Hiring Technical Salespeople - The How

Updated: Jun 10

I often think that in the world of work, the effort we put in cannot always guarantee success. However (and this is really important), in most situations, it can mitigate the opportunities for failure. Nowhere is this more true than in hiring. Here the work we put in in advance of employing someone can and will prevent very costly mistakes. As the saying goes “Hire in haste and repent at leisure”.

I regularly hear employers sighing and saying how “unlucky” they were with a new sales hire. I hear things like “hiring salespeople is different”, or “some people can just do it and the only way to tell is when you see them working”. The same people proudly tell me how they post an ad for a sales position, invite six people in for 40 minute interviews and were able to make a quick decision. But again, they will repeat how they have been “unlucky” on a lot of occasions. Well, as a number of successful people have said “The harder I work, the luckier I get!” and hiring is definitely an area where we can all improve our luck.

So how do we do this?

1. Have a process

This may seem obvious but, all too often, I speak with employers who have no process for hiring. The saying “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” comes to mind. Work out how important this hire is to your business and then research a process that is commensurate with that benefit (and the cost of getting it wrong!).

2. Align your process with the role

Don’t use the same hiring process for an engineer and a salesperson. Both roles are different so require different abilities. Try to reflect this in your hiring process. Say you are hiring for a B2B technical sales position that requires various types of interaction with a prospect up to and including demoing a complex product. Then try to make your hiring process reflect this. So, if written communication is important, then start by saying in your advertisement that all applications must include a resume (or CV) as well as a covering letter/email. You can eliminate the ones who don’t follow this simple request and see if some of the emails/letters shine out! Then move to a short phone interview with these candidates. Salespeople need to be somewhat warm and likable, you’ll get a sense of this quickly with a short call and then eliminate many without wasting their or your time in a full in-person interview. Consider giving a task (in advance) for each candidate to perform in the interview e.g. give a five minute presentation on the benefits of XXX product. We often do this after the in-person interviews when we are down to a short list of two or three candidates.

You will see that if your hiring process somewhat resembles the sales process, then you can do a better job of evaluating your candidates.

3. Involve multiple people and protect against group-think

Never interview alone. I recommend a three person panel. It is often surprising what other panelists will pick up on, especially things they notice while you are asking a question. The other panelists don’t need to be experts. Consider enlisting the help of some of your existing salespeople when hiring a new salesperson.

One caution here is to be aware of the danger of group-think. If you are the boss and you speak first after an interview then others will likely follow your lead. Instead make it clear to the panelists that there should be no discussion after each interview. Instead, each panelist should take a few minutes to write down their own opinions. When you are reviewing the candidates together then get everyone to read out their notes. Encourage dissenting views, say things like “That’s interesting, I didn’t notice that”.

4. Invest the time needed

Most failed hires get cut at three to six months. That’s twelve to twenty four weeks of salary and overheads flushed down the toilet. Of course then you need to add the training time from various colleagues and the management hours invested. This later number is usually very high with employees who are failing. And of course, then there is the lost sales (i.e. three to six months of damage to your pipeline). It all adds up to a huge cost in terms of money, time and lost opportunities. Yet many managers still won’t invest the extra hours into hiring that will significantly de-risk the hire. A business friend I very much respect is fond of saying “Hire slowly and fire quickly”. These are wise words!

5. What the interview is not!

Here my main caution is about falling into the trap of being wowed by expertise or experience. I don’t mean to say that these are not important - they are, but: they are often overrated. For example, if I sell a machine that analyzes XX then I could allow myself to be wowed by a candidate who has experience using our machine in their previous role. Remember, ability trump's experience in most situations. So use the interview to check if someone is smart enough to learn your product.

Similarly, I have noticed the highest rate of failed sales hires when interviewers allow themselves to be wowed by years of sales experience. Remember that many people with five years experience really have one years experience repeated five times. So screen for improvers and not for one trick ponies that look safe.

6. Other tool’s, References, psychometrics and casual meetings

We can incorporate other tools into our process to further improve it and reduce the failure rate. Try getting your short list of candidates to do a psychometric profile test. Some of these tests have been developed by psychologists over decades and are another great way to see how someone ticks. Is the candidate a big picture or detail thinker? Are they steady or restless? There are no right or wrong answers but you need to decide what characteristics are important for someone to succeed and see if psychometric testing can help you explore them.

Casual meetings are another good tool. Meet each of your final two or three candidates for a coffee or lunch. Just have a chat about life, sports or anything. See what they are like when they let their guard down.

Finally, always check the candidate's references. You need to speak with the referees. Ask them what they really think, were there problems, and most importantly, would they hire this person again. Listen carefully for any evasion in the answers. That is usually a warning bell!

7. People to watch out for

This could be a long list. So I am just going to pick some of the more common red flags to look for.

  • The likable non-closer: This is a genuinely friendly person who unfortunately is not assertive. They are usually extroverts but without a sense of urgency. In sales situations they have a tendency to become the customers friend but not to be able to progress deals forward.

  • The one-trick pony: They seem to have great sales experience but are only able to do it one way and will never embrace your sales processes.

  • The begrudger: These are spotted by the niggling complaints they make about everyone they have worked for before. Everything is someone else's fault and they have an external locus of control. It won’t be long before they are making the same complaints about you!

  1. Review and revise

Finally, and most importantly, review and revise your process. After completing a hire, sit down with your colleagues and ask how it could have been improved. Then write the improvements into your process and implement them next time round.

Good luck (or should I say hard work) with your next sales hire.

Rory Geoghegan

March 30th, 2022

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