by Malcolm Fleschner, Selling Power Magazine
Hiring salespeople has always been a challenge. Every seasoned sales manager has at least one story of a hotshot applicant who looked like a superstar during the interview but proved to be a superdud with customers. On the flip side, who can forget that terribly underwhelming interviewee who surprised everyone by becoming a top-flight performer – for the competition.
During the booming, run-and-gun ’90s, when sales organizations could practically throw a dart into a crowd and hit someone who could make quota, such errors might have been easily laughed off or chalked up to experience. But in today’s leaner times, with the costs of turnover skyrocketing faster than Martha Stewart’s legal bills, sales organizations are being forced to pay greater attention than ever before to the hiring process.
Herb Greenberg, CEO of Caliper Corporation, a Princeton, New Jersey-based human resources assessment and consulting firm, says that companies today can no longer afford the luxury of new sales hires who fizzle out. So companies are reevaluating and rethinking some of those tried-but-untrue strategies they’ve always used for adding new players to a sales team.
“One of the most prevalent mistakes a sales organization can make is stealing from a competitor,” Greenberg says. “Nine times out of 10, that results in recirculating mediocrity. There’s really no way to know how much actual selling this person did and how much of the job was simply order taking. How much of that sales rep’s success came from simply being there for 10 years and building up a base of customers? Now if he leaves and has to start over again, he may be dead in the water. There are just too many unanswered questions, the biggest one of which is, ‘If this person is doing so well for your competitor, why would he or she come to you?’ When you’re good, there is always a tremendous advantage to staying where you are, so to suddenly go and be a stranger in another company, there had better be an awfully good reason.”
Even hiring on the basis of experience itself is a gamble, Greenberg says, because no resume, interview or reference check is going to give you a true idea whether a candidate can actually sell effectively for your organization.
Fill Your Stable
Larry Craft, chairman of the Florida-based CraftMetrics consulting firm, agrees that companies frequently do a subpar job at screening applicants to fill sales positions. But he lays the blame on the organizations’ failure to match the right personality types to the job the applicants will be doing. To explain, he offers an equestrian analogy. “The mistake that most directly impacts the sales department’s bottom line is hiring easygoing ‘plow horses’ when the dynamics of the sales position requires hiring highly driven ‘racehorses,’” he says. “During an economic downturn, when customers are hard to find, it takes a goal-oriented racehorse to find the buyer and make the sale. The difference between the two is not ‘nurture,’ it is ‘nature’ – and you can’t train or supervise one into becoming the other.”
To help them hire smarter, many sales organizations are turning to companies like Caliper and CraftMetrics that offer personality profiling and psychological testing. Such testing in recent years has gained a much greater level of credibility in corporate boardrooms. And as Greenberg points out, today testing is sophisticated enough to determine not only whether a prospective applicant will be able to sell, but also whether that person will fit in with the organizational culture, work well with others or be well suited for the specific selling job being filled. To do that, Greenberg says, his company’s test begins by uncovering three key points about the applicant. “First we look for an individual who has the motivation to get the ‘yes,’ what we call ‘ego drive,’ – a person whose self-esteem is enhanced by hearing ‘yes.’ That’s something we can predict without failure,” he explains. “Without that, the person should definitely not be in selling.
“Second we look for whether the individual has the empathy to read the person they’re talking to, to understand basic motivations and what they need to do to get that ‘yes.’ Then the third thing we look for is what we call ‘ego strength,’ and that is the ability to risk rejection. Selling is a game of failure. You’re going to be rejected more than you’re accepted. If you can’t deal with that, you shouldn’t be in selling.”
In determining whether applicants will be right for the specific jobs in question, Greenberg says, the tests break down in even greater detail people’s motivations and character traits. “You can also definitely determine whether applicants should be selling for your company,” he says. “It’s all well and good to say they can sell, but the bottom line is, can they sell for you? So you begin to look at, for example, whether the applicants have service motivation, the need to get the thank you that would allow them to follow up, to stay with the client once they have bought the first time. Or do they have the discipline you might need in your situation? Do they have the sense of urgency to avoid the ‘be-back’ and ask for the order now? Do they have leadership abilities? Can they think on their feet? Can they work in a team? This is all part of what we call the ‘job match.’”
Strike a Match
Craft also believes that job matching can address many of the problems that lead to sales organizations’ high turnover rates. While the nature of the job itself is important, he says, other key criteria involve finding compatibility between salespeople and the executives who’ll be managing them. “Motivation and productivity can be negatively impacted when managers and salespeople are incompatible in two particular areas – goal orientation and social drive,” Craft explains. “If the manager has an easy-going and methodical temperament, and the salesperson is highly driven and goal oriented, the racehorse salesperson feels ‘bogged down in the mud’ and can’t run. In the opposite scenario, the easy-going plow horse frustrates the racehorse manager who wants immediate results. Racehorse managers work best with sales personnel who are racehorses and vice versa.
“In terms of social drive, managers who don’t crave public recognition typically don’t give it to the recognition-starved sales personnel who thrive on it. And this negatively impacts the salesperson’s motivation. Managers who have high social drive, on the other hand, are perplexed and frustrated when the low-social-drive salesperson doesn’t respond to peer competition and public recognition.”
Ideally, Craft says, self-assessment personality profiles should be administered to managers to ensure that they’re hiring compatible salespeople. Having determined the goal orientation and social drive of both managers and salespeople, companies will be better situated to fill slots. This, he adds, is a much more effective strategy than simply labeling underperformers as “bad” salespeople and sending them packing.
“Too often ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have to do with compatibility factors,” he says. “Rather than firing incompatible salespeople, simply put them in positions that are more compatible. For example, a way to significantly increase the sales department’s productivity is to put your easygoing ‘plow horses’ in customer service positions and put your ‘racehorses’ into positions that require a sense of urgency and goal orientation. If your ‘horses’ are placed in the most appropriate stable, you’ll most likely see a dramatic increase in productivity.”
Craft admits that this advice presupposes a best-case scenario where a sales organization has the flexibility to move individuals around to different jobs, like placing chips on the roulette table. Real-world managers, however, typically enjoy much less flexibility. In such situations, he says, testing can still play a role in helping executives learn how to manage the salespeople they have more effectively.
“It is possible to train managers to flex to fit a salesperson’s unique personality and motivation,” he says. “For example, if the manager has low social drive – the need for status and recognition – and the salesperson’s is high, we find that the manager needs to compensate and take the unnatural stretch to provide the salesperson with the production boards, newsletters, contests and social awards that feed the ego. High-social-drive managers need to take the unnatural stretch to feed low-social-drive salespeople something different from status, prestige and acknowledgment. They will have to relate the sales activity and results to other specific and unique needs, such as money to pay the bills or support the family or the possibility of a future management position.”
The bottom line, Craft adds, is that managers shouldn’t run their sales teams using a “one-size-motivates-all” approach. By using personality tests, managers can accurately determine the information that unlocks the mystery of how to get the most out of each member of a sales organization.
Beating the Cheaters
Despite recent gains, however, personality testing for some remains an unproven and maybe even frivolous practice. Noting that salespeople in particular are notorious for telling prospective employers what they want to hear, some sales managers worry that sales applicants will simply offer all the right answers, inevitably skewing the results. But today’s testing organizations are wise to all the test-taking tomfoolery, says Greenberg, and now by design factor in those likely efforts at beating the tests.
As an example, he contrasts a more traditional testing approach, which might ask applicants to answer true or false to the statements “I am a good leader” “I am a responsible person” “I am emotionally stable” and “I get along well with people” with Caliper’s test, which takes the same four statements and asks applicants to choose which one best describes them and which one is the least accurate. Confronted with the questions on the first test, Greenberg says, eager applicants typically mark “true” for each statement, even if they’ve never led so much as a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and their mental health can only be corroborated by a six-foot imaginary rabbit. But by asking applicants instead to weight these positive attributes against one another, Greenberg says, the Caliper test eliminates the possibility that applicants can give only right answers.
“There is no way when you take our tests to claim all virtues and deny all faults,” he explains. “And what you leave out tells us as much about you as what you check. Our test encompasses more than 180 items, and with such a sample we get a pattern of what that person thinks we are looking for. And what people think becomes a projection of what they really are.”
Even when they acknowledge the value personality testing brings to the hiring process, however, today’s cost-hyperconscious sales organizations often balk at the idea of paying to test and screen every applicant who answers a help-wanted ad. In response, Craft points out that his company’s testing can run as little as $25 per candidate, which, when compared with the costs of turnover, should save nearly any organization in the long run. Greenberg agrees, but also offers suggestions for taking advantage of personality testing on a bare-bones budget.
“If you can’t do a lot of mass testing, my suggestion would be to begin by screening down your candidates in the traditional way,” he says. “Screen out anyone with unexplained lapses in tenure on the resume, for example. So do what you do already until you have a final three, and then test those three. That would probably cost you about $750. That may seem high, but what does it compare even to a week’s salary? How much does the interviewing cost? If you’re a top sales manager or a CEO with a small company, how much is an hour or two of your time worth?
“At the very end, before making that crucial final decision and experiencing the cost of making a mistake, I think it’s crucial to use a valid psychological test to find the person who is best matched to the job.”
Then again, you can always simply wait for better economic times and hope the dart method comes back into vogue.