Shiny-Toed Selling: Salespeople Who Ignore the Rest of the Shoe

So, you’re a sales manager…

  • You carefully, and personally, screen every sales applicant.
  • You never hire anyone who cannot sell you the… (pencil, pen, ashtray, or waste basket).
  • You always check references and occasionally examine applicants’ W2s.
  • You were a top salesperson before becoming a manager.
  • You pride yourself on knowing ’em when you see ’em.


  • You hire sales-duds about half the time.
  • Motivation meetings make attendees fatter, but sales stay slim.
  • Your salespeople resist cold-calling.
  • Some of your salespeople won’t (or can’t) learn the product.
  • Many of your salespeople consistently over-promise and under-deliver.
  • Sometimes you think the only product your salespeople can sell is themselves.

Shine the Toes, Forget the Rest I once heard of a very successful salesman who only polished the toes of his shoes. When asked why he didn’t shine the whole shoe, he replied, “Customers only see the toes!” This is a perfect parable for salespeople who put more energy into presentation than delivery. It’s not all their fault. The market is filled with training programs advising salespeople to, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak,” or, “Sell the benefits, not the features.” Everywhere they go, salespeople are told, “Shine the toes and the rest will take care of itself!” This, however, is bad advice. The Buyer’s Side Reflect for a moment on what it’s like to be on the buyer’s side. Some buyers already know they have a problem (they see weeds in the yard). Others need feedback (they get a letter from the community association complaining about weeds in the yard). Still others are clueless until someone helps them understand that weeds can be prevented with pre-emergence weed treatment. The important fact to remember is that the buyer has all the power (think “money”) and only wields that power when he or she feels compelled to solve a problem. This leads us to the four critical concepts that help a buyer spend money:

  1. Buyers buy solutions, not products. A good salesperson only helps them discover problems they did not know they had.
  2. Buyers don’t openly share problems unless they trust the salesperson.
  3. A buyer’s thinking is often unfocused and confused. For example, I was shopping for a personal calculator, but was confused by all the choices and ready to leave the store. The salesperson looked at my hands and asked how important it was for the keyboard to “fit my fingers.” Bingo! I was focused immediately on what was important. Big fingers = big keyboard. I bought!
  4. The buyer wants assurance that the salesperson’s solution is the best and most enduring one available. This is the place where buyers want to hear about sizzle. Salespeople with premature “sizzle” almost always find buyers armed with fire extinguishers.

Reality Bites Some time ago I heard a story about a salesperson complaining to the boss. The boss listened patiently and replied, “So, let me see if I understand. You want a product with no problems, buyers who don’t complain, the cheapest price in town, and a product that will sell itself. Right?” The salesperson beamed, “You understand me! You really understand me!” (apologies to Sally Field). The sales manager replied, “Right. But if I had all these things, then why would I need you?” Everything in sales can be reduced to uncovering a problem and recommending a solution. Now, assuming you trust me and recognize you have a sales-hiring problem, you are probably ready to hear my solution. Twenty-five magic interview questions? Sell me the fire extinguisher? Pencil-and-paper sales test? No. These are not the best and most enduring solutions. Hundreds of scientists have already proven none of these methods are highly trustworthy (otherwise, you wouldn’t be in this pickle, would you?). But don’t take what I say on face value. Let’s “noodle-through” the problem together in the following table. We’ll begin by examining back-end performance. It can often tell us a great deal about hiring tools.

Article Continues Below
Productive salesperson Poor salesperson How to determine which is which
Learns fast, knows all about the customer’s market and problems, solves problems, develops account strategies. Refuses to learn about product details, thinks everything reduces to a sales pitch, knows little about customers’ environment, goes from sale to sale
  • Mental alertness tests (will vary with complexity of the product)
  • Behavioral interviews
  • Attitudes, interests, and motivations test
Great planner, manages time and territory, keeps abreast of order status. Thinks the sale ends with the order, seldom follows through, misses details and makes mistakes
  • Planning skills tests (will vary with complexity of the product)
  • Behavioral interviews
  • Attitudes, interests, and motivations test
Develops trust, uncovers needs, recommends solutions to problems, helps overcome hesitancy, functions as a team member. Fast talker, does not ask questions, dismisses objections, goes straight into a sales presentation, functions as loner.
  • Service simulations
  • Sales fact-finding simulations
  • Presentation simulations
  • Teamwork simulations
  • Behavioral interviews
  • Attitudes, interests, and motivations test
Welcomes challenges, prospects regularly, makes cold calls, is proud of role as a salesperson. Secretly fears customers, hesitates to make cold calls, is ashamed of being a salesperson and prefers to be called an account representative.
  • Attitudes, interests, and motivations test
  • Behavioral interviews

If you were watching closely, you would have noticed that:

  1. Each skill is associated with a corresponding AIM (attitudes, interests and motivations). What good is a skill if someone doesn’t want to use it?
  2. There is a different combination of hiring tools depending on what we want to measure.
  3. There are a diverse range of job skills to be measured.
  4. Only a person with the IQ of a Brussels sprout would argue that a pencil-and-paper test, no matter how well crafted, could accurately measure all the things you need to know about a salesperson.
  5. You really have to know what you are looking for ahead of time.

A Lot of Work? Give me a break. Done well, hiring and recruiting is a tough job. How else are you gonna learn whether or not a candidate has the skills to do the job? Hire them first and see if they fail? Any HR manager or recruiter who thinks pre-screening is too tough should try being a sales manager with a big sales quota to make. Why not just use a pencil-and-paper test? I could provide a lot of technical reasons and research mumbo-jumbo on why pencil-and-paper tests are untrustworthy, but I’ll pose one question instead: Suppose you took a pencil-and-paper pre-employment test. Would you honestly expect the score would accurately predict all the occupational skills you need to do your job? When it comes to hiring, there are only two choices: 1) identify weak applicants before you hire, or 2) live with them afterward. Want to hire salespeople who shine the entire shoe? Use a combination of validated tests and tools that accurately measure them. There are no shortcuts.