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Hiring Top Sales Performers

May 10, 2006
Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article, Staffing Management
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The assumption that "sales is sales" and that previous experience, a clean résumé and a great appearance are the primary predictors of success often leads to recruiting mistakes that can cause high turnover and ineffective sales teams.

   "What we know is that the traditional process results in failure three out of four times, and nobody likes it," says Alan Fendrich, president of Advanced Hiring Systems, a sales selection consulting firm based in Norfolk, Virginia. "There are lots of people who look and act like salespeople, but they don’t sell because money doesn’t motivate them."

   Herb Greenberg, president and CEO of Caliper, a human capital consulting firm based in Princeton, New Jersey, says that interviewing alone will not expose experienced candidates who continue to be ill-suited for jobs in sales. Nor will it uncover the prospective rising star who has no previous experience.

   "You can’t assess sales people by asking questions during an interview that produce socially acceptable answers and then figure out what this crazy, neurotic human being is all about," Greenberg says.

   Fendrich says that the key to success starts not with a review of experience, but with a look at the motivation and the psychological makeup of the candidate.

Hire for Behaviors
   There are numerous providers of behavioral profiles that measure traits such as ego drive, empathy, confidence, sociability, helpfulness, thoroughness and problem solving, all of which are personality traits that are required in varying degrees based upon the sales position and the company.

   Greenberg, a former psychology professor, says that several methodologies are used to develop a behavioral profile customized for each company and position. The assessment is administered to sales staff who are exceeding, meeting or performing below expectations. The scores produce the necessary data to build a behavioral-traits profile that correlates to performance.

   Once the traits of the top performers are gathered, Greenberg suggests job shadowing sales reps as well as interviewing sales managers and human resources staff to build consensus as to the actual job description, the performance requirements and the best personality match for the position. This step provides additional validation as to the traits and behaviors that are required to complete the job duties successfully.

   "Oftentimes we interview three different people in the same organization and get three different descriptions of the job and the responsibilities. Some of the people doing the interviewing don’t know the difference between a ‘hunter’ and a ‘farmer,’ " Greenberg says.

   He adds that a job requiring more new-business development, or "hunting," will generally require a candidate with less patience and higher scores in the areas that measure confidence, ego strength and ego drive. A "farmer" is usually a representative that maintains customer relationships and increases the sales volume of each customer rather than opening new doors. "Farmers" will be less aggressive, according to Greenberg, but will score higher in empathy and have a greater desire to please as well as a strong service motivation.

Learning Through Experience
   Early in his HR career, John Beattie accepted an assignment requiring him to hire more than 250 office equipment sales representatives for an emerging national firm. He thought that he had "struck gold" when he received a large influx of applicants from a major international competitor. The company compensated on straight commission, and most of the sales reps he hired from the competition didn’t work out.

   In retrospect, he realized that the competition’s reps did not have the same job responsibilities, such as opening new accounts in cold territories, and so they possessed a different set of personality traits.

   "They were merely order takers," Beattie says.

   That experience has proved to be invaluable in his current role as chief HR officer for the personal-lines insurance division of GMAC based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He supports two different sales groups. One is decentralized, independent and out on the road in a very competitive environment. The other group works in a highly structured inbound call center, where the goal is to convert prospects who are responding to direct-mail solicitations into policyholders.

   Beattie says he uses the behavioral assessment in his initial candidate selection and then adapts his interviewing process for the different work environments. He measures the success of his program by both a reduction in turnover and an increase in the new customer conversion rates in the call center.

Build a Pipeline
   Alan Fendrich advises clients to use the assessments before they proceed with any interviews. That process reduces the number of qualified candidates by as much as 85 percent. He then suggests conducting three or four interviews, with each meeting having a unique purpose, structure and a script to uncover new information about the candidate.

   "The first interview is a throwaway. You are seeing a highly prepared and coached candidate who only provides anecdotal evidence of their behavior. By the third interview, you are getting high-quality information about the candidate. Having a defined hiring process also positions the company as a high-quality employer," Fendrich says.

   Judy Reich, vice president of sales for Renda Broadcasting in Pittsburgh, is responsible for the hiring and performance of more than 200 advertising sales representatives who work in the firm’s 25 radio stations. In addition to a three- or four-stage scripted interviewing process, she requires candidates to make a final presentation to the sales manager and general manager of the station in order to assess their communication skills before extending an offer and then conducting background checks and drug screens.

   "In order to be successful with this process we have to recruit every day, not just when we have a vacancy," Reich says. "If we find a great candidate we will proactively hire them because other factors influence turnover, which is just a natural part of sales," she says.

   She requires her managers to submit a weekly report showing the number of candidates that have taken the assessments in order to assure that the pipeline remains full.

   While no hiring process eliminates turnover, Alan Fendrich says that the real goal is to improve sales productivity.

   "There are people out there with sales experience that should never have gotten into sales in the first place," Fendrich says.

   Hiring strictly from experience can filter that type of candidate into a process; hiring for the right psychological match opens the doors to a greater number of candidates and, potentially, brand-new top performers.

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