It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. We were growing fast; and we desperately needed new sales blood. Being experienced sales trainers and sales managers ourselves, we liked to think we knew ‘em when we saw ‘em. Admitting anything less would have been professionally embarrassing. Imagine our surprise when the sales managers we hired ran off with our attractive salespeople, skimmed commission dollars from subordinates, and offered our customer list to a competitor.
Some people might say we just hired a “bad” applicant, but this happened with three different managers over three years! If we grudgingly admitted we were no good at hiring sales managers, could we do better with salespeople?
Hiring salespeople was less demanding. They told us about their most difficult sale, showed us earnings records, interviewed a panel of employees, and sold us dozens of wastebaskets. We were all impressed. So imagine our surprise (again) when they sold to unqualified clients just to make quota, refused to learn the product line, sandbagged sales at the end of the month to boost commissions, and failed to follow up.
We were not stupid. We found it easy to screen out the real weaklings, and we never hired applicants who looked shady. But we overlooked the obvious: Applicants who passed our interviews were “impression management” experts. Their expertise convinced us to buy their product — in other words, to put them on the payroll. In the end, the good-looking salesperson we thought we hired was only a good-looking cardboard cutout: all surface and no depth.
Why we failed
Where did we go wrong? Fundamentally, we misunderstood the sales process. We put too much emphasis on presentation, and not enough on drive, trust, and discovery skills. Our new salespeople failed most often because the prospect did not trust them or they didn’t ask enough questions. There was more to making quota than selling wastebaskets. It started with having the drive to continually build trustworthy relationships, followed by gentle probing and questioning. But we were so “wowed” by their personal impressions that we took drive, relationship, and fact-finding skills for granted.
Get it in writing
After losing our confidence in interviews, we started using written “sales” tests. We thought they could tell us about an applicant’s ability to develop rapport with prospects, build relationships with clients, and discover needs. Guess what? The skilled test-takers told us just what we wanted to hear. Although the questions sounded good and the report was impressive, we soon discovered that we could not trust answers from high-scoring candidates (we never took any chances with low-scoring candidates).
So we asked vendors about their tests. Their responses sounded something like this: “Our tests don’t actually predict sales performance. But they can be useful in hiring.” “Huh?” we replied. “If your test results cannot predict sales performance, how can they be ‘useful’ in hiring? Did we miss something? Are these tests validated?” “Yes. We revalidate our tests each year.” “Wait a minute,” we said. “You say test scores do not predict job performance – but can be useful in hiring. You also say scores are not associated with sales – but you validate the test every year? You guys must have been very good selling wastebaskets.” “How did you know?!”
Now we had two problems: choosing the right tests, as well as the right people. Looking at hundreds of different tests on the market in dozens of categories (interviews, pencil and paper, case studies, and so forth), how could we possibly make the right choice?
By a rigorous merger of academic research, test reviews, and practical experience. We started by statistically examining the major reasons why salespeople and sales managers succeed or failed. We found four big ones. Then, we examined tests used in assessments. Again, there were four major types. Finally, we reviewed independent research to confirm our own findings. The four big failure areas were:
- Not having the right level of intelligence to learn the product line, identify and solve customer problems.
- Not being able to plan a strategy, follow up, or effectively manage time and territory.
- Not having the right one-on-one skills (e.g., poor phone fact-finding, clumsy stand-up presentation, bad customer service resolutions, untrustworthy relationships with prospects and clients, ineffective probing and questioning (and for sales managers, poor coaching skills).
- Not having the right kind of internal attitudes, interests, and motivations (AIMs) to put everything else to work.
Once we knew precisely what we were trying to find, the goal of effectively screening for it became much more achievable. This is not to say it was easy. But after a great deal of work and analysis, we developed a clear picture of how well or poorly each type of assessment worked in predicting the key types of failure:
- Interviews were typically no better than chance in diagnosing any area of potential failure.
- Generic sales or management tests had low accuracy in almost every area.
- “Sell me this wastebasket” exercises were indeed somewhat effective in assessing the presentation skills.
- Behavioral interviews targeted at specific failure areas showed moderate accuracy virtually across the board.
- The most accurate tools included written tests for decision-making, planning, and technical knowledge; job simulations; and tests of attitudes, interests, and motivations.
To sum up, the only way to prevent sales and sales management applicants from hijacking the recruiting process was to use hard-to-fake tests that specifically targeted each of the four major areas of failure.
Of course, in hindsight, it all made perfect sense. We never could be perfect, but if we screened out applicants who could not problem-solve a test, we could be sure they could not solve similar problems on the job. Applicants who had poor scores on “details” would probably be sloppy on the job. Applicants who offended trained role players would probably offend prospects and clients. Finally, applicants who blithely told us what we wanted to hear in an interview had a much harder time disguising their true motives on an attitudes, interests and motivations (AIMs) test specifically designed to prevent faking.
We still made final hiring decisions with our gut – but our gut was now full of data! Yes, there was a down side (if one could call it that). We had to screen twice as many sales and sales management applicants to get ones with the right skills. You see, our screening system eliminated a greater percentage of people who would have failed on the job. But the test cut-points were not set arbitrarily; they were set using validity studies. The system was not too stringent, according to the sales VPs. They liked having smart salespeople and managers who could relate, discover, present, cross-sell, and serve customers.
We did not reinvent the wheel. We just rediscovered “round.”