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Hiring the Right Salesperson - Part 3: Sales Is a Contact Sport

Sales is a contact sport! While I don’t use many sports analogies, I think this one is appropriate. The NFL Draft just concluded and I continue to be amazed by all the buzz and scrutiny these young athletes go through leading up to the big day. Then I realized how much it makes sense. As a team general manager, you invest millions of dollars in a new rookie player in the hope that they become a productive team member for years to come. 

Then you need to worry how the draftee will get along with the coaches, team members, media and fans. You’re also going to be judged and second-guessed on the decision and it may be years before you even know if it was a good one. With so much risk involved, it’s no wonder teams spend months — or even years — scouting potential players.

As I was thinking about how carefully scouts watch prospective players as they are put through the paces, noting their specific performance talents, strengths and weaknesses, weighing each of these attributes before making a final decision, I was contacted by one of my clients. He was down to two sales candidates and looking for some advice on how to decide.

As is my way, I replied, “I’d be happy to help, but can I ask a few questions before I weigh in?” I wanted to understand what they had learned during interviews and how that had helped to distinguish the final two candidates. I was thinking of the in-depth NFL-level analysis and how they get to see the potential player perform before making a decision.

My client answered, “The interview team met with each of them for an hour, followed by a 15-minute debrief. Both candidates have pluses and minuses and we think either of them could be successful in the job. We were hoping you could meet with them for an hour and help us break the tie.”

I thought to myself, just like with the NFL process, what can the sales or business leader do to truly identify which candidate is the best fit? We want to feel confident in our decisions and we want our newly hired sales people to withstand the rigors of our expectations, but we lack the in-depth approach required to determine if they can truly perform.

Okay, so maybe you aren’t making multi-million dollar investments like the NFL, but you are making a significant — sometimes, a million-dollar — investment in the people that represent your products and services to potential customers. It may be worth the time to really scout their performance during the interview process. What should your scouting process include in order to really see your potential player perform? Can they really handle the contact?

Interviews that Scout for Performance
As we’ve discussed in recent posts, a little pre-work needs to be done prior to the interview:

• Be sure you know what you’re looking for and have defined your red box

• Then, establish an overall selection process that puts some objectivity into the approach and ensures the interview team is aligned around the goal

Once that’s all in place, design an interview that investigates what people can and will do and how they react in job situations. In other words, make them perform for you! We can’t make them run, jump and lift weights (although sales simulations can help), but we can structure the conversation and ask behavioral-based questions that provide deeper insight into our critical sales talent.

Let’s start with the structure. We’ve had the opportunity to participate in hundreds of sales interviews. What we’ve learned is that it’s easier to compare candidates when you take them through the same process and similar questions that target the same skills and abilities. We recommend your scouting process follow this format:

• Welcome and opening. This is where you’re selling the job and the company, setting expectations and helping them get comfortable.

• Set the agenda and the timing. It helps candidates know what’s happening, comes across as planned and professional, and allows you to keep the interview on track.

• Ask your questions. Depending on how much time you have, the questions can be separated into multiple interviews. Be as consistent as possible to aid in the comparison. We like to see questions in several categories:

o Competencies: Do they have the ability to do the job?

o Sales process skills: Can they describe how they go about their work and do they understand the intricacies of each step of the process?

o Cultural fit: Will they succeed in your environment and your management style?

o Interest in the position: Do they want this job or just any job?

• Allow the candidate to ask their questions. They should have questions and this can often provide a great deal of insight into how they think and what’s important to them.

After going through these, wrap up and thank them for their time and be clear about next steps. Many managers have already determined the candidate is not a fit but end the interview with “we’ll get back to you.” Believe it or not, it is infinitely preferable that you directly tell the candidate that they’re not a match, even though you’ve enjoyed getting to know them.

This may seem harsh, but candidates tell us again and again that they’d rather know this than go away wondering and hoping. It’s always better to cut them and let them catch on with another team! If the candidate is moving forward, be specific about when they’ll hear back and what will happen next. Demonstrating your ability to follow up and communicate says a lot about your company and how you do things. Remember: Top talent is looking for companies that “walk the talk.”

Watch for the fourth installment of this four-part post, where I will outline a format for asking questions and provide examples of how you can really dig into their performance.

Do your company’s interviewing standards go in-depth enough to determine if a candidate can truly perform? Why or why not?

About Mike Braun

Mike is a founder and co-owner of Pivotal Advisors. He has worked for 30+ years as a salesperson and sales leader. Mike has been a guest speaker for many groups such as University of Minnesota, MN Quality Council, and ASTD. If you want to find out more about Mike check out his profile here.
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