- How would you respond to the question: What’s your sales type?
- Why you should never “swing at the first pitch.”
- The 5 Steps to Find and Hire The Best Sales Candidates
- BONUS: 2 Tips to Conduct Effective Reference Checks.
How would you respond to the question: What’s your sales type?
I recently read that the cost of a bad sales hire is 7 times (7x) the annual salary of that position. You would think that such a stiff penalty would provide sufficient incentive for hiring managers to do a much better job of specifying their requirements for an open sales slot, as well as identifying and hiring the right candidates. And yet, sales managers and CEOs repeat the same sales hiring mistakes time and time again.
The problem usually resides with the hiring manager, whether that is a CEO, owner, or sales manager. While the job description for a sales opening might say all the right things about the skills, experience, and personal qualities the candidate needs to have, the CEO and sales manager usually have the list boiled down to a few stereotypical qualities:
In the January/February 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, was quoted as follows: “We don’t make money when we sell things; we make money when we help people make purchase decisions.”
To me, that statement simply and accurately says what selling is. And from that description I can identify 4 personal characteristics of a salesperson that help their prospects make good purchase decisions:
- Problem-solving skills
Now let’s review that list of characteristics that hiring managers typically have in mind while they are looking to hire a salesperson: Hunter, Closer, Outgoing, Aggressive. Which of those qualities helps customers make purchase decisions? Any of them? Of course not.
Never Swing At The First Pitch
Using a Little Patience at the Plate Will Improve Your Sales Hiring
Think back to your days in Little League baseball or softball. You probably got this nugget of advice from the baseball dads who coached your team: Never swing at the first pitch. The idea was that you could learn something about the tendencies and capabilities of the pitcher if you just watched the first pitch cross the plate.
On radio and TV baseball broadcasts the color commentary guy sometimes talks about the batter in a slightly condescending manner, describing him as “a first-pitch hitter.” The implication is that the batter should be patient and “work the count” until he sees a pitch that he likes. We could argue ad nauseam about whether not swinging on a 0-0 count is a good strategy or just recycled baseball folklore. But for better or worse, it has become a de facto standard of play for batters in baseball.
I recommend that “never swing at the first pitch” should be the standard you apply to hiring salespeople as well. In my experience, hiring managers typically are not very effective evaluators of sales talent and often take the path of least resistance with sales candidates, using one of the following three standards for hiring:
1. The “Love at First Sight” Standard
The hiring manager finds the process of hiring a salesperson so unpleasant that he or she hires the first warm body that walks through the door.
2. The “Armani Suit” Standard
The hiring manager has a formulaic Mom-and-apple-pie list of the skills his company is looking for in a salesperson. Instead of hiring someone with work experience directly tied to his business, he hires generalists, slick sales professionals who dress well and present themselves with a breezy air of self-confidence. They make him feel good about himself, but he is later left to wonder why they don’t work out when they seem so “qualified” on paper, and in person.
3. The “Not Good Enough for my Daughter” Standard
This hiring manager never finds a candidate that meets his or her expectations and harbors a range of emotions, from slight ambivalence to outright hostility to the idea of hiring a salesperson. He knows that salespeople are a necessary evil, but is risk averse and afraid to make a mistake by hiring someone who doesn’t produce.
The goal of your hiring efforts should be to identify and qualify (that’s right, just like selling) the best candidate for the job you need done and to integrate him or her smoothly into your sales team.
5 Steps to Find and Hire The Best Candidates for Sales
Here are 5 tips to help you do a better job of identifying and qualifying the best candidate for your sales team.
1. Write an accurate, honest job description
The temptation is to write too broad a job description, alluding to unspecified opportunities and responsibilities, hoping to entice a higher level of talent to the company. The reality is that you do not want to hire only potential. You want to hire someone with product expertise, industry knowledge, and successful sales experience.
2. Do in-depth evaluations of multiple qualified candidates
Wait for the pitch across the fat part of the plate. In hiring a salesperson, this means that you need to evaluate more than one qualified person for every job opening. It means that no matter how much you like the first person you interview, you must do in-depth interviews and reference checks of at least two other candidates before you decide who to hire.
3. Have your entire management team interview candidates
If you’re reluctant to have the rest of your peers meet your favorite candidate, then you have a problem. (Just like the time you hesitated to take your tattooed girlfriend or boyfriend with the nose ring home to meet Mom.) Selling is a team sport. Hiring should be a team sport as well. The final decision will rest with the CEO or VP of Sales, but the company should take advantage of the “wisdom of crowds” by having people from multiple departments interview all of the qualified candidates. Make sure that sales candidates are interviewed by all of your senior management team. Sales touches every part of your organization, and everyone who works with sales should have input into the hiring of a salesperson.
4. Test all skills and verify all résumé information
Hiring the wrong salesperson can be very expensive. If you test and verify skills and experience, you’ll reduce the probability of making an error in the hiring process. You’ll avoid the cost of interviewing yet another set of candidates, as well as the cost of lost orders from new customers. Testing candidates’ technical/product knowledge and sales skills is absolutely essential.
5. Recruit internally
The best place to recruit new salespeople is inside your own company. If your company is in a technical field, then recruit technically capable salespeople from within your engineering and product development departments. Look for the engineers who have exhibited a special knack for customer support or the engineer that every salesperson wants to use as a technical resource on a sales call. This person is already spending a chunk of his or her time selling and is someone you should consider for sales.
BONUS: Two Tips to Conduct Effective Reference Checks.
When do you check the references for a sales candidate you want to hire? Do you wait until you have made up your mind to hire someone? That’s what most sales hiring managers do. And it is the wrong thing to do. References should be checked before you’ve narrowed your choice down to one candidate.
Think about the typical sales hiring process. You post an open position and do a preliminary screening of candidates’ résumés. You develop a small pool of candidates and conduct preliminary phone or video interviews. You then invite the best candidates for in-person interviews. From those, you decide that two or three are worthy of deeper consideration and bring them back for a series of interviews with others in the company. At that point one candidate stands out from the rest, and you decide to hire him or her if their references check out.
Here’s the problem with that scenario: If you’re like most hiring managers, you check your favorite candidate’s references only after you’ve decided to hire him or her. Isn’t that backwards? References should be a source of important data that are factored into the hiring decision. They are not meant to be a validation of a decision you have already made.
Here are two concrete steps to take to improve your reference checks:
1. Conduct Reference Checks on Your Final Three Candidates
Take the time to thoroughly check the references (and qualifications) of each finalist before investing time and manpower company-wide interviews. Do this before you fall in love with one candidate and become blinded to their potential shortcomings. Use fact-based questioning to dig into and verify the claims on each candidate’s résumé.
2. Sideline the Subjectivity: Ask More Fact-based Questions of References
How can you get the most out of reference calls? Simple. Don’t rely on questions that require opinions for answers. References are increasingly reluctant to provide any meaningful, subjective information by phone or in writing. Therefore you should ask questions that have factual answers. For example, your candidate states on his résumé that he achieved 120% of quota last year. Ask the reference to verify that fact. Or a candidate claims that she made President’s Club for 3 years in a row. Ask if that is correct. Use references to verify what the candidate tells you. If you find that a candidate has lied or fudged the truth, you should disqualify him or her.
I recently met with a VP of Sales for a growing start-up. We talked about his hiring process. I asked him how many people in his large and growing sales force he had hired who had not achieved at least 100% of quota at their prior sales job? He confidently said none. I asked if he had fact-checked the sales achievement claims on their résumés. There was a pause. A long pause. Here was a fairly sophisticated sales management executive who was still taking sales candidates’ performance claims at face value.
Hiring is a risky business in the best of circumstances. But sales is one of the few professions where past performance can be an objective and transparent measure of a candidate’s ability and future capabilities. Take advantage of this built-in advantage and stop hiring backwards.