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Selling jobs vary greatly depending on the product or service sold, the customers a salesperson is responsible for, the relative importance of technical knowledge, and the people contacted during sales calls. A review of hundreds of studies about sales productivity finds that “[t]he results of this research have simply failed to identify behavioral predispositions or aptitudes that account for a large amount of variance in performance for salespeople. In addition, the results of this research are quite inconsistent and, in some cases, even contradictory.” Common stereotypes about a “good” salesperson (e.g., pleasing personality, hard-wired for sociability, and so on) obscure the realities you face.
Selling effectiveness is not a generalized trait. It’s a function of the sales tasks, which vary according to the market, your strategy, the stage of the business (i.e., startup or later stage), the customers targeted by your strategy, and buying processes at those customers. This is true even for firms in the same industry. Think about the difference between sales tasks at Nordstrom, where personalized service and advice are integral to strategy execution, and Costco, where low price and product availability make sales tasks less complex and variable.
The first step in smart hiring and productivity is understanding the relevant sales tasks in your market and strategy and then reflecting those tasks in hiring criteria and a disciplined hiring process.
Focus on behaviors. Research based upon thousands of exit interviews shows that a primary cause of poor performance and turnover is poor job fit. People, especially salespeople with a variable pay component, become frustrated when they’re hired for tasks that are a poor fit with their skills and preferences. Conversely, as the saying goes, “You hire your problems.” Zappos CEO Tony Hseih estimates that bad hires have cost his firm $100 million. Famously, Zappos will pay people to leave voluntarily after a few months on the job.
The key is to focus on the behaviors implied by the sales tasks. In many firms, this means upgrading assessment skills. Managers are excessively confident about their ability to evaluate candidates via interviews. In reality, studies indicate a low correlation (generally, less than 25%) between interview predictions and job success, and some indicate that interview processes actually hurt in hiring decisions: the firm would have done better with blind selection procedures! The best results, by far, occur when those making hiring decisions can observe the potential hires’ job behaviors and use a recruitment process based on a combination of factors, as illustrated in the following graphic:
There are many ways to do this, including simulations, interviewing techniques, or (as at Zappos) providing an incentive for self-selection after recent hires experience the required behaviors. Especially in expensive sales-hiring situations, many organizations could emulate the practice used by investment banks and consulting firms when hiring MBAs: the summer job is, in effect, an extended observation by multiple people at the firm of the candidate’s abilities before a full-time offer is extended.
Then, immerse reps in the tasks they will encounter in working with customers. At HubSpot, which provides web-based inbound marketing services to businesses, Mark Roberge has sales hires spend a month in classroom-style training but also doing what their customers do: create a website from scratch and keep that site populated with relevant content. Roberge notes, “they experience the actual pains and successes of our primary customers: professional marketers who need to generate leads online. As a result, our salespeople are able to connect on a far deeper level with our prospects and leads.”
Be clear about what you mean by relevant “experience.” Previous experience is the most common criterion used by sales managers in talent assessment. In one survey, over 50% of respondents cited “selling experience within the industry” as their key selection criterion, and another 33% cited “selling experience in [an] other industry.” Driving this view is a perceived trade-off between hiring for experience and spending money on training. But because selling effectiveness depends upon a company’s sales tasks, “experience” is an inherently multidimensional attribute. It may refer to experience with any (or any combination of) the following:
The relevance of each type varies with your sales tasks. So consider what type is, and is not (see below), relevant, and require the people doing sales hiring to clarify what they mean by experience.
On-going talent assessments. Markets have no responsibility to be kind to your firm’s strategy and sales approach. It is leadership’s responsibility to adapt to markets and develop the competencies required today, not yesterday.
As organizations confront new buying processes, required competencies are changing. The figure below, based on an extensive database of company sales profiles, indicates the changing nature of sales competencies at many firms. Competencies that, only a decade ago, were considered essential are now lower in priority.
For support in hiring Competent Sales Professionals for your Organization, please contact us.