Hiring real sales performers

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:29 pm

Maybe it’s just me, but most salespeople’s resumes that I read remind me of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. You know, "Where all the kids are above average."
Last week a client asked me to help him interview four candidates for a senior selling position. A short list developed after a long, expensive selection process. The successful candidate will earn a six-figure base salary, plus incentives that could triple that pay. The stakes are high for the candidates — but they’re far higher for my client.
Like many companies, the success of this client firm depends heavily on the effectiveness of its salespeople. While the payback on a good sales force hire can be rich, the cost of a bad hire can be staggering. Here are some thoughts on how to get it right.
First, be thorough. If you have access to reliable psychological tests or other scientifically valid instruments, use them. Also, subject each candidate to interviews with people throughout your organization. You’ll get insights you might otherwise miss, and because the candidate and these other people will be working together, all will benefit.
Second, solicit references and follow up on them. Go beyond the candidate’s list, seeking out people in your own network to see if you can find someone who happens to know the individual. And verify everything on the candidate’s resume to guard against fabrication. I once interviewed a candidate who falsely claimed an M.B.A. from Stanford University. Naturally, he was dropped from consideration.
Third, don’t put too much stock in candidates’ claims of past success. Almost any statistics can be manipulated to yield a desired outcome. But there’s a bigger issue here — proving that elusive cause/effect relationship between results and the salesperson’s activities.
That said, here are five specific qualities I look for in a candidate:
1. Character. This is the cornerstone of the Business Resource salesperson. When I interview a candidate, I frequently ask myself if this is someone I would want my son or daughter to marry. Unfortunately, salespeople as a group don’t have the best reputation for integrity. Yet the sales force may be where integrity is most important — they’re the people who communicate your company’s character to the outside world. And while measuring character often rests mostly on instinct, I’ve found some useful pointers. For instance, I get spooked when a candidate tries to call attention to his own virtues, with comments such as "I’m a really honest person." Truly virtuous people don’t do that. And I listen for subtle warning signals. One candidate, proudly describing a particular sales campaign, mentioned contacting certain people in the target company under a false pretense.
2. Executive credibility. Picture the candidate doing a standup business presentation to executives at some of your better customers. Don’t be fooled by appearances, though; executives see through an empty suit in a hurry. You need to spend enough time to see whether the candidate demonstrates depth, sincerity and confidence. Will the candidate see an executive as a business peer? Ask candidates to talk about specific accounts, and to draw an account’s organization chart, identify people on it that the candidate has called on, and describe those meetings.
3. A strategic sense of curiosity. Savvy salespeople understand that it takes more than a problem-solver mindset to succeed, and that there is always a need behind the customer’s stated need. They don’t settle for nominal answers; rather, they try to understand how the identified need fits in with a prospect’s broader strategic picture. That’s what I mean by "a strategic sense of curiosity." See if the candidate displays that quality in the interview. Two of the four candidates never even asked me who I was and what my relationship was with the hiring company.
4. Organizational savvy. A candidate who tells you she is very good at finding "decision-makers" lacks savvy about how organizations really work. An organizationally savvy candidate will highlight her understanding of the nuances of how corporations work. She will demonstrate an understanding of the difference between a person’s title and that person’s level of influence in a company. A candidate who considers calling on the purchasing department an important step in the sales process can be dismissed almost immediately.
5. Business awareness. A Business Resource salesperson must be in touch with current business trends. Pepper your interviews with references to prominent business leaders to see if the candidate recognizes them. Ask for the candidate’s assessment of current business trends. We want to see whether the candidate understands the fundamental importance of such awareness, and its critical value in building executive credibility. I’m looking for candidates who read the Wall Street Journal and Fortune regularly, not USA Today or People.
Certainly there are other qualities that I attempt to observe as well in every candidate: a sense of urgency, an appropriate awareness of image, self-discipline and a desire to learn. But if I’m going to bet the future of my company on the integrity and effectiveness of my sales force, these five characteristics are foremost in my mind.
Jerry Stapleton and Nancy McKeon are with Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. They can be reached at 262-524-8099 or on the Web at www.stapletonresources.com.
May 14, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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