Recruiting Salespeople: Stop Hiring Retreads

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Yes, I’m talking to you. You knew exactly what I meant when you saw the headline: itinerant salespeople who move from company to company on about a two-year cycle. Of course they hope that this time will be different, that this gig will last. The problem is they are going to sell as they have before while hoping for a different outcome. The companies that hire them reinforce that false hope, and set them up for one more spin through the failure cycle. It’s ugly. And it’s expensive.

B2B business development has changed almost completely over the past ten years. Using legacy methods to sell to B2B customers now is fruitless and frustrating. The actual work of effective selling has changed substantially. One aspect of the change, and a good example – social selling.

It’s not news that product and service information is searchable and readily available to customers long before a salesperson makes contact. That means the old model of salesperson = animated brochure is useless. The disappearance of traditional “buyers” for all except commodities created a demand for real business literacy. That’s because an understanding of the customer’s organization is essential to connect with and relate to actual decision-makers, often at higher levels. That interaction also requires interpersonal communication skills that are deeper and more nuanced than what legacy salespeople have needed to demonstrate.

The major tools for social selling have been available for nearly ten years. I started training and coaching salespeople in social selling in 2007. LinkedIn already had 20 million members at that point. [Few people realize that LinkedIn is now nearly a dozen years old.] Data.com (formerly jigsaw.com) was acquired by Salesforce five years ago, and in 2007 jigsaw.com was already a very useful, crowd-sharing contact source for salespeople. Using the advanced search tools within Google made background research and actionable information easy to find on a desktop.

Social selling requires different methods and different skills. And that’s the problem with retreads. Too many are still hoping that legacy methods and formerly effective skills will work if they can only apply them with the right company and in the right customer pool. It is as effective as whistling past the graveyard. Many are afraid to ask for help, for training, for coaching, or for continuing education for fear it will make them less attractive as candidates. Tragically, companies are enabling both the behavior and the false hope. Here’s how:

Companies that don’t understand how significantly business-to-business selling has changed over the last decade, or who deny that anything is different, tend to recruit and select salespeople much as they always have. In far too many cases, industry selling experience trumps everything else as a selection criterion. And that perpetuates the ugly and expensive cycle.

Stop Blaming the Recruiters! I pity the poor recruiters. Almost never is a recruiter provided with a performance or outcome based position description from which to begin a search. The conventional job descriptions they receive are heavy on experience, lighter on education, and typically have nothing to say about applied skills and specific outcomes. Then recruiters get blamed when a new sales hire fails. They get blamed even though the search and position descriptions demanded that they present candidates with a high likelihood of failure — retreads. Is it any wonder that recruiters want to be paid in full well before you can determine whether the new hire will succeed and become productive?

Demanding “industry experience” signals an unwillingness to invest time, effort, or money to onboard a new salesperson well and manage, coach, and train them to be effective. It also signals a belief that “he did it before, he can do it again.” Demanding a “track record” signals that your product and service offering is so generic that the new salesperson can sell it because it is exactly like what she has sold before. Demanding a “book of business” or “a following” is a pipe dream. High performers don’t move unless their company is closing. And most of the really high performers saw it coming and moved well in advance. When owners and CEO’s talk about wanting to hire a top performer with a book of business I ask for an example (just one) where that happened. I’m still waiting for the example.

Bad Hires are Expensive. Consider the costs of a bad hiring decision:

  • The recruiter’s fee for the bad hire.
  • The recruiter’s fee for a replacement.
  • Two years of salary and benefits for the bad hire.
  • The net profit of lost opportunities.
  • Wasted sales management time.
  • Wasted administrative and executive time.
  • Wasted sales support (estimating, pricing, proposal development) time.
  • Wasted time of other salespeople who are distracted by the bad hire.
  • Alienated prospects and customers.
  • Lost referrals.
  • Erosion of brand equity due to the ineffectiveness of the bad hire.
  • Travel, entertainment, office and other expenses for the bad hire.
  • Time spent talking, worrying, or hand-wringing about the bad hire.
  • Time invested in a misguided turnaround or “rescue attempt” for the bad hire.
  • Potential legal expenses to terminate the bad hire.

That’s why I hear owners and CEO’s telling me that their bad sales hires are hurting them and badly. A single bad hire can exceed $250,000 in direct expenses. Add in the indirect costs, and the total expense goes much higher. So what can you do differently? What should you be looking for in a new salesperson in the current environment, and how?

Reframe the Position: An effective process begins with framing the position with the results you expect and the timeframe within which you expect them. Those results need to be expressed in tangible, measurable terms. For example, one objective could be: “billings at an annualized pace of $500,000, to between four and six new customers, in (target business market), by close of the tenth full month following your hire date.” That’s impossible to debate or dispute. And it will separate the “wheat from the chaff” instantly. No retread who has been through previous failure cycles will sign up for that kind of measurable result. But without that kind of specificity, what you’re telling the new hire is “We’re paying you to do the best you can.” It should take no more than half a dozen specific statements like that example to build a position description that’s clear and powerful.

Test and Vet: An effective process includes several steps to vet a candidate before any sort of interview. I’m a strong believer in testing candidates and in more than one way. I especially like using a Harrison Assessment to gauge both eligibility and suitability. We’ve gone way beyond the days when a personality assessment was the best we could get. We can now use data analytics to assess work preferences, attitudes and motivation, work values, task preferences, and interests. That lets us predict both fit and performance.

I also use a writing test to see if candidates can write a cogent and effective business communication (letter, email). We’re seeing college graduates appear as candidates who cannot write effectively. That’s tragic but true. So a college degree is no longer a useful confirmation that good, basic communication skills have been developed. And boilerplate cover letters aren’t trustworthy writing samples either. If a candidate cannot write effectively, the candidate should be screened out of the pipeline early.

Rethink Your Interviews: An effective process includes a planned and structured interview that’s focused on results and outcomes. Backward looking “what have you done” questions are much less useful than forward looking “what would you do” or “how would you handle” questions. And the interview should always be done by groups of two or three people at a time with a candidate. An “interview” with a candidate conducted by a manager who may have looked at the candidate’s resume once, and only ten minutes before the meeting is worse than useless. Those “interviews” are actively misleading because they support decisions like this one: “Who knows? I don’t. Let’s take a shot and see how she does.”

Demonstrate Capabilities: An effective process recognizes that selling has changed utterly. Therefore, a candidate who cannot demonstrate how he uses research and social selling methods gets screened out early. One of the best screening methods is to task candidates to research your company, your executives, your services and your customers. Then have them present a profile of your own company as if you were the target customer. Newsflash: for the candidate, you are. Recruiting is very much a courtship process, the candidate should be actively courting you while you are courting them. What better way to confirm that the candidate can both learn about and understand a business organization than by having them tell you about yours? Then have him describe exactly how he would turn that understanding into an opportunity to do business with you.

On-board Effectively: An effective hiring process includes an on-boarding plan. When I reported to work on Day One of my first sales job, I was shown to my new desk and phone. I was given a key to get in and out (in the expectation I’d be working all kinds of hours). I was given a box of business cards. And I was told by my new boss: “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” Literally. That was it. I fell flat on my face.

An on-boarding process is intended to immerse the new salesperson into your particular enterprise and to make invaluable connections. Understanding your processes and your systems is the easiest part. The much harder part for a new salesperson is knowing where to go and who to approach in order to get something done. An on-boarding process that completely immerses the new salesperson into your company is vital if they are going to create the relationships inside that will enable them to be effective outside. And your people need to feel a vested interest in the success of the new hire.

Develop: Your written development plan for the new salesperson should be on the table at least by the time you conduct the first face-to-face interview. The reactions of candidates to your development plan will be very telling. If you’re sitting across the table from a retread who has no desire to adapt, to learn, or to change then your development plan should bring that reluctance to the surface quickly. Too many conversations with potential salespeople focus almost entirely on what we sell. We don’t tend to talk much about how we sell. But since how you sell your products and services affects your brand, that’s an important conversation. A salesperson can strengthen your brand if her methods and behaviors align with it. A salesperson can undermine your brand if his methods and behaviors contradict or are in conflict with it. So the “how” is as important as the “what.”

The first year development plan is the roadmap. It identifies the destination, but it also identifies the route and specific milestones along the way. Including that development plan in any interview conversation insures that your objectives are understood, and the methods and resources you expect to see in use are also understood. If you don’t know or can’t describe what works, and therefore what an effective salesperson for your company will be doing and how, you’re not ready to start recruiting.

Sidestep the retreads: Embedding a multi-step, carefully crafted process for recruiting, on-boarding, and developing a new salesperson takes some real thought and investment. But the payback is usually 10X if it keeps you from hiring even one more retread who fails.

What do you think?

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Part of my practice is building processes for recruiting, on-boarding, and developing salespeople — processes that really work. If your company could benefit, let’s talk.