We are all biased, it is simply how we are wired no matter what people believe.  Our brains have the innate ability to categorize – a distinct survival mechanism for sure.  This ability becomes problematic in the hiring process as hiring managers can often be influenced by their own biases when making hiring decisions.  To be blunt, hiring managers are prewired to clone themselves in their hires.

So what of this?  Does it matter?  If your hiring manager is strong, especially a sales manager, wouldn’t it be best to clone them?

No.  End of post…ok, I won’t be so short.  The key to successful hiring, especially as it pertains to sales hiring, is to maintain objectivity for as long as possible in your process.  This is part of the process we teach to companies as they move to improve and strengthen their sales hiring results.  The key to objectivity is that it trumps bias.  It provides a rational, unemotional view of a candidate before our natural biases and intuition can start forming our decision.

Some thoughts on how to improve the objectivity in your process:

  1. Your first contact with the candidate should be a phone interview.  The phone is a natural barrier that removes visual biases.  When done correctly, you would be shocked at how much you can learn about a candidate during a 30 min. phone call.
  2. Secondly, use an online assessment to “x-ray” the candidates communication style, motivations, aptitudes, skills, etc.  This is self-serving, but it may be the most critical step in the process.  The computer is unbiased to a fault.  The information provides a look into the candidate’s abilities in a way that is next to impossible to deceive.  The right tools can provide more information about an external candidate than you probably know about your current team!
  3. Lastly, use a team approach to the first interview – more people, more viewpoints, less bias.  I am a strong proponent of team interviews, especially in the sales world.  Each person on the hiring side of the table will have a slightly different take on the candidate and their responses, fit, approach, etc.  This is valuable as the team can debrief after each initial interview.  The secondary benefit is that it puts pressure on the candidate.  The candidates that handle this pressure and excel are noteworthy and memorable.  They are the ones to give strong consideration to for moving forward in your process.

If you incorporate those 3 concepts into your hiring process, I guarantee you will improve your objectivity immensely.  The increased objectivity will lead to stronger hires with far fewer misalignments on your growing team.

Do you know what I mean by “gotcha questions?”  These are the questions designed to trap, trick or zap a candidate.  These types of questions are often used by interviewers who believe they need to “win” the interview.  I know it sounds odd and uncommon (I certainly hope it is), but I have sat through interviews where the gotcha questions have been asked.

Interview questions are a tricky sort.  Almost everyone enjoys reading interview questions in hope of discovering an effective one.  However, we incorporate assessments into our process which provides an x-ray of the candidate’s abilities, motivations, aptitudes, style, etc.  The power in this approach is that it identifies the specific areas to pursue with the candidate.

I view the questioning approach as having two important approaches.  First, ask questions to probe the candidate’s weaknesses.  For 10 year I have been in search of the perfect sales candidate.  I haven’t found them yet.  Instead, I look for candidates who have the right blend of abilities to succeed in the position’s unique requirements.  This includes asking questions specifically designed to expose some of their weaknesses.  How intense are they?  Are they detrimental to this position?  (not all are)  How does this weakness show up in their day-to-day selling activities?

I don’t use gotcha questions, but rather simply constructed, open-ended questions or statements.  This is the most effective manner to dig into these difficult to identify areas.

Second, I use questions to confirm the candidate’s strength areas.  The assessment measures a strength area, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the candidate is using that strength.  I like to pursue the topic with them to get a feel for their use of the strength.  I have seen salespeople with great strength areas that they choose not to access.  Sometimes this questioning approach gets overlooked.

Again, all of these tasks can be accomplished because we incorporate the assessment procedure early in our hiring process.

I am a psych major.  As my mother likes to say, “I’ve never met a psychologist who didn’t need their own services.”  Although I am not a psychologist, I get the gist of her commentary.

In that vein, I was revisiting some of my antiquated text books in search of a professional explanation for why “bad” sales candidates can often smoke good interviewers.  I give you self-presentation or impression management.  The definition from Social Psychology-Understanding Human Interaction by Baron and Byrne:

…they flatter others, pretend to agree with them about various issues, or feign great interest in what they are saying – all in an attempt to create a favorable first impression.  Not surprisingly, persons who are skilled in self-presentation often make better first impressions on others than persons who are less adept in this regard.

That sounds just about right, doesn’t it?  The real hook, in my opinion, comes from the next section:

While skillful self-presentation often involves tactics such as the ones listed above, it may also rest, to an important degree, on the effective use of nonverbal cues.  As we noted above, certain facial expressions, patterns of eye contact, and specific body postures or movements convey liking or positive reactions to others.  Persons who are successful at self-presentation seem to be well aware of this fact.  Thus, they often seek to manage such impressions by controlling their own nonverbal behavior.  While interacting with target persons (ones they wish to impress), they smile frequently, lean forward, maintain a high level of eye contact, and nod in agreement on many occasions.  The result:  they often succeed in producing positive first impressions.

Exactly.  This fact is why we use a system for selecting sales candidates that incorporates phone screens and objective assessments before we ever meet the candidate.  Bad salespeople, ones who couldn’t sell ice water in the desert, can sometimes have these deceptive abilities.

The more dangerous candidate is the one who is mired in mediocrity.  These candidates often have decent to strong self-presentation abilities but they lack the overall sales abilities to succeed in your position.  Think of a salesperson who cannot qualify money, who chases dead-end deals or who has a tremendous need for approval.  These are the salespeople who bog down sales teams with underwhelming results.

My apologies for co-opting Woody Hayes’ saying, but I am from Ann Arbor and couldn’t stand the guy anyway.  I’m wondering what the Great Recession is going to do to resumes.  What I mean is this – many people have shortened tenures nowadays (especially Gen Y).  3 years is turning into a fairly good tenure for a worker.

This recession has cost millions of people their jobs.  Some will have to start their work career over, essentially taking a “lesser” job and working their way up all over again.  In many instances, they will have to jump from job to job to keep moving up during their now condensed work career.

This fact is going to have repercussions for future sourcing activities.  I have already run into this issue recently when sourcing for a sales position.  An older sales manager was focusing first on tenure of candidates.  I had to quickly point out some of these facts.  He seemed to receive my input at the time, but a day later he was back on the tenure train.

Whatever economy eventually surfaces from this deep recession will contain many, many, candidates who simply lack the traditional employment longevity that was so frequent just 5-10 years ago.

1. Always select talent and skills over experience.

2. Do not put the entire burden of the company on this hire.

3. Do not clone yourself.

4. Do not expect to hire perfection.

5. Do not start the process unless you can hire the right candidate today.

6. Do not run the process out of sequence.

7. Do not miss opportunities to see the candidate in action.

8. Do not change the compensation plan during the process.

9. Trust the instruments more than your gut.

10. Do not assume you are the candidates’ only option.

Here is a good read from Inc.com on improving your hiring process.  The pull quote for me:

In my opinion, one of the reasons people do such a poor job in hiring, is that they just want to get it over with,” Matuson says. “Really take your time, do it right, and ask yourself the question, constantly, ‘is this person good enough? Is this really the right person, or am I just trying to end my misery?”

Umm, yes, I have seen that first hand on many occasions…from my customers!  Anyway, there is some good information in the article along with some cliché advice.  Here is some of the good:

So, in addition to a summary of the position, detailed bullet points describing the job’s main tasks and the minimum education and experience requirements, great listings incorporate behavioral characteristics. For instance, instead of a bullet point reading “10+ years experience required,” consider something along the lines of “Team player with strong leadership skills and 10 or more years of demonstrated ability to manage effectively.

I prefer skills and success over tenure and you should too.

In sales hiring, we see hiring managers often focus on hiring salespeople from their industry.  I realize there are some benefits to this approach (know the competition, understand the pace of the sale, etc.), but it is better to hire the right skills and talent no matter what industry background they possess.  One of the allures of industry-based hiring is related to this excerpt from the article:

Especially if your company lacks an HR department or a formal training program, managers should make it a priority to schedule face-time with a new employee within the first day or two. Making it a point to give detailed instructions on tasks at hand, coupled with pointed questions about how the new hire is feeling and what they think would help them out in their job are keys to making them feel comfortable and useful.

I often see managers who want to simply plug in a new salesperson and expect them to ramp up to revenue themselves.  BIG mistake.  Even experienced salespeople need a structured onboarding (we call it onramping for sales) process with face time with their sales manager.  Failing to spend this time with your new hire delays the ramp to revenue and invites unneeded/unintended stress into the new relationship.

This article from Yahoo’s Hot Jobs contains 5 hiring myths designed to help candidates perform better in an interview.  Myth #1 is excellent for the hiring manager:

Myth #1: Be prepared with a list of questions to ask at the close of the interview.

There is some truth in this common piece of advice: You should always be prepared, and that usually includes developing questions related to the job. The myth here is that you must wait until it is “your turn” to speak.

By waiting until the interviewer asks you if you have any questions, “it becomes an interrogation instead of a conversation,” says Greene.

Greene recommends that you think of an interview as a sales call. You are the product and you are selling yourself to the employer. “You can’t be passive in a sales call or you aren’t going to sell your product.”

How true!  We always treat an interview (either phone or in-person) as a sales call.  As a hiring manager for a sales position, the interview is a natural sales situation.  The interview is the perfect opportunity to play the role of the prospect to watch how the sales candidate qualifies and closes you.

This approach, using the interview to see the sales candidate in action, is the foundation for repeatable, successful sales hiring.  Salespeople are naturally good at…selling!  Granted, some are not, but they eventually get broomed.  The problem is that many hiring managers are not adept at being the disinterested prospect in an interview.

Many hiring managers (including many sales managers) are inexperienced interviewers.  Their preparation may consist of nothing more than pulling out a resume 5 min. before the interview and then asking the candidate to walk them through their resume.  This approach reveals nothing more than the candidate’s pre-canned talk about their mostly unverifiable past.  We’re they really the top salesperson?  Did they truly turn around an under-performing territory?  Did they close 50 new accounts?

No, the better approach is to treat the interview as a sales call and put some pressure on the candidate – see how they handle it.  Interrupt them (graciously, of course) and change topics quickly.  Can they move with the discussion?  Question some of their statistics and look for visible signs of emotions.  These unexpected moves knock them off of their script and if you have been in sales you know it is impossible to script a sales call.  Ideally, the candidate can handle your “objections” and respond with good qualifying questions.  Now you can actually see the candidate in action which will reveal more about their abilities than any resume.

This story from abcnews.com carries some weight in terms of a real economic forecast.  It isn’t good:

More of America’s largest companies will shrink their staffs than will hire in the next six months, according to the latest survey of their CEOs.

Nineteen percent of the CEOs expect to expand their work forces, while 31 percent predict a decrease in the next six months, according to a quarterly survey from the Business Roundtable released Tuesday. That’s slightly better than the 13 percent who expected increased hiring three months earlier. At that time, 40 percent forecast cuts.

Granted, the trend is good, but the actualities are not.  2010 is shaping up to be a lackluster hiring climate.  We work with CEO’s in some of our customer organizations and we are hearing similar reports.  The general consensus is to sit tight until there is some discernable signs of a recovery.  A healthcare overhaul, cap and trade and tax increases are not helping stimulate the economy (emphasis mine):

A new question on the Roundtable survey asked CEOs to identify their greatest cost pressures. The largest group — about one-third — cited health care.

One other note is the 2010 revenue forecast.  I don’t know if I have ever seen a more difficult task for our customers.  The uncertainty is astonishingly high.  One thing it does point back to – you better have strong qualifying salespeople on your team in this climate.  If not, your forecast will be replete with deals welded to the 90-day close…that never close.

SellingPower.com offers up a spot-on short article about maintaining customer relationships in this economy.  The pressure on salespeople is extremely high right now in two regards – there are limited opportunities to close new business and the business world continues its radical information shift thanks to the Internet.

First off, companies have slowed down their purchasing, but they are still purchasing.  I think this fact gets lost in the doom-and-gloom reporting that saturates our senses.  The tactical truth is that salespeople are going to have to unhook business from their competition to increase their sales.  Many order-taking salespeople will fail miserably in this endeavor.

Second, prospects are far more informed than at any time in history.  They are able to research companies, products, services and solutions.  Companies that are small and nimble can use the Internet as a force multiplier to compete with larger companies.  Prospects no longer start out in discovery mode – their first approach is usually a fairly educated question and discussion about your solution.  The prospect probably has your competition’s value proposition sketched out also so salespeople leap right into an intense qualifying call.

These two factors make customer retention even more critical today.  The author of the article makes a salient point (my bold):

Little “r” relationships. These are the interpersonal relationships between members of a selling team and members of a buying team. They are built gradually, over time, and rooted in “a salesperson’s ability to demonstrate that he or she is trustworthy, competent, and credible as a business consultant and advisor,” says Emde. These relationships are most effective when they’re built not with just one or two people in the buying organization, but with an entire network of people who come to view the sales rep as a trusted business partner. To build little “r” relationships, Emde says reps must know how to establish credibility, build trust, demonstrate the value of the relationship on every call, and be savvy about identifying the right people with whom to forge connections.

What’s the cost of not building these little “r” relationships? When your relationships are weak, or you’ve eroded them with substandard performance, you leave the door wide open for your competitors, warns Emde.

Exactly.  I have seen this play out firsthand in the marketplace.  This problem is most evident with order takers.  They simply wait for the phone to ring and provide a quote.  This approach, in this economy, requires the company to be perfect.  Perfect product/service, perfect delivery, perfect terms, etc.  The second the perfection falters, a competitor moves in and the battle is on.

The key is to make sure you hire salespeople who have the ability to nurture the little “r’” relationships while closing the deal.  If you are not assessing your sales candidates, you are risking more than you know.

I kid you not, this approach comes from a manager of a small company that recently hired a new salesperson.  The salesperson traveled to the company for a couple days of training before his official start date.  He did this on his own dime so he could accelerate his ramp-up time.

The manager of the company was involved in the training since this salesperson would report directly to him (remember-small company).  During the training days, there was some confusion about when the salesperson should arrive in the morning.  No specific time was set, but a general schedule starting around 9am was the target.  The salesperson arrived around 9:20am.

A stack of forms was given to the salesperson to fill out before his start date, but no more specific time requirement was given.  The salesperson did not fill out all of the paperwork during the training.

A meeting was held in which the price of an integral part (that they manufacture) was going to increase substantially.  The new salesperson did not ask specific questions about the price change.

These are 3 occurrences that upset the manager.  Don’t ask.  But we asked the manager, “What was the salesperson’s response when you discussed these items with him?”

The manager’s response, “I didn’t talk to him about any of them.  I was observing him.”

Now I’ll admit there is an aspect of management that involves observation.  But a new sales hire?  My goodness, this is like the Twilight Zone.  Managers must be engaged with their salespeople including the need to guide the new salesperson through expectations.

This seems obvious to me, but I never cease to be amazed.