Too often salespeople are hired for what they know, then later fired for who they are. Education and experience take precedence in the recruitment process when the company doing the hiring really needs to know how the applicant will behave. There are four key questions about how people will behave in a work environment:

  • How do they think?
  • How do they act?
  • What motivates them?
  • How do they interact with other people?

All four apply when considering how to recruit and select sales­people.

What should sales managers keep in mind when recruiting and selecting salespeople?

The most critical ingredient for the survival and growth of any organization is talented person­nel. One problem many man­agers have is they hire quickly and fire slowly, when actually managers should be slow to hire and quick to fire.

First, know what you’re looking for. Take time to develop a pro­file – a benchmark that defines the best candidate for the posi­tion. If you’re selling a big ticket item like a software sys­tem or a $1.2 million CAT scanner, you need a different salesperson than someone sell­ing shoes or office copiers. For big ticket sales, we look for discerning people who can adjust to the styles of different decision makers. Their job is to find out what the customer needs. Going for the throat aggressively is outdated. The fact is trying to change behavior is a waste of time.

Once today’s consultative salesperson establishes the customer’s needs, closing the business is just the next step in the process. A certain amount of assertiveness is required in sales, but it varies depending on the selling environment. In addition to discernment and assertiveness, we look for an achiever trait – someone who’s motivated to succeed in a com­petitive environment. Salespeople need to relate quick­ly to the prospect, empathize, and persuade.

How can you find out if some­one is persuasive?  One of the best ways is to let them show you how persuasive they are in the interview. Has the applicant persuaded you he or she is the best person for the job? Remember you’re hiring, renting, or leasing behavior. From what you learn in the interview, how will the appli­cant behave?

Can’t behavior be changed, if an applicant has other strengths? Sure, there are plenty of ways to change behavior. Psycho­therapy for about 27 years might work, or maybe a frontal loboto­my, if they’re legal where you work. You might try religious conversion, drugs, or send them to California. No, the fact is trying to change behavior is a waste of time. Sales managers ought to get out of behavior modification and into behavior selection.
Don’t you put any weight on what the applicant knows or is capable of learning?
You need to ask yourself these questions about a prospective salesperson:

  • Can I work with this person?
  • Can he or she do the job?
  • What does the person know about our business?

But the knowledge can be learned. One of our clients markets sophisticated medical instruments. They told me the sales­people have to have college degrees. We looked at their 15 best sales reps. About six or seven of them had no college degree. You should be focused on who can deliver the behav­iors you need.

Another company I know raised eyebrows when they hired a guy out of a clothing store to sell mainframe computers. He knew nothing about computers, but he knew how to relate to people. He picked up the computer knowledge very quickly. First thing you know, he sold a $7.6 million order to the office of a prominent state officeholder, despite the fact that the comput­er company had supported that politician’s opponent in the last election. That’s overcoming the odds, without knowing much at all about computers.
Interviewing is something of an art. Why are so few good man­agers also good interviewers?
Most managers admit they don’t interview well, and here’s why. First, they’re not sure what they’re looking for, so they don’t ask the right questions. Get through theory to behavior. Instead of asking, “Are you assertive?” ask, “Can you give me a recent example of when you were assertive?” If the can­didate can be very specific with the example, then very likely that behavior is practiced.

Second, they’re not well pre­pared. Instead, they think of questions as they go along. Finally, they’re strong boosters of their own company, so when there’s a chance to sell the com­pany, they’re off to the races. The interviewer ends up doing all the talking. Managers have to be much more disciplined in interviewing.

How do you define what you’re looking for? It takes time. You have to estab­lish what traits are required for success in your marketplace. Then build “behavior profiles” for each position. The best way to develop a behaviors profile is to identify your top employees in any given position. Then ask: What makes him or her so good? Water runs downhill. In any organization, so does talent.
You mean hiring someone bet­ter than you are?
Yes, and that’s hard. You need people smarter, better, or at least as good as your best peo­ple, including yourself.

What’s the best way to find ideal job candidates?
The very best way to find can­didates is through referrals. As a guideline, 70 percent of your people should come from refer­rals, though most companies are at about 40 percent.

What are the most common mistakes sales managers make in recruiting and selecting salespeople?

First, they’re often not clear about what they’re looking for. They tend to be over-impressed with candidates who look right, dress well, and present them­selves effectively. Second, they look at resumes and make choices, when resumes are no more than balance sheets that don’t list the liabilities. Third, they’re not trained in interview­ing’ and they often end up doing most of the talking.

I know that at first glance this all looks complex and time consuming. Before you dismiss the process, consider what it costs you to hire the wrong person.