Recruiting Sales Professionals?

Target.jpgHow Your Hiring Methodology Can Hit the Perfect Hire Bulls Eye
Is finding the perfect hire an elusive art or scientific mastery? A high performing sales force can have the biggest impact on revenue and profit, but accelerated turnover can cripple those efforts and put an organization at risk.

Sales positions in particular have one of the highest employee turnover rates. According to the Sales Benchmark Index, sales turnover hovers just under 40 percent across 19 industries.1 Regardless of industry, reducing and controlling employee turnover is a challenge. Hiring right from the start can be the difference between a high performance sales organization and one that falters.

According to a Harvard Business Review study, there is direct correlation between turnover and hiring mistakes.2 When you hire people for the wrong job, they leave. And, regardless whether people leave voluntarily to seek better opportunities or are terminated, turnover can be costly. In addition to the tangible costs of severance pay, vacation accruals, and advertising expenses, there are also recruiting costs such as screening resumes, interviewing, training and onboarding new employees, as well as lost opportunity costs when positions go vacant.

Poor hiring decisions can also have serious consequences on productivity. A survey of 700 executive managers in the U.S. found that each manager loses an average of 34 days a year managing poor performers – employees who do not meet the established performance standards of the organization. This translates to approximately one hour a day for each manager or 12 percent of their time – which could be better spent on activities that enhance the business strategy.

How can organizations avoid the pitfalls of poor hiring decisions and reduce turnover? By selecting employees who have the right competencies and other attributes required for the specific sales job and improving the employee selection process. Better hiring practices can help organizations identify right-fit individuals and build a high-performance sales force capable of sustaining future growth.

Aiming for the Best

Selecting right-fit employees requires measuring the right competencies and attributes of each candidate and using data to guide decisions. However, many organizations rely on manual methods and “gut instinct” to guide hiring decisions.

In absence of a hiring strategy and a selection system, organizations tend to depend primarily on resume screening and applicant performance review. Rather than empirical data driving hiring decisions, managers make decisions based on interpretation and information that a candidate conveys.

With manual processes, the interview itself is often unstructured, which can result in an unfocused discussion that reveals personality traits rather than important job-related information. Also, research indicates that strong performance in an unstructured interview does not effectively predict strong performance on the job. For example, many candidates for sales positions are often measured on their ability to make a good impression. Extroverts may engage others quickly and be charming, but may not have the critical thinking needed for long-term success.

Many people hire based on technical skills and then fire for bad attitude. That is because hiring managers fail to focus on position-specific factors that contribute to success. The result is new employees who are ill-equipped to perform successfully, contributing to management challenges or turnover.

Hiring decisions should be made in three areas: technical skills, experience and problem-solving and soft skills. Using manual methods, it is impossible to gather an accurate assessment of a candidate’s technical talents and problem-solving and soft skills that can be replicated across the recruiting process. A hiring strategy that includes a benchmarked assessment system that is validated for selection can ensure organizations hire right-fit candidates, provide insight for effective talent development and improve performance and retention.

Targeting the Perfect Hire

Creating a talent pool of qualified candidates is essential to minimize the disruption and lost opportunities caused by open positions. Rather than wait until a position goes vacant, a company should build a network of candidates and a program for continually searching for them. To narrow the talent pool, scan resumes for accomplishments, including specific sales figures, positive business results, computer and technology skills and involvement in competitive activities.

Screen candidates prior to face-to-face interviews and prep interviewers with the job description, performance standards, a candidate resume and interview questions based on a job profile. We will explore the process of creating a targeted job profile later in this article. Having a good hiring strategy can help companies of all sizes bypass poor candidates and hone in on the perfect hire.

An assessment system should be part of a good hiring strategy because it provides measurable data and a high degree of accuracy in understanding the soft skills and problem-solving skills of each individual. The right assessment system will have the capability of creating a meaningful benchmark that aligns the soft skills and problem-solving skills with the specific sales job to better predict success. Not only can data be used for the selection process, but it can also be used for development purposes to maximize employee potential and performance.

Creating a hiring strategy that includes assessing candidates’ abilities to perform the job, with the addition of soft skills and problem solving skills, will enable organizations to match top candidates to job requirements and shut the revolving door of hiring and firing.

Five Steps for Hitting the Perfect Hire Bulls Eye

There are five steps that should be included as part of the hiring strategy. The first step is defining the actual job. While the job description is a good starting point, a more thorough approach requires pinpointing the specific tasks and activities that are required for superior performance.

Develop a comprehensive job description
As noted earlier, there are three factors to keep in mind when hiring top-performing salespeople: the technical skills, relevant experience and soft skills, and problem-solving skills.

Too often job descriptions focus on the candidate requirements rather than explaining the responsibilities of the job. Having a clear description of the job and its requirements will help attract the right level of candidates as well as provide a data point for ongoing employee evaluation and development.

The job description should include industry-standard language for the job title and position. Providing clarity around the level of responsibility can help avoid attracting people who are over or under-qualified. Identify the type of experience required to help individuals understand the level of job and if industry-specific experience is required. Other considerations are technical skills, educational background, travel requirements, and whether there are opportunities for growth and advancement.

The first step is creating a job description that clearly states the responsibilities, activities, and/or tasks the job encompasses. This should include:

  • Educational Background
  • Sales Experience
  • Industry Experience
  • Knowledge/Technical Skills
  • Competencies and Attributes

It is also essential to interview your existing top performers to get their input on what it takes to perform the job. After developing that information, determine weekly standards for performance for each skill or activity. This helps candidates understand how they will spend their day and what they are expected to achieve (see figure 1).

Figure 1 – Defining performance standards

By providing candidates with clarity about the job and insight into how they will spend their time, they are more likely to understand if the job is in line with their career goals or self-eliminate from the process and not waste a hiring manager’s time. Defining performance standards and a clear definition of the job is an important first step in any organization’s hiring strategy.

Create a customized benchmark
Creating a customized benchmark for the job is the second part of building a solid hiring strategy. A benchmark identifies the skills, abilities and other characteristics to look for in potential candidates. Choosing a validated assessment system that conforms to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) guidelines and is built on the most up-to-date research for measuring job-relevant skills and abilities for sales can speed the process of identifying right-fit candidates.

The right assessment system should include a benchmarking component and be validated and tested for selection. It should also comply with professional and legal requirements as well as APA (American Psychological Association) standards, SIOP (Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology) principles, and EEOC guidelines. Other considerations are making sure the assessment system measures multiple areas and includes interviewing questions to train hiring managers and help them perfect their interviewing skills.

Creating a benchmark is a process for ranking and identifying which skills, abilities and characteristics are important for a salesperson to be successful in the job. A well-constructed assessment system provides the opportunity for customization to ensure the assessment is relevant to the job needing to be filled.

Hiring managers should answer a series of questions to identify what is most important to the job and how frequently specific tasks should be performed. For example, does the position require a great deal of travel or short day trips? Will sales people spend a majority of time cold calling or qualifying leads? Understanding what is important and how often it needs to be performed provides a standard for organizations to measure against and ensures common understanding of goals that need to be obtained.

Current top sales performers should also provide feedback on the behaviors, qualities and characteristics they think are most important to the job for sales success. Assessing the current sales team and comparing them to the benchmark is helpful to validate the benchmark. It can identify skill gaps to determine requirements for future hires and identify training needs for the existing sales team.

Benchmark data can be used to identify the top competencies, critical thinking, soft skills, values and work environment and create interview questions that align with the data. Evaluating the three C’s – competency, critical thinking and core values – and measuring multiple areas can deliver a complete picture of an individual’s soft skills and problem-solving skills.

Understanding what kinds of competencies you can measure and how you can construct competency statements helps create better job descriptions, provides more incisive candidate interview questions and more relevant development plans (see Figure 2). Competence is a term used for examining a person’s skills and abilities level of fit within a role. In sales, it is important to know that you’ve hired the right person for the specific sales job. For example, the soft skills and inherent talents required for an inside sales position will differ from an external position.

The three stages for defining competencies include identifying the inherent talents (aptitude and personal characteristics), acquired learning or tangible abilities (skills and knowledge gained through experience), and then combining the two so they work together as a specific set of behaviors that describe a job-related competency.

A benchmark helps to define the competencies that are most important for the job. Examples of competencies and attributes include

    • Effective communication skills are required including use of enthusiasm, conveying

information in an articulate, clear and concise manner. (Communicates Articulately)

    • Must exhibit confidence and be able to communicate with people at all levels in the

organization. (Exudes Confidence)

  • Individual makes customers top priority and focuses on discovering and meeting customer needs and expectations. (Builds Customer Loyalty)

The benefit of using a competency model for selection is to define the skills hiring managers need to look for in an ideal candidate. For example, task-oriented competencies may include delivers compelling presentations, enjoys winning, or strives for results. People-oriented competencies can include measures such as builds customer loyalty, communicates articulately, develops and maintains relationships. By identifying competencies for success in sales this increases the likelihood of hiring an individual who will be productive on the job and minimizes the costs associated with making a wrong hire.

Understanding an individual’s core values also provides insight into the type of work and work environment that will be most motivating or appealing. For example, an individual with a keen sense of adventure may be comfortable with unpredictability or thrive on taking calculated risks.

Knowing what motivates individuals and comparing their chief motivators can provide many insights which managers might not be able to glean otherwise. However, core values on their own will not predict success, just what type of work a candidate might prefer to perform.

Identifying critical thinking skills – the ability to reason through and analyze complex problems or data – will also help in hiring the right candidate. Being able to uncover strengths and weaknesses for an individual’s cognitive ability in relation to what is most important for a sales position is helpful to predict job performance. Critical thinking skills measure an individual’s ability to solve problems, learn a specific job, understand instructions or apply knowledge to new situations.

Benchmarking the job on these facets enables hiring managers to interview for experience as well as specific soft skills and problem-solving skills. The result is more accurate and provides a holistic view of the candidate.

Figure 2 – Job description additions created from job profile

Screen and interview candidates
The next step in the hiring strategy is screening and interviewing candidates to refine the hiring pool and identify high potential candidates. Having a systematic, ongoing process for hiring will provide a clearer path for hiring the right people for sales positions. It is important to build and develop a pool of ready candidates rather than wait for a position to open. This will eliminate the chaos associated with unfilled positions and the undue pressure on other employees. Plus, the likelihood of finding the best candidate increases in relation to the size of the talent pool. Consider multiple sources, build a network and keep in touch with high potentials so when there is an opening, there is a pool of qualified candidates to draw from and accelerate the process.

Narrowing the search to the most qualified candidates can be accomplished using techniques for screening resumes and by using telephone screening. A good benchmark should provide interview questions based on the soft skills and problem-solving skills that are important to the job.

A simple and effective interview process that aligns the technical skills, experience, soft skills and problem solving skills will provide more candidates to choose from and better practices for screening and interviewing. In order to achieve consistency in the interviewing process, help interviewers prepare in advance of the meeting by providing the specific job description, performance standards you developed and the candidate’s resume. Interviewers should have the related competency, behavioral and core values questions based on the job profile and should be coached on delivering a positive candidate experience.

Once top candidates have been identified, it’s time to assess them and get results that go beyond what can be determined from a resume or in-person interview. Assessment testing is part of the final candidate selection process and for legal reasons should never be used for initial candidate screening.

Assessing top candidates
The assessment provides empirical results for comparing final top talent. An assessment system should provide multiple perspectives to deliver a complete view of the candidate’s competencies, critical thinking and core values.

Using assessments to make more informed hiring decisions is just one benefit in hiring top performers. Becoming familiar with the various purposes of assessments will broaden the hiring manager’s ability to apply assessments in all the different ways they can be used to support the organization (see figure 3). For example, assessments can be used to customize interview questions, measure job-relevant skills, coach and develop individuals, and promote team building, sales training, and succession planning.

Figure 3 – Assessment tool usage statistics

Determining employee abilities, soft skills and problem-solving skills will provide a pathway for developing a sales force with higher job satisfaction, longer-term commitment and higher productivity. By understanding the different types of assessments and the ins and outs of testing and validation, executives and hiring managers can increase success in hiring a high performance sales team.

Some industries, like real estate or financial planning, require salespeople to be licensed to comply with government regulations. Other certifications are company-specific, such as training programs in the pharmaceutical industry. These licenses or certifications provide hiring managers with a degree of certainty about how knowledgeable candidates may be in their area of expertise. However, the vast majority of sales positions require neither a certification nor a license and the content-knowledge needed comes from on-the-job training or experience. To create a better fit between salespeople and the job, a variety of assessment measurements can identify a person’s strengths and areas for improvement and provide specific areas for development.

Employee development
In addition to the three C’s used for selection – competency, critical thinking and core values – there are additional areas used for development including thinking styles and behaviors. Examining thinking styles provides insight into how a person solves problems and gathers and processes information as well as what kinds of information that person gravitates towards.

There is often confusion between personality and behavioral assessments. Behavioral testing isn’t about personality attributes, but how an individual’s personality responds to their environment. People may not be able to change how they feel, but they can change how they react. A behavioral assessment will show how individuals approach problems and challenges, how they adapt and how they will fit within a particular job and environment. Gaining a thorough understanding of an individual helps identify career opportunities and helps managers provide more effective coaching and development. Looking at strengths, creating a solid development plan for each individual, and contributing to personal and professional growth can all help to produce an engaged, motivated sales force.

The Benefits of a Solid Hiring Strategy
The long-term benefits of creating a hiring strategy and investing in selecting right-fit candidates include lower turnover, higher job satisfaction, and better performance. A pharmaceutical company that replaced its manual hiring practices with the five-step strategy including assessments was able to reduce turnover from 36 percent to 20 percent in a year.

They were also able to gain a better understanding of what skill gaps exist in the current team. Using benchmark information, they were able to identify candidates that best fit the job and the skills needed for competitive advantage. They learned they wanted sales people who would take initiative, be proactive in seeking out new business opportunities, were able to sell in various environments and would be confident and persistent.

This information helped them align interview questions with the data and the assessment validated what they observed in interviews. By asking the right questions to qualify candidates and measuring if a candidate’s skills align with the job, they were able to avoid hiring mistakes made in the past.
Selecting right-fit employees is critical to maintain business momentum, support growth and minimize adverse affects of employee turnover. Organizations that implement the five steps in their hiring practices, use a validated assessment system, and create development plans for each employee can improve performance and retention of their sales staff.

About the Author
Katherine Graham-Leviss is the founder of XB Consulting, an industry- leading executive coaching and business consulting firm. XB Consulting has a long history of providing companies across a wide range of industries with information and tools needed to create high performance workforces. XB Consulting’s XC InSight assessment system brings unrivaled clarity and specificity to both pre-employment selection and the development and improvement of the existing workforce. XC InSight is fully compliant with APA standards, SIOP principles and EEOC guidelines.

1. Sales Benchmark Index, March 2011
2. Harvard Business Review, “Job Matching for Better Job Performance,” September-October 1980, No. 80505