Two Simple Steps to Hiring the Best Sales Talent

17 July 2018

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The disparity between the amount of time the average sales manager will dedicate to preparing for a customer meeting and the effort spent preparing for candidate interviews is amazing. Let’s assume a big sale is worth $250,000 to your company, and that on average a sales rep at quota is producing $1M in annual revenue. With an average sales tenure of just four years, interviewing a sales candidate is a $4M proposition, and that’s without considering the cost of a bad hiring decision. By that math, the interview is 16X more important than the sales call – but you would never know it by observing the prep time!

While there are no quick and easy shortcuts to hiring top sales talent, there are only two essential steps that, when done properly, can ensure you make the best possible choice AND get the candidates you want. In part one of this two-part series, we will examine the interview preparation step and identify several steps you can take before ever meeting a candidate that will help ensure success when you do.

Making an Intelligent, Informed Buying Decision

For years now I have taught sales people to differentiate themselves and their solutions by helping people make better buying decisions. Many professional buyers have little training on how to make an informed, intelligent buying decision and sales managers likely have even less. However, finding the best candidate for your open position amounts to just that – a buying decision, and a very important one at that. What is the key to making a good buying decision? Having clearly defined, objective, and differentiating criteria. Without clearly defined criteria, each interview is a random experience and decisions are as likely to be based on pheromones as qualifications.

So, how do we develop objective evaluation criteria and avoid the classic trap of becoming the sales manager who finds the best sales call her new rep ever made was the interview? I suggest developing criteria in four categories:

  • Capacity – Consider this to be the innate talents or qualities the sales person must possess in order to be successful in your organization. For example, characteristics like integrity, sense of urgency, and technical aptitude are all considered innate qualities. These are characteristics that cannot be taught or acquired after the person joins the organization. Therefore, these should be carefully considered and non-negotiable criteria.
  • Commitment – Similar to capacity, in that these aren’t typically learned traits, commitment is about the level of effort your candidate will put forth in order to be successful. However, this goes beyond just hard work, includes things like professional development, which may be essential to the person’s success. Many sales people can demonstrate that they are competitive and hardworking, however, they can also be extraordinarily difficult to coach and develop. The best call these individuals ever have will likely be the one they make in the interview. In most sales organizations, a commitment to continuous improvement and personal development is absolutely essential. After all, selling is a performance profession, which means everything is about how we compare to others and we are always either getting better or getting worse by comparison.
  • Knowledge – Unlike our first two characteristics, knowledge can be acquired. Depending on your organization and the effectiveness of your onboarding programs, you may be able to teach a new person everything they need to know in order to be successful, or nothing at all. In either case, it is essential that you define what knowledge you need to hire for before the interview takes place. This will help you avoid being impressed by people who know a ton, but lack the key understanding needed to be successful in your environment.
  • Skill – Last but certainly not least is skill. Before beginning the interview process, it is important to know what skills your new seller must possess coming in, versus those you will be teaching them. Interestingly, this is often made too important a part of the evaluation criteria or judged so superficially as to be completely irrelevant. Is it critical that your new sales person already be fully proficient at qualifying? Or do you have a specific model you follow and the person simply needs to be skilled and asking tough questions and curious (capacity) enough to follow through on the prospect’s answers?

Once you define WHAT characteristics you will evaluate during the interview process, it is important to turn to your attention to HOW these characteristics will be evaluated. However, which you use should be decided only after you decide what “best” looks like for each characteristic. This is where the most intelligent, informed buyers make their mark. For example, let’s suppose you decide that one of the critical characteristics you want to evaluate is curiosity (which coincidentally happens to be one of my favorites). During the interview, you won’t be trying to determine who is, and who is not curious. You will be trying to determine which person best demonstrates the level of curiosity appropriate to the position. Perhaps your definition of best with respect to this characteristic will look something like this, “the best candidate will demonstrate a more authentic, genuine interest in understanding what is important to other people without crossing social boundaries and creating discomfort.”

Now the question is how will you determine which person to hire with respect to this and your other criteria. For this, I recommend one of three alternative approaches be used.

  1. Assessments – Depending on the characteristic, assessments can be great tools for evaluating your candidate. This is particularly true for innate characteristics such as native intelligence or communication styles, which can be difficult to effectively evaluate through interviews.
  2. Behavioral Interview Questions – Fortunately, much has been written about the effectiveness of behavioral interviewing at helping managers avoid the pitfalls of being “sold” by articulate candidates who can speak intelligently on topics but don’t actually have the requisite experiences to match their eloquence.
  3. Performance Interview Questions – Beyond the old, “sell me this pen” approach, there are important reasons to see someone executing key skills or applying important knowledge in an effective manner. Selling isn’t like accounting or engineering, it is a competitive, performance profession. When it comes to certain traits, especially skill and knowledge, application, or characteristics such as coachability, it can be essential to observe the behavior in action.

While I will talk more about the actual interview in the next article in this series, for the purposes of interview preparation, you want to determine not only which approach you will use, but the specific questions you will ask in order to assess each candidate with respect to each characteristic. Do you have multiple people conduct interviews? Be certain everyone knows what criteria are being evaluated and that each has a clear approach for the interview. Agreeing on evaluation criteria is arguably the most important step in reaching a decision that is supported by all.

Given the importance of every hiring decision, investing in up front preparation has the potential to provide exceptional returns.

Read Part Two of this post here, which focuses on the interview portion of recruitment.

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Bob Sanders

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