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Every year thousands, maybe tens of thousands of sales people, sales managers and sales directors are hired, promoted or transfered into new sales related roles across the globe. Each and every role is important for the individual organization. Each and every sales person is a long term investment. So how do we know if we select the right person? Richard discusses this question from his unique perspective as a sales leader, business transformation expert and one time HR practitioner.

By Richard Batka, Managing Director, Anthony Alexander Partners

A few weeks ago, in an online discussion, someone asked the question “How do I know I’ve picked the right sales manager?” I replied at the time, along the lines “the simple answer is ‘results’ but unfortunately you probably don’t really know until it’s far too late”. It got me thinking a little more about the whole sales recruitment process and how many organizations have become carelessly lazy about the methods and criteria used in selecting sales people.

The typical process of selecting a sales person or sales manager in most organizations goes something along the lines of:

  • The hiring manager (sales manager) has someone leave or an additional headcount is approved. Busy with ‘real’ work, he/she finds an old job description, makes a few changes, based on his/her perception on what background would best suit.
  • The job description is then passed to the HR department or recruitment agency, where some mystical and ancient process results in a flood of resumes.
  • The culling process, also a work of alchemy, brings it down to a shortlist of 5-6 candidates.
  • Initial interviews take place. Another cull, down to 2-3.
  • Second, third, maybe even fourth interviews. Cull again, down to 2.
  • Reference checks undertaken. A few more discussions internally.
  • A decision is made.
  • A bit of compensation negotiation, followed by a formal offer.

Sound familiar? If not, look hard or you can stop reading. I would however challenge a contrary view in most cases (of course not all). I can hear it already, the arguments, ‘we do it different, we have a set of criteria’ or ‘we have an intense evaluation process, 6-10 people, it’s more objective’, ‘our process is robust, designed by our HR team, we have identified the core competencies and evaluate against these’ or one of my favorite abdications … ‘we involve specialist headhunters that know what we want and know the market, who’s good and who’s not’.

My contention is that at the end of the process the hiring manager will make the final decision, we trust them to do get it right, right? But if we dig deep we know the decision will be as much to do with ‘gut feel’ as any other criteria put in place. We are sales people after all, our job is to read people.

Now ask yourself, answering honestly, out of every 10 sales people you have hired how many have performed to or above your expectations, year on year over a three year period? One in ten, three in ten, maybe two in five? What ever our answer, why not four from five or, heaven forbid, all of them?
Fundamentally the answer is in our continued reliance on a proven to be low indicator of future performance – the ‘interview’ and (awaiting screams of outrage) the hiring manager’s personal judgment during the process.

This however is not all the fault of the hiring manager.

I have many conversations with senior leader on how their organization invests in staff, the most important ‘asset’, the investment in intellectual capital. You may be able to point to thousands, maybe tens of thousands of dollars spent on sales training, training on how to set objectives, implementation of leading edge PhD inspired performance management models, investment in the design of compensation plans focused on driving the ‘right’ sales behavior (one in particular was 80 pages long). I again contend these are actions designed to address symptoms, symptoms of a problem caused at the point of hiring or more correctly because of it.

Now ask …. How much investment is made in the training of sales managers and sales leaders on the basics of selection and assessment? When was the last time you defined the core skills required to be successful in sales in your organization? How good are your reference checks and how do they really relate to future success? Do you check who the referees are and how credible they are? Do you reference with the candidates customers, if not why not? What about profiling or testing in the areas of discipline, social interaction and self motivation? Are you answering positively to all of the above?

Yet we all agree hiring the right sales person is a significant investment, right? An investment costing anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000 per annum just in direct compensation, true? Way more when on costs are added.

So why do we not treat the recruitment of a sales person similarly to any major investment?

When organizations select a technology solution more often than not they will:

  • Go through research, learning what’s available, maybe engage an expert external advisor to assist in the process.
  • Preparing requirement documents through iterative stakeholder consultation.
  • Vendors are invited to complete formal RFP documents.
  • Finance is involved to define ROI’s and help with cost benefit analysis.
  • Legal will be involved in ensure commercial terms are appropriate.
  • Multi-person cross-departmental evaluation panels put the vendors (and their solutions) through their paces using criteria based on the requirements and verifying functional fit for purpose and technology compatibility.
  • References are taken; even maybe a site visit or two.
  • Sometimes even “Proof of Concept” is requested … try before you buy if you like.
  • Corporate due diligence and contract negotiations are undertaken.
  • Project plans agreed, implementation executed and managed to scope

So on and so forth, you get the point. Even though many of us in IT sales work hard to get through this quickly or avoid it all together it’s a fair and disciplined approach considering the intended investment, right?

So why do we treat a $200,000 investment in software any more carefully than a $200,000 (recurring) investment in a sales person? Is not the investment in a sales person, tasked with returning 3, 5 maybe 100 times his/her salary in revenue, as important and valuable as other investments of similar value and similar expected return?

I lay down the personal challenge to hiring managers, even if you only recruit one sales person per year, find out/work out/learn how to select and assess sales people properly for YOUR organization. Do not assume because you’ve done it hundreds of times you know what you’re doing (shelve the Alpha male ego for a time), rely on the alchemic skills of others at your own peril and do not believe you can manage through it after the person is hired.

If you don’t believe you need to take more time and have more focus on who and how you recruit sales people, ask yourself one of two questions:

  • Do I have a 100% success rate in hiring sales people to date?
  • How much time would I spend on the merits of investing $200,000+ per year of my own money?

Give your hiring the same attention and focus as our clients do on selecting the right solution. You will end up with a far better team and more committed sales people. And ultimately you will spend less time and money on training and the overhead of managing symptoms, minimize the risk of a bad investment avoiding lost opportunity, degraded customer satisfaction and lost market share.

Will you KNOW you have chosen the right sales person? Maybe not, but I guarantee you, through experience, over time you will have a much higher percentage of great sales people versus the not so great, you will have more time to spend with customers and your sales results will be significantly higher.

Richard Batka is Managing Director and co-founder of Anthony Alexander Partners, providing accelerated market entry, expansion and transformation for organizations across the Asia Pacific region.

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