There’s some truth to the old axiom about hiring people: First-rate managers hire first-rate people while second-rate managers hire third-rate people. There are hiring savants among us who are adept at selecting first-rate sales people. But most of us are less accomplished – having, for example, hired the sure-thing sales star who flamed out in six months. Or the rainmaker who jumped to the top of the charts before you discovered an integrity problem. Many times, it seems that just when we think we’ve learned from our failures, we keep getting surprised again and again. Unfortunately, it seems the unpleasant surprises outweigh the pleasant ones. In fact, a recent study estimated that the turnover rate for entry level sales people is a staggering 33% during the first year.
Obviously, the challenge is hiring the right person for the job. That doesn’t mean hiring the best person for the job who is available at the time. After all, wouldn’t it be better to hire no one at all – to have your existing reps pick up the slack by handling more accounts, for example, until the right rep comes along – than to hire a mediocre sales person that you’re stuck with? Think about it. Are you really committed to hiring the right person or simply trying to avoid hiring a failure? There’s a huge difference between hiring right and hiring safe. Most of us have been in the situation where your pool of candidates just isn’t that strong so you hire the best available. And, many times, that rep turns out to be an average performer. The perplexing thing about hiring is not selecting a bad rep – those are pretty easy to identify and screen. The real struggle is to avoid hiring the mediocre rep. Unfortunately, the laws of probability are working in favor of you employing average reps if you don’t have a game plan for hiring the right people.
For sales managers who lack the knack for consistently attracting top talent (which is the majority of us) here are three Don’ts in the hiring process:
- Don’t trust your intuition. That’s rule number one, no matter how experienced you are. Intuition is a feeling. And sales people are genius at making you feel good. Their job is to make you like them. Many have a sixth sense for detecting what you’re looking for and becoming that person for a few minutes, long enough to get the job. It’s ironic, according to research, that the ones who project the most likability may be the weaker candidates. Hiring is a science, not an art. The key is to quantify and verify. After all, numbers don’t lie. Have the applicant provide sales reports, income statements and other documentation that provide a black and white picture of sales performance over time. Verify candidate’s claims the same way. For example, if a candidate touts his prowess at generating new business, ask for documentation to prove it. As in the courtroom, you’re looking for evidence, not hearsay. That’s important because, depending on what study you read, between 30% to 44% of job applicants misrepresent themselves. You can query, probe and assess till the cows come home, but the only way to predict a candidate’s future success is to view – through actual results – his or her present results.
- Don’t hire unknowns. Make that your goal – to hire people you know. Even though it’s a goal you may never attain, it will force you to focus on strong networking – to create a pool of candidates ready for your next hire. If you’re running a lot of hiring ads, you are hiring unknowns. That means your success rate is going to be lower than managers who use networking skills to hire sales people with whom they’re familiar. Strong recruiting increases the quantity and quality of “best available reps” which, in turn, decreases the chances of hiring mediocre reps. The best time to recruit is well before you have a job opening, therefore allowing you to avoid the rush of hiring in a hurry. Make your recruiting proactive rather than reactive. Doing so means you’ll have a list of candidates well before you have a job opening. Another advantage of proactive recruiting is the opportunity to choose from candidates who are happy with their current job as opposed to dissatisfied, malcontented candidates who could easily carry over their discontent into your group. Recruitment is the prospecting phase of hiring, identifying people who have the people and organizational skills to help your sales efforts. This is an organized, orderly and full-time process involving daily contacts and networking – both in-person and on social media. And, don’t overlook your most powerful recruiting ally – your sales reps who can help identify sales talent (as well as helping onboard them to success). Prospects are everywhere including employees of hotels, retail stores, restaurants, doctors’ offices, sales people who call on you. The list goes on and on. It’s simply a process of observing and engaging – when you see a person with sales potential, take a few minutes to engage them in casual conversation. If they have an interest in a sales career, you might have a good candidate for your next opening.
- Don’t make the candidate too relaxed. Most of us have spent years learning to get close to customers, to develop a relaxed environment in which customers can be themselves and feel comfortable buying from you. These are invaluable lifetime lessons which are good for all phases of life, except perhaps in interviewing. Of course, we want applicants to relax and be themselves; however, we want to see them being themselves in a sales situation. That is not a relaxing activity. It’s important for you to set an amiable, friendly and respectful tone to give the candidate a good first impression. After all, you are selling yourself and your company to candidates. But remember, they are here primarily to sell you on themselves, and your job is to interview them, not serve as their host. Instead of starting the interview with a “presentation” about the position and the company, begin by asking candidates questions about themselves. This technique will help you learn about candidates before they have enough details about your job opening to say what they think you want to hear. Also, don’t tell the candidate the particular qualities you’re looking for, to avoid “fake good” responses. Give them no more than the basic information of the job such as pay, hours, territory, travel and general responsibilities. Then subtly probe for the skills you need. Insure that everyone interviewing the candidate follows the same line of interviewing. Be sure not to talk about past successes and failures of the sales team or specific team dynamics. This kind of information helps the applicant shape their answers, sometimes bending the truth to meet your needs. As the interview proceeds, don’t hesitate to include a few difficult moments to uncover possible red flags. Inject a few subtle stressors in the interview to see how the candidate reacts to difficult questions or challenging statements. Try this one: “Looking at your credentials, without having seen you on the job, I’m not sure you’re right for this position. Why do you think you are?” Putting them on the spot may unearth defensiveness and other red flags that indicate future problems. In addition, ask them to sell you something – a pen, a paper clip, a smart phone. Give them objections to overcome, make it difficult. This will give you a feel for their presentation style as well as their patience, resilience and mental agility. One hiring executive, as noted in a recent New York Times article, sets up a breakfast interview with candidates, and gets there early to instruct the waiter or waitress to make errors in the order. The boss then can see how the applicant reacts to unexpected and irritating circumstances. Also, a subconscious temptation in us with sales backgrounds is to try to make the candidate like you. That’s not your job. Your objective is to accurately assess their sales potential, not their chemistry with you. In fact, some of your best candidates may be ones who don’t establish a quick rapport with you. Don’t be Mr. Nice Guy. Seek the truth. You can do it in a friendly, supportive, non-threatening manner. Most candidates expect some challenges in job interviews. The trick is to handle it in a way that leaves enthusiasm and respect for the position in the candidate’s mind.
It may help to develop your own personal hiring mission statement that you share with your sales team and with applicants. Here’s an example: “We hire only the best sales reps (not the best available reps) who are accountable, effective sales people. In return, we offer a supporting and rewarding environment in which our sales people experience meaningful growth and development.” In other words, it tells candidates that – if they meet your high standards – you have their back and will help them thrive. At the same time, it implies that this is an elite sales team, that expectations are high and that you hire only the best reps who can fit into your high-performing sales team.