Trust But Verify – Hiring A New Salesperson

Dec 21, 2019 | Sales Hiring, Sales Management

Hiring a new salesperson is like buying a shiny new gadget. 

When you buy a new product you want to be excited about your purchase. But you also spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince yourself that you aren’t making a mistake. The reason people have a hard time making decisions is not because they can’t make up their minds which product they want more. What holds up a decision is that they can’t decide which product has the biggest downside risk in case they make a mistake.

So it is with hiring salespeople. The hiring manager is not torn so much over which candidate will do a better job as much as deciding which one is least likely to fail (and make them look bad in the process.) As anyone who has hired a salesperson knows, it is risky business in the best of circumstances and the cost of making a mistake is very high.

Everyone should approach hiring with the same goal, which is to eliminate as much of the guesswork and risk from hiring salespeople as possible. The way to do this is to eliminate as much of the subjectivity from the process as you possibly can. Then you’ll be in a better position to make a fully informed hiring decision.

Here are 5 practical tips to reduce your risk when hiring salespeople:

1. Trust but Verify

President Reagan famously used this expression in answer to reporters’ questions about monitoring the provisions of a strategic arms reduction treaty he had negotiated with the Soviet Union. An interview is no place for trust; that comes after you hire the person. As hiring managers you have to use that same standard for validating the claims of candidates and ensuring that their skills match your requirements. Every fact that is on a resume, or that a candidate claims during an interview, should be verified. If a fact can’t be validated then don’t use it in your decision-making process about that candidate. And, if a candidate has fudged even just a little on their past track record then they need to be disqualified. You can’t afford the risk that they would fudge the truth with your customers.

I had a discussion recently with the talented VP of Sales of a brand-name company. He was expanding his sales force fairly rapidly so I asked him if he ever hired a salesperson who had not achieved 100% of quota at their prior job. He said no. I asked if any of the resumes he reviewed from candidates ever showed the person achieving less than quota in their prior jobs. He said no. I asked if he had seen the study that showed that fewer than 50% of salespeople achieve quota each year. He said yes. So, I asked if he assumed that he had only interviewed and hired people that had been in the 50% who had made quota. Long pause. Even the smart people aren’t doing diligence as they should.

2. Pay Attention to Detail

I recently read a blog posting that made fun of employers who disqualify candidates based on seemingly trivial reasons such as misplaced punctuation on their resume. That writer had it all wrong. Employers should always look for objective criteria they can use to make hiring decision, no matter how minor. For instance, it is not a misplaced expectation that candidates will have a clean resume. If they don’t care what impression they make on a potential employer with a resume that has errors on it, then it is safe to assume they will exhibit the same level of carelessness and disregard for detail with potential customers.

3. Sideline the Subjectivity and Focus on Facts

Stop relying on interview questions of candidates that require opinions instead of fact-based answers. Refrain from asking the usual questions that yield no reliable information, like “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” Too many managers make their hiring decisions based on conclusions that are largely drawn from subjective answers supplied by the candidate themselves. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Instead focus your interview on questions that have fact-based answers that you can verify. This is one of the most overlooked elements of an interview for a sales person. You want to hire the A players and the only way to verify the identity and qualifications of the A players is through independent verification of their past performance.

I have my clients give each candidate a simple Sales Achievement form to complete as part of his or her application. Ask for the following data points for each position they held in the previous 10 years: Position, territory, quota, quota % attained, Average Order Size, Team Sale or Individual Sale (meaning who really did the work,) Manager, Manager Contact Info. Once you have that information, go through it line-by-line and number by number with the candidate. You’ll quickly know if they are being honest. Then go to #5 below.

4. Test the Required Skills

You definitely want to hire someone with in-depth product knowledge and industry sales experience. If the candidate you are interviewing claims to have that specific industry expertise then you have to test it. For example, in preparation for the interview process develop a list of 15-20 key questions about your industry that will test a candidate’s market and industry knowledge. If you are in a technical field, make the candidate take a test of their technical knowledge. Any testing should be completed before anyone interviews the candidate. If they don’t pass, no interview.

I had a client in a technical field that was searching for a Director of Sales. We had all the candidates for that slot take the same test we gave engineering candidates. They didn’t need to pass but we developed a firm understanding of what they really knew. Similarly the job required the Director of Sales to be in the field presenting to prospects without the help of a Sales Engineer. I devised a test where we put the candidate in a conference room with a laptop and a product datasheet for one of the customer’s products and gave them 15 minutes to create an effective 3 slide sales pitch on the product. Almost all the candidates, who were senior sales people with substantial experience, were completely freaked out by this testing and were unable to complete either test. The testing was a great way to weed out the weak candidates and find the right person.

5. Check a candidate’s references BEFORE you make a decision

Hiring managers usually call a candidate’s reference AFTER they have already made the decision to hire the person. At that point in time the manager is not really interested in information that will derail the hiring decision. Of course, that is completely backwards. Reference calls are not meant to be a validation of your hiring decision. They should be another step on the process of qualifying your candidates.

A major problem with reference calls these days is that references are so concerned about the liabilities of being truthful with a potential employer that it is hard to get any meaningful information from them. As a way to work around that reluctance, do not ask a reference any question that requires an opinion as an answer. Stick to yes/no questions about the candidates past sales performance as reflected on his or her resume. ‘John said on his resume that he achieved 105% of quota in 2011. Is that correct, yes or no?’ ‘Julie said that she managed a sales team of 15 people and her group achieved 115% of quota. Is that correct, yes or no?” Previous employers have little problem confirming or denying facts that candidates represent on their resumes or applications.

Use a Little Patience At The Plate To Improve Your Sales Hiring 

Think back to your days in Little League baseball or softball. Among all the coaching advice you received from the various baseball dads who coached your team was this nugget: Never swing at the first pitch. The idea was that you could learn something about the tendencies and capabilities of the pitcher you faced if you sat with the bat on your shoulder and watched the first pitch cross the plate.

If you listen to radio or TV broadcasts of baseball, you’ll often hear the color commentary guy talk about a batter in a slightly condescending manner, describing him as “a first pitch hitter.” The implication is that the batter is being unwise by not being patient and not “working the count” until they see a pitch that they like.

We could fill a book arguing about whether the accepted wisdom of not swinging on a 0-0 count is a good strategy or just recycled baseball folklore that is unsupported by the statistics. 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 should apply to hiring salespeople as well.

It has been my experience that hiring managers typically are not very effective evaluators of sales talent and often default to taking the path of least resistance with sales candidates. They usually employ 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 uncomfortable that he or she hires the first warm body that walks through the door.

#2: The Armani Suit Standard: The hiring manager only has a generic, formulaic, Mom and apple pie description of the skill sets his company is looking for in a salesperson. Instead of hiring work experience directly tied to his business, he hires generalists, slick sales professionals who dress extremely 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 never work out when they look so “qualified” on paper, and in person.

#3: The Not Good Enough for my Daughter Standard: This hiring manager harbors a range of emotions from slight ambivalence to outright hostility to the idea of hiring a salesperson. He agrees that sales people are a necessary evil but is so risk averse and appalled at the idea of making a mistake and paying good money to someone who might never produce, that no one ever is good enough to fit his expectations.

Identifying and qualifying (that’s right, just like selling) the best candidate who can do the job you need done and integrate smoothly into your sales team should be the goal of your hiring efforts. Come back tomorrow and I’ll talk about 5 steps you can take to improve the effectiveness of your sales hiring process.

In Never Swing At The First Pitch – Part 1 we discussed the need for patience in the sales hiring process. And, we identified three unproductive personas that hiring managers adopt when interviewing sales candidates and the need to exercise some patience when . 

Today we will talk about 5 tips you can use to help you to a better job of identifying and qualifying (that’s right, qualifying, just like selling) the best candidate who can do the job you need done and integrate smoothly into your sales team. This should be the goal of your hiring efforts.

1. The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth – Write an accurate, honest job description.

The temptation is to write too broad of a job description, alluding to unspecified opportunities and responsibilities, hoping to entice a better level of talent to the company. The reality is that you do not want to hire potential. You want to hire product expertise, industry knowledge and a successful sales experience.

2. Never Swing at the First Pitch – Do in-depth evaluations of multiple qualified candidates.

You have to wait for the pitch across the fat part of the plate. What does this have to do with hiring? It means that you need to evaluate more than one qualified person for every job opening you have. It means that no matter how much you like the first person you interview, you have to do in-depth interviews and reference checks of at least two other candidates before you can make the decision who to hire.

3. Take Them Home to Meet Mom – Interview widely among your management team.

If you’re reluctant to have the rest of your team meet your favorite candidate then you have a problem. (Just like the time you hesitated to take your heavily 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 make certain to take advantage of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ effect by having multiple people from multiple departments interview all 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 sales person.

4. Expose Everything to the Light of Day – Test all skills and verify all resume information.

This means reducing the probability of making an error in the hiring process. Errors in hiring a sales person are very expensive. It is not just the time and money you invest internally to interview yet another set of candidates but it is the cost of lost orders with new customers that is really expensive. Testing candidates on the required technical/product knowledge and sales skills that you specified in the job description is absolutely essential.

5. Take a Look Under the Hood – 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 sales person wants to use as a technical resource on a sales call. This person is already spending a chunk of their time selling and is a person you should target to recruit into sales. Recruit customer support people who have been supporting customers with their product issues and who know the product and its uses inside and out.

Download the first Chapter of Sell Without Selling Out