Improving Your Success Ratio in New Sales Hires

The Challenge in Hiring New Sales People

Over the last 20 years, I have hired a lot of salespeople and unfortunately, too few reached their sales goals or made it to their second anniversary of employment.  I take only small comfort in knowing that I am not alone and that many of my sales and business management counterparts have suffered from the same lack of hiring success. 

Is it unreasonable to expect the same level of success with sales hires as you normally do with other professional position?  My more recent experiences and results indicate that the answer is “No, it is not unreasonable, but the discipline of finding and qualifying those candidates takes process.”

Many have argued in the past that sales is an art, and successful sales people have intangible talents that are hard to identify and measure (unlike a .net or JAVA developer who can be quickly evaluated with a skills and technology assessment test, often taken from an online site).  I respond to those non-believers that like any other professional role, if the critical skills and experience required, as well as the hiring firm’s particular needs, are identified and used in an objective measurement of the candidate’s fit, success rates will certainly improve.

The details may vary from industry to industry but the process remains relatively simple and straightforward, requiring only discipline, commitment, and an understanding of what skills and experience the desired salesperson should possess. 

Consider the steps below, before you begin your next search or interview another sales candidate.

Improve Your Odds of Success – Create and Adhere to a Process

1)      Know what you want and what is important.  Create an “importance ranking” table to help you assess what skills and characteristics are most important for this position.

2)     Determine who will interview the candidates and at what stage of the process. Be consistent and use the same interviewers when at all possible.  It takes time but it is important, so make a commitment, get commitment from the team, and stick with it.

3)     In advance of the interview, give the candidate the same skills and experience criteria that you will be using during the interview process and the metrics or types of questions that you will be using to measure those skills and experiences during the interview.  Although some are troubled by sharing this information with the candidate in advance, remember this is not a “test”; it’s an interview to determine “fit”.   It’s ok to allow a candidate to prepare in advance.  You don’t expect or shouldn’t allow your sales team to “wing” sales calls, so you should similarly allow the candidate to prepare for this “sales call” by doing the proper research and making sure that their “product” matches your needs.  As an additional benefit, the process may allow you to assess the candidate’s ability to prepare, research, and align solutions to needs.

4)     Review each interview and score each candidate immediately following the interview.  Avoid putting this off until later; you will lose the subtle and important details of the interview.  Record the candidate’s answers to questions from your notes and score those answers.  Note those scores against the importance ranking for the skills and characteristics to create an overall non-subjective scoring of the candidate’s overall fit.

5)     Whether you are using an internal search organization or an external search firm, ensure that the organization is provided with the same information and documents that you will be using to prep the candidates and measure their fit.  Often the search organization is provided more general information that leads to candidate misalignment and can waste the interview team’s valuable cycles.  Provide feedback to the team and share the post-interview candidate scoring so that your search organization can continue to improve their process and pinpoint the right candidates.

Take the “Gut Feel” Out of the Hiring Decision

As described above, take the time to identify the skills and characteristics that you believe give the candidate the greatest chance for success, both within your organization and in the marketplace with your target customers. Validate these skills within the organization and outside the sales organization.  Rank the importance of each of the skills to ensure that candidates that best fit your organization and market score the highest.  If you have to have a “je ne sais quoi” category for that “it feels right” impression, include it, but quantify it’s weighting on the decision and don’t let it become the overriding factor.   

Test the criteria against your most successful salespeople to make sure the criteria are grounded in reality. Use these criteria to measure each and every candidate consistently and equally. 

The skills and experience that are most important to you may vary considerably from others, but I will suggest a few that seem to cross markets, products and services.  These skills can normally be grouped in terms of sales skills, client or account management skills, and expertise in the market and product or services that you sell. 

They normally can be  categorized by qualitative soft skills and quantitative experience and measurable performance metrics.  I won’t debate the categorization but would definitely debate with your team the important measures and their rank order of importance. 

Here’s a common list to get the thought processes going:

Qualitative Measures

o   Company Fit – Can embrace the company philosophy and mission; has the right personality and mindset to work effectively within the organization within the corporate mores.

o   Sales skills – Presents well, can effectively articulate a message or support a position, both in spoken and written form.

o   Personality – Can rebound from setbacks or pursuit losses.

o   Listening / Responding – Able to listen and process client information and determine proper course of action in real time, can adapt sales plan based on the dynamic environment of the client.

o   Time management – Can accomplish the daily tasks that are needed without interfering with the overall goals of selling.  Can evaluate the relative importance and potential return of multiple client opportunities and prioritize appropriately.

 Quantitative Measures

o   Performance – Typical deal size, annual sales level and performance to goal.

o   Market Knowledge – Demonstration of experience and expertise in the market/territory.

o   Understands Sales Cycle – Experienced and knowledgeable selling to the type of customer, market, and transaction type.

o   Relevant Client Base – Has sold to the target client base previously or can quickly construct a target list that aligns with your company’s capabilities and strategic goals.

o   Readiness – Not limited by non-compete agreements, can show current activity in the market with proven success, and understands your business and capabilities to reduce transition time.

Weight the relative importance of each of these categories (or the four or five most important) for your organization or for the position in particular such as: Company Fit- 35%, Market Knowledge 25%, Readiness- 25%, Past Performance- 15% and apply these factors to the scores for the qualitative and quantitative measures and sum the total to achieve an objective score for each candidate.

Expect a Return on Your Investment

Yes, this may take the magic out of your sales recruitment process, it may take longer to find your next salesperson, and you may reject many more candidates than accept for formal interviews, annoying your recruitment organization and making it seem like you are making no progress towards your next sales hire. 

But would you place a faulty cornerstone on the skyscraper you are building, just so you could get started with the construction?  Probably not.  And hiring a salesperson with the unsupported hope that he or she will be successful could lead to the same unpleasant re-work a few months into the future. 

With the average salesperson taking 6 to 9 months or more to become effective and begin to offset their costs, consider the time you will spend in the process of on-boarding and training that sales person to be successful in your organization, the cost of salary, draws and travel expenses associated with that on-boarding period, and the opportunity costs associated with missing that next big sales opportunity or losing that key client.

Make the investment in your hiring process and earn the return that has all too often escaped us in the past.



About Tod Kerr

Tod is a senior corporate leader with 20 years of experience managing business operations in numerous functional areas, with a focus on developing and marketing business to business technology solutions to world-wide high tech markets that allow customers to operate their business more efficiently by driving out costs, improving productivity, and creating value for their clients.
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