What defines the right sales person and how do you screen-out those who look good but can’t deliver?
I’ve been in professional selling for more than 3 decades and during that time I’ve been a sales rep, sales manager, sales director of public companies, and Managing Director of my own businesses and also for the Asia-Pacific region of global operations. I’ve written a best selling book on sales leadership and I teach sales master classes for the MBA program at the University of Technology Sydney.
YOU’D THINK I WOULD BE MASTERFUL AT HIRING THE RIGHT SALES PEOPLE. BUT I HAVE A CONFESSION TO MAKE – IT’S INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT!
What defines the right sales person and how do you screen-out those who look good but can’t deliver? Once you’ve got a short-list, how do you get past the masterful façade being projected? How do you differentiate the candidates and find those with the right attitude and values? I’ve written about the importance of cultural fit and how to best execute a job interview but for the employer or recruitment consultant, how do you uncover the truth about their capabilities, values, and weaknesses?
Without doubt, the biggest mistake a manager can make is to hire the wrong person. This is because it damages your own personal brand and wastes huge amounts of time and emotional energy in managing the person out. It also has devastating consequences on revenue and lost momentum. Finally, it can also damage corporate relationships in the market-place. Never hire the best of the bunch. Only hire the right person – the one you feel strongly will be successful in the role and fit within your team culture. Here is what I regard as the best process for hiring and also rules that should never be broken if you are committed to managing risk.
Go beyond the job description and qualifications. Forget generic job descriptions! Instead write an ad that talks about what the person is expected to do and how they will need to execute. Ask them to write a one-page letter, attaching their CV, highlighting why they are the ideal candidate to join your team. Don’t accept something that merely plays back the advertisement and obviously reject those who do not have prerequisite qualifications and experience. Does their CV provide evidence of consistent high performance? Have they been with past employers for sustained periods of time? Do they possess the necessary qualifications and experience?
Progressive screening to qualify out. Now that you have an initial group of candidates who have the necessary qualifications and responded as requested; it’s all about a progressive qualification process to continually screen down to a short-list.
Can they write? If they could not write a good letter (structure, grammar and spelling) or failed to do basic research and adapt their pitch, then reject them immediately. The covering letter and CV should also have been tailored to show relevancy for the role. You don’t want a generic sales person and neither do your prospects and customers. Seriously, this is important because if you hire someone with poor written communication skills, you will forever be editing or rewriting proposals or correspondence – you don’t have time. Worse than this, they will submit losing proposals that miss the mark with prospects. In complex B2B selling, written skills are essential.
LinkedIn social proximity. LinkedIn is phenomenally powerful and it is likely that you know someone who knows someone who knows your candidate. Use your network to check the candidate out informally. Do it as an ‘off the record’ conversation, nothing official. Ensure the conversation is nuanced and that you pick-up the subtext of commentary about the individual. None of these conversations should be with a formal referee listed on the CV and certainly not with their current employer.
Psychometric Testing. The next step is to conduct psychometric testing (intelligence and operating style) and personality profiling (if not incorporated into previous). Here is something controversial: I don’t hire amiable personalities for business development roles – they have no chance of executing concepts such as Challenger Selling. Anyone who has a personality that avoids conflict or tension will be high maintenance and struggle to execute – you will forever be pushing them. The HR department will not like this, nor will they be in favour of informal ‘social proximity’ conversations but you cannot afford to get the hiring decision wrong, and you must take all necessary steps remove risk from the hiring process.
Written Exercise. Can they write under pressure? Before you run your ad, take the time to create a realistic sales scenario with a two page brief supported by a subset of your marketing collateral. This should be tailored for the sales role (field sales versus inside sales versus pre-sales / solution architects). Only give the candidates 24 hours to respond. For a business development role, ask them to write a two page executive summary that would lead a formal proposal. You’re looking to see whether they can construct a relevant, concise, professional, logical, evidence-based letter that focuses on business value rather than features of your company or functions of your product, service or solution.
The Interview. This is where you are laser-focused to determine cultural fit. They have already demonstrated that they have the skills and qualifications to do the job but now it’s all about their values, work ethic, attitude and personality. Put them under pressure and ask them to provide real examples of how they’ve dealt with difficult situations. Ask them these kinds of questions:
- How do you define ‘strategic selling’ – what do you do that makes you ‘strategic’?
- What was your biggest loss and what did you learn?
- How do you qualify an opportunity?
- What was your biggest win and how did you create value and manage risk?
- What’s your approach for building pipeline and how do they leverage LinkedIn and other social platforms and tools for monitoring and research?
- What are the professional development books you’ve read in the last 12 months?
Integrity trap. If the candidate comes from a competitor, ask them what they can bring to role beyond their skills and experience. Ask them what IP they possess that can help them accelerate their success. If they say anything other than their insights, domain expertise and relationships; don’t hire them. Anyone who offer to bring a contact database, pipeline report, or any other private and confidential information belonging to your competitor will most likely do the same to you when they leave. Integrity is everything – yours and theirs. There are also obvious legal issues you could become embroiled in. Your personal and corporate reputation is everything so reject anyone who shows poor moral judgement.
Reference checking. Never delegate reference checking and never make it an afterthought. Always select the people you want to talk with rather than the ‘buddies’ listed as referees on the candidates CV. You know they will say nice things and report back to the candidate afterward. Instead select the most senior contact of a large deal they won, or a senior contact with their biggest channel partner. The hiring manager (the person who the candidate will directly report to) must do the reference checks personally, over a coffee if possible rather than a phone call.
Hiring the wrong person is the biggest mistake you can make. It will cause you enormous pain and damage your own career. When in doubt about a candidate, don’t hire them. Wait, be patient, get it right. If you use a recruitment consultant, make them earn their fee by ensuring they understand your culture and that they define value in fewer CVs rather than more CVs. Don’t let them bombard you with marginal candidates or send you anyone that is not both technically and culturally qualified. The very best recruitment consultants work with a ‘less is more’ ethos and invest the time with you to understand your culture.
Here is the sales aptitude test absolutely free. I won’t use your email address to market to you – no spam. The self-assessment takes approximately 50 minutes but there is no time limit. Upon completion, summary scores are provided for the following seven competencies in professional selling:
- Sales Process
- Knowledge, Attitude and Skill
- Opportunity Development