Hiring salespeople with talent

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International Journal of Sales Transformation - Focus on TalentIn my last article, I shared Gartner’s findings about the current war for talent. In this article - first published in the International Journal of Sales Transformation - I want to explore more of the implications.

Finding and recruiting the right salespeople is perhaps the most important role for any sales manager or leader. Hiring the wrong person - or at the other end of the scale, failing to fill the position at all - is costly in so many ways. The wasted recruitment costs are trivial in comparison to the revenues lost and all the other direct and indirect costs and consequences associated with failure.

The recruiting manager is often torn between the fear of missing out [FOMO] and the fear of messing up [FOMU]. Missing out means failing to fill the open headcount. Messing up means hiring someone who subsequently fails in their new role. Neither is a satisfactory outcome. In both cases, the manager is typically still responsible for the quota allocated to the role in the meantime.

To compound the problem, salespeople with proven potential are in short supply. There is a tremendous war for talent. Good salespeople are confident of their own value. They are highly selective when it comes to their choices of role and employer, and they have developed powerful bulls**t detectors. Headline on-target earnings matter less to them than their confidence about the income they will actually earn. Their potential employer’s reputation and culture matter to them, as does their working environment...

Organisations with negative reputations and weak or negative cultures start with a huge disadvantage in this war for talent, to the point where if executives are concerned about their ability to attract talent, they first need to look at the attractiveness of their organisation. Weak or negative organisational cultures attract and sustain weak and negative employee communities, and nothing anyone says in a recruitment advert or in the interview process is going to do much to change that.

What do we mean by "talent"?

What do we mean when we talk about “talent” anyway? The dictionary defines it as “natural aptitude or skill” and there’s no doubt that these are foundational qualities. But experience tells us that this isn’t enough. These natural aptitudes and skills might indicate someone has potential, but they always need to be successfully applied in the context of the role. And your potential employee’s character, attitudes and behaviours are perhaps the most important determinants of whether their apparent talent is actually going to deliver the outcomes you are looking for.

Hiring decisions - particularly sales hires - are too important, and too difficult, to be left to chance. The costs and consequences of getting these decisions wrong are so negative that we cannot afford to rely on the impressions conveyed in the interview process, and this is particularly relevant given that it is sometimes said (only partly in jest) that the one thing an incompetent salesperson has learned to do successfully is to sell themselves at an interview - particularly if the interviewer’s own bulls**t detector has been poorly calibrated.

As if this wasn’t enough, CVs are typically highly polished selective interpretations of a candidate’s career to date and often weak predictors of future performance. Even if the headlines look impressive, how the claimed results were actually achieved is often less obvious (and can’t be taken at face value). Hiring primarily based on experience or the impression made at interview without taking full account of character, attitude and behaviour is a very high-risk strategy.

Hiring is not solely an art form

We can’t act as if sales hiring is solely an art form. We need to ground it in science and in evidence. We need to be confident that our decisions are based on accurate observations of key indicators of aptitude, attitude, behaviour, and on core competencies. But before we do so, we need to be clear about the most important attributes and competencies we are looking for in the roles we are recruiting in to.

These will inevitably differ depending on the type of role. For example, is the role focused on new business or account management? Are we looking for hunters or farmers? Are salespeople expected to find their own opportunities, or respond to leads? Do we tend to compete on price or value? How much initiative do we need our salespeople to apply - or do we expect them to “follow our process”? How rigidly do we expect them to qualify opportunities? These attributes and competencies (and others) are critical to finding the right people for each role.

Role-specific attributes and competencies

You’ll notice that many of these attributes and competencies are clearly specific and unique to sales and are unlikely to be addressed by the sort of generic assessment tools that many HR departments use for non-sales roles. Whilst these generic tools are not without value in general recruitment, they tend to be very weak predictors of success in selling roles. We need to use sales-specific tools if we are to identify great sales candidates.

Once we’ve established and prioritised the required attributes and competencies, we then need to profile all our potential candidates against the desired selling profile, and to do so early in the selection process - before shortlists are drawn up - rather than waiting until towards the end of the exercise, by which time we may have eliminated otherwise promising candidates or still be running with people who will never make the grade.

And whilst the results of the assessment should never be the sole determinant of who ought to be hired or not, the recommendations of specialised sales candidate assessment tools have been scientifically proven - unlike the generic personality assessments - to have very high predictive value.

science-based approach

For example, Objective Management Group’s own research of over 2 million candidates found that 92% of candidates who were hired after being recommended by their assessment tool rose to the top half of their new sales force within 12 months, whilst 75% of the candidates who despite not being recommended were nevertheless hired failed within 6 months.

Compare that to the average success rate of traditional sales hiring approaches (whether using generic personality tests or not), and I challenge you not to be impressed. Just imagine the revenue gap between following an evidence-based process and relying on conventional methods. It can (and it often has) made the difference between a successful sales management career and an uncomfortable failure.

My advice is to commit to an evidence-based approach, but to not allow yourself to be railroaded by HR into using a generic company-wide personality profiling tool that has weak correlation at best with successful sales hiring decisions. Be clear about the attitudes, behaviours, and competencies you are looking for in each role, and profile every credible candidate against that profile.

The importance of "fit"

Take experience and their claimed track record into account, but never rely on them as your sole criteria. Carefully consider how each candidate might fit into your organisation and assess their potential to develop, grow and succeed. And think carefully about how good a “fit” your organisation is for your preferred candidates. Do these things, and your chances of making good sales hires that deliver results and stay and grow with you will be dramatically improved.

You can learn about OMG’s sales assessment criteria here: http://stats.objectivemanagement.com/498. And if you’d like to find out more, please book some time here: https://www.inflexion-point.com/book-a-call.

One last point, which I’ll return to in my next article: if you truly understand every salesperson’s attitudes, behaviours and competencies you are in the best position to make the most of their talent.

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