Sales: Make the right hire

I got a call this week from a head hunter looking to fill the EVP Sales job for one of the biggest technology companies in the world, one with a sales force of 14,000. It got me thinking, yet again, about the importance of hiring right.

While the stakes are through-the-roof high for this tech company’s hire, proportionately, the stakes are not that different from a small company that is looking to add to its sales team of four. 

On a fairly regular basis, I’m asked by clients to interview candidates for sales positions. For the most part, these are companies whose success depends heavily on the effectiveness of its salespeople. So the payback on a good hire can be huge. At the same time, the cost of a bad hire is staggering. Let’s talk about how to get it right. 

Be thorough! If you have access to reliable tests, use them. Several months ago in these pages I wrote about a “mindset test” that can help identify how traditionally-minded (that’s usually a bad thing) a candidate is. 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.

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.

Most importantly, 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. Too many salespeople have succeeded because they know how to find the companies with the hottest (translated, easiest-to-sell) products.

Here are five specific qualities I look for in a candidate:

1.    Character. 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. Assessing character rests mostly on instinct. But if you pay close attention, you will sense warning signals. One candidate, proudly describing a particular sales campaign, mentioned contacting certain people in the target company under a false pretense just so he could get the appointment.

2.    Executive credibility. Picture the candidate meeting with executives of 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 or as the “master” in a master/servant relationship?

3.    A strategic sense of curiosity. Great 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. For example, I’m amazed at how often candidates never even ask me what my relationship is 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. 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.

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.

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