with prospects, build relationships with clients, and discover needs. Guess what? The skilled test-takers told us just what we wanted to hear. Although the questions sounded good and the report was impressive, we soon discovered that we could not trust answers from high-scoring candidates (we never took any chances with low-scoring candidates). So we asked vendors about their tests. Their responses sounded something like this: “Our tests don’t actually predict sales performance. But they can be useful in hiring.” “Huh?” we replied. “If your test results cannot predict sales performance, how can they be ‘useful’ in hiring? Did we miss something? Are these tests validated?” “Yes. We revalidate our tests each year.” “We’re confused,” we said. “You say test scores do not predict job performance, but can be useful in hiring. You also say scores are not associated with sales, but you validate the test every year?” “Right!” “You must have been very good selling wastebaskets.” “How did you know?!”

Professional Recruiters to the Rescue?

Discouraged with our lack of success, we tried calling a few of the high-priced professional recruiting firms. We were “picky” — companies had to have the word “sales” embedded somewhere in their name. At first, this seemed like a good idea: The recruiter would do all the work and we could choose from the finalists. After three or four unsuccessful hires, we learned that professional recruiters had similar internal turnover and employee productivity problems. They used the same screening techniques we used and could not identify job-qualified people better than we could.

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Four Failures

We had a big problem. There were hundreds of different sales behaviors and hundreds of different tests on the market (e.g., interviews, pencil and paper, case studies, and so forth). How could we possibly make the right choice? It took a while, but it started by statistically examining the major reasons why salespeople and sales managers succeed or failed. We found four big ones. Then, we examined tests used in assessments. Again, there were four major types. Finally, we reviewed independent research. The four big failure areas were:

  1. Not having the right level of intelligence to learn the product line, identify or solve customer problems.
  2. Not being able to plan a strategy, follow up, or effectively manage time and territory.
  3. Not having the right one-on-one skills (e.g., poor phone fact-finding, clumsy stand-up presentation, bad customer service resolutions, untrustworthy relationships with prospects and clients, ineffective probing and questioning, and poor coaching skills).
  4. Not having the right kind of internal attitudes, interests, and motivations (AIMs) to make everything work.

It was a lot of work, but it was not a self-taught personal opinion. It was a rigorous merger of academic research, test reviews, and practical experience. See below:

Failure Area No Better Than Chance Low Accuracy Medium Accuracy High Accuracy
General learning and problem-solving Interview Sales or management test Behavioral Interview Solving written business decision-making problems
Time and territory management; follow up Interview Sales test or management test Behavioral Interview Solving written business-planning problems
Persuasive skills Interview Sales test or management test Behavioral Interview Sales simulation
Relationship building skills Interview Sales test or management test Behavioral Interview Prospect simulation
Fact-finding skills Interview Sales test or management test Behavioral Interview Phone simulation
Presentation skills Interview Sell me the wastebasket Behavioral Interview Presentation exercise
Customer service skills Interview Sales test or management test Behavioral Interview Customer service simulation
Peer or subordinate coaching skills Interview Sales test or management test Behavioral Interview Coaching simulation
Attitudes, interests and motivations Interview Personality test Behavioral Interview Behavioral interview combined with attitudes, interests and motivations (AIMS) test
Specific technical and knowledge areas Interview Behavioral Interview Case study or similar exercise

The only way to prevent sales and sales management applicants from controlling interviews was to use hard-to-fake tests that evaluated each of the four major areas. Of course, in hindsight, it all made perfect sense. We never could be perfect, but if we screened out applicants who could not problem-solve a test, we could be sure they could not solve similar problems on the job. Applicants who had poor scores on “details” would probably be sloppy on the job. Applicants who offended trained role players would probably offend prospects and clients.

Finally, applicants who told us what we wanted to hear in an interview had a hard time faking true motives on an attitudes, interests and motivations (AIMs) test. We still made final hiring decisions with our gut, but our gut was full of data! Yes, there was a down side (if one could call it that). We had to screen twice as many sales and sales management applicants to get ones with the right skills. You see, our screening system eliminated a greater percentage of people who would have failed on the job. But the test cut-points were not set arbitrarily; they were set using validity studies. The system was not too stringent, according to the sales VPs. They liked having smart salespeople and managers who could relate, discover, present, cross-sell, and service customers. We did not reinvent the wheel. We just rediscovered “round.”