Past behaviors are the best indicator of future success. This point is crucial when hiring salespeople for your team.  The difficulty lies in deducing if the candidate has the right set of skills to be successful in your specific sale.

Here’s the ugly truth – “bad” salespeople can still have good interpersonal skills…skills good enough to get past your hiring process.

Every sales leader, and I mean every, has a sales hiring horror story.  The sales leader thought they were hiring a superstar and they ended up with a dud.  These fantastic flame-outs are memorable and disappointing for sure.  But there is a more odious error that eats away at a sale team.

Creeping mediocrity.

This weakness slowly infects a sales team as mediocre salespeople are systematically added to the team.  The team’s skills and effectiveness briskly deteriorate as the mediocre performance  begins to lower the bar, for the entire team.  The lower performance, albeit not desired, is a subtle erosion of revenue performance.  The drop in revenue is not precipitous so panic rarely follows.  The sales leader may even manage to these declining revenues with some form of unconscious acceptance.

How do you avoid creeping mediocrity?  The solution starts with knowing who you are hiring for each sales role.  The conventional wisdom is to hire based on resumes.  Salespeople with industry experience, or better yet from a competitor, is the target.  The flaw here is assumptive – since the candidate is from the industry, he or she will be successful in the role.

The issue is simple, talent always outperforms experience.  If you have to choose between the two, always take talent.  Experience is easier to ascertain based on their resume.  Yet, talent can be measured, too, by using our sales assessments. 

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I harp on this topic frequently, but it is a foundational need for all strong sales leaders.  You must hold your people accountable to reach goals, close deals and follow your system (a broad word that entails your requirements for performance).  The key is to simply do it…you don’t have to be “good” at it, but you do have to do it.  Many sales leaders miss this important point.

So I give you this Selling Power article with a comprehensive view of this accountability need for all sales leaders.  The author makes a significant point that often gets overlooked by sales leaders who like to use the stick before the carrot.  First the accountability piece:

3) Hold your team and each member accountable for goals.  You don’t have to threaten your team members to remind them that they’re responsible (to you and to one another) for meeting the goals they set.  Instead, inspire their best effort by reminding them of their importance to the team and company.  Tell them you’ll hold them accountable for succeeding because you have faith in their ability to get the job done.

Well said.  And to go further, you will have to discipline the underperformers.  Do not skip past this requirement.  Now for the part that I have seen some overzealous sales leaders dismiss (emphasis mine):

4) Be supportive.  Meeting sales goals is a team effort, and you’re an important part of that team.  You can’t make the calls for your salespeople, but you can give them every chance to succeed by providing your support and guidance.  Remind your salespeople that you’re on their side, and that you’ll be available to help them in any way you can.  If you’re going to hold your salespeople accountable for meeting their goals, you have to hold yourself accountable for helping them.

Absolutely spot on.  You have to help them in the manner in which they need help to develop and succeed.  Don’t close deals for them.  Don’t read them the riot act and not help them.  Don’t go silent with the underperformers.  You have to be a coach right in the middle of the huddle helping call the plays that will lead to their success.  Anything short of that and you are not holding up your end of the leadership equation.

Here is a great Nike commercial via the website:

The point of the commercial walks right over to the sales world.  Michael Jordan’s closing statement from the commercial:

I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Here is what sales managers need to understand, some times you need to let a salesperson fail.  Now, I’m not talking about a large, important prospect, but rather a prospect that you may know is not going to close or is misaligned in some other way.  I’ve come across many sales managers who want to consistently step in and help a struggling salesperson.  This ends up becoming a crutch for the underperforming salesperson and he/she will not have the opportunity to develop their skill to the fullest.

At times, it is best to provide the coaching lesson to the salesperson and then to step back and let them apply the lesson.  Guess what?  Often times they are going to fail in their initial attempts.  This is ok as sometimes they need to have those failures to learn the lesson.

Here is an article from Eye on Sales that addresses a common sales management topic – should you promote your top salesperson into the sales manager role?  I would argue that the conventional wisdom is to avoid making this mistake.

From the article:

Sales management mistake #1: Promoting top performers to sales managers

Top-performing salespeople are not necessarily top managers. Leaders often fail to evaluate their best sales professionals for their ability and aptitude to manage before placing them in a leadership position. It seems like an easy decision to promote the best, but in reality you might be taking one of your most potent weapons out of the game and placing them in a position that is not well-suited for them. As a result, the company as a whole loses – the individual is unhappy, the salespeople he’s managing are underperforming, and the company is missing out on potential sales.

Solution: There are many assessment tools that can accurately predict management aptitude – use them. I find it baffling when so many firms roll the dice on salespeople and sales managers when there are quantitative, validated, and reliable evaluations available that are accurate predictors of success. Don’t assume that because an individual is a top performer in sales that they’ll be able to manage sales people. It just doesn’t work like that.

I get the point…in fact I have written similarly myself.  Assessments are the key as they can provide you with an edge when it comes to interviewing candidates and determining their fit to the position’s requirements.  Not surprisingly, I strongly agree with the author on this topic.

I have a slightly different take on promoting top performing salespeople – they know how to “get ‘er done.”  I have seen many underperforming salespeople who seem to be in vapor lock.  They aren’t sure what to do either strategically or tactically.  Top selling salespeople have a tactical efficiency to them that can truly undergird an entire sales team.  They can teach the team how to get ‘er done.

In this light, strong salespeople can be a force multiplier for a sales team.  Granted, it doesn’t work in all situations, but I do think the conventional wisdom has shifted too far away from this approach.

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’m back in my psych book this morning looking for a specific answer to how managers get stuck on “bad” instances from otherwise strong performing salespeople.  I’ve seen this effect with some sales managers who have a generally sour impression of a salesperson who seems to be doing well in the role.  When I pursue the topic with the manager, I typically hear of anecdotal stories with what seems to be innocuous outcomes.  However, the sales manager is still upset by situation.

Here is what I discovered in the test book – availability heuristic.  Availability heuristic is basically this – making judgments based on how easily instances come to mind.  From the textbook:

Which is more common – words that start with the letter k (e.g. king) or words that have k as the third letter (e.g. awkward)?  In English there are more than twice as many words having k for the third letter as words starting with k, but most people wrongly judge that k is more commonly the first letter.  The reason, presumably, is that it is easy to think of words starting with k but harder to think of words having k in the third position.

Here is the hook:

When a boss evaluates an employee’s reliability, he may be guided by how easy it is to remember the employee’s missing a deadline.

The authors provide a good example of air travel – millions of people fly innumerable miles all over the world and flying is one of the safest modes of travel.  But many people ignore this face and become reluctant to fly because plane crashes are so readily available in their memory.

Managers need to be cognizant of this mental short cut.  Some salespeople become labeled based on this effect.  Before moving into end-of-year reviews, make sure you perform a thorough reconstruction of each salesperson’s performance.  Remember – don’t take short cuts.

I am usually a bit cynical regarding these types of articles.  My reasoning is this – each individual is unique in their motivations and rewards.  Attempting to place employees into set categories regarding global characterizations is a stretch.  Nonetheless, this article from presents some excellent points and advice for employee engagement.

I do not believe you can overstate this one:

5. Employees want flexibility. In addition to deciding how they work, the experts say employees also appreciate having a say over when they work. Gunther has, of course, set up a radically flexible schedule for his employees that might not work for every office. But, he says, it has enabled him to find and retain top talent for Meddius. “We’ve had people who have taken significant pay cuts to work for us, because at their old job they were told to show up and be at the office between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” he says. “Generation Y is looking for a synergy between their personal lives and their professional lives.” Set up a flexible vacation policy or a telecommuting policy that enables employees to work from home. It involves a great deal of trust, but, as Pink says, “If you don’t trust your employees, you’ve got much bigger problems.”

This recession has lowered the drive for some employees on this topic, but it is still prevalent among the younger workers.  I love the last line as it is absolute truth.

I think the older generation has a palpable difficulty with telecommuting.  My discussions with many Boomer-aged managers have included comments basically stating that to be effective in the role, they have to be in the office every day.  My take on that commentary is that the manager is projecting their own approach into the position.  They may struggle in a remote role, but I’m not convinced that is always the case with the younger generations.

There are 9 other interesting points in the article so I recommend you read the entire thing.

I’ve been assessing many existing salespeople over the past couple weeks and have seen many different levels of abilities.  The ones that stick in my mind are the salespeople who are presently struggling with their revenue production.  Sales is one of, if not the most stressful positions within any company.  The overt issue with a lack of sales performance is that everyone in the company can see it.  The numbers are very visible.

One underperforming salesperson I talked to recently has hit a true low point.  He’s not certain where to start.  I thought about that discussion for quite some time afterwards.

The lack of performance becomes a spiraling nose dive like those old WWII videos of planes with one wing shot up.  The salesperson senses the spiral and over adjusts.  This is the pattern I have seen – the salesperson starts attempting to be someone they are not.

Generally, here is what I have seen in these salespeople:

-Less aggressive
-Less empathetic
-More data-driven
-More pessimistic
-More uncertain

These salespeople become unsure to the point where they do not move like they used to when qualifying prospects.  Instead, the salesperson requires larger amounts of data to make decisions.  They become uncertain in areas where they used to be decisive.  They tend to be less empathetic – they switch off their ability to read others as they become more robotic in attempting to close quickly.  They lose the natural aggressiveness that comes from being successful.

The key here is to get the salesperson back to their natural state.  This activity is supported by assessments.  In each of the instances I encountered recently, the salesperson’s assessments revealed a highly stressed state.  None of them were operating in their natural state.  This overshift was causing large amounts of stress and gross underperformance.

Each of the salespeople are operating well outside of their natural style which is neutralizing their abilities.  They are using energy to be someone they are not in an attempt to preserve their job.  Unfortunately, that approach is counterproductive to success in most cases.  My recommendation to each of these salespeople was specific actions to move them back to their natural style.  This has to be the first step in rejuvenating an ailing salesperson.

I have had the opportunity to work for many different sales managers over my career.  I’ve seen many styles, but I think this article in hits upon the most dangerous style:

The Good Buddy is everyone’s friend. Managing is a popularity contest that he intends to win. He’ll be a great drinking buddy, a top notch shoulder to cry on, a guy you can trust to cover for you. He’ll make sure the office atmosphere is loose, that everyone feels welcome, that the office is a fun place to be.

Discipline? Well, that’s not something you’ll find in his office. An insistence on hitting quota? Something else that isn’t a priority. Coaching? Nope. Lots of back slapping and high fiving, but no coaching. Decisions? Don’t expect The Good Buddy to make the hard decisions because he might hurt someone’s feelings.

The Good Buddy is weak and lets his team members run the office. Ultimately, most everyone in his office ends up unhappy.

The reason this style is so dangerous is that the first order of sales management is holding salespeople accountable.  Accountable to their forecasts, their activities, their communication, their sales, etc.  It is the ultimate coaching position that requires the leader to have earned the respect of his or her team.

The Good Buddy I worked for used to hold court in his office for most of the day.  It was always stories, jokes, happy hour plans, etc.  Lunches were 2 hour investments.  Sales discussions were minimal.  Strategy discussions were non-existent.  We were simply expected to do our job, make our numbers and don’t bother him.  It was completely dysfunctional and ineffective.

The sales manager was eventually fired, but the damage was done to the company.  It eventually folded in the mid-1990’s.

This style is one of the reasons why objective assessments are a critical piece to any successful sales manager hiring process.

I’ve noticed in some companies a casualness regarding sales forecasts from their sales team.  Heck, I’ve worked for some companies that shared that casualness.  Some companies view it as an exercise in Excel gymnastics.  Others view it as a coffee klatch activity.  One customer of ours had multipliers (<1.0) for certain sales reps since they knew those sales reps’ forecasts were inflated…greatly.

Here is a news story about a local company and a significant change to their forecast.  The setup:

Digital River Inc. shares plunged Monday after the e-commerce services provider announced it will lose its largest customer.

Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp. (NASDAQ: SYMC) notified Digital River on Oct. 9 that it will not extend its e-commerce agreement. That deal, under which Digital River provides a variety of e-commerce-related services to Symantec, expires on June 30, 2010.

Ouch.  Most people know that Symantec owns Norton Anti-Virus so that is a big loss.  How big?

In 2008, sales of products for Symantec accounted for 24.3 percent of Digital River revenue and sales derived from proprietary Digital River services sold to Symantec consumers accounted for 9.4 percent of Digital River revenue.

Over one-third of their revenue gone.  I’ve never been a fan of companies having one customer be so dominant in their revenue stream.  And now that one company won’t be!  Here is a pristine example of when a sales forecast can be a lifesaver for a company.

Here is the CEO’s explanation to the street (emphasis mine):

“Our company is financially strong, our new business pipeline remains healthy, and sales activity in the software, consumer electronics and business-to-business sectors continues to grow,” he said.

As an investor, I would sure like to know what measurements constitute “healthy.”  This scenario, losing a large customer, plays out often in the sales world.  The companies that can absorb such loses are the ones that know how to secure new (i.e. replacement) revenue from new customers.  An accurate sales forecast is the tool that will guide the Chief Revenue Officer to the quickest path for revenue replacement.  If I were in that role, I would be doubling efforts on the best short-term prospects on the forecast.  If my forecast was little more than notes on a napkin, I would be updating my resume.