sales, candidates, culture-fit, reference checks, the people group

Best Ways to Hire Salespeople

View the original article in the Harvard Business Review

by Frank V. Cespedes and Daniel Weinfurter

Many firms talk about talent management, but few deal systematically with a basic fact: average annual turnover in sales is 25 to 30%. This means that the equivalent of the entire sales organization must be hired and trained every four years or so, and that’s expensive.

Consider these stats. Direct replacement costs for a telesales employee can range from $75,000 to $90,000, while other sales positions can cost a company as much as $300,000. Moreover, these figures don’t reflect the lost sales while a replacement is found and trained. In sectors like medical devices, big capital equipment, and many professional services, including these opportunity costs can push turnover cost to $1 million or more per event.

The challenge is compounded by the fact that there is no easily identified resource pool for sales positions. According to Howard Stevens in Achieve Sales Excellence, more than 50% of U.S. college graduates, regardless of their majors, are likely to work in sales. But of the over 4,000 colleges in this country, less than 100 have sales programs or even sales courses. And, even if companies are lucky enough to find qualified grads, the increased data and analytical tasks facing many sales forces mean that productivity ramp-up times have increased. Each hire is now a bigger sunk cost for a longer time.

Bottom line: companies typically spend more on hiring in sales than they do anywhere else in the firm. So how do you improve the returns on this investment? Here are four places to start:

Hire for the task. In business, you hear so many opinions about what makes for a good salesperson. But most are a bland summary of the Boy Scout Handbook, with traits like extroversion, assertiveness, empathy, modesty, and an “achievement orientation.” These platitudes are often reflected in firms’ competency lists and are so broad that, at best, they simply remind us that people tend to do business with people they like (but not always and not as often as many sales trainers assume). At worst, these abstractions are irrelevant to the execution of business strategy, and they make hiring, in sales and other functions, a classic example of the cloning bias: managers use these slogans to hire in their own image.

Selling jobs vary greatly depending on the product or service sold, the customers a salesperson is responsible for, the relative importance of technical knowledge, and the people contacted during sales calls. A review of hundreds of studies about sales productivity finds that “[t]he results of this research have simply failed to identify behavioral predispositions or aptitudes that account for a large amount of variance in performance for salespeople. In addition, the results of this research are quite inconsistent and, in some cases, even contradictory.” Common stereotypes about a “good” salesperson (e.g., pleasing personality, hard-wired for sociability, and so on) obscure the realities you face.

Selling effectiveness is not a generalized trait. It’s a function of the sales tasks, which vary according to the market, your strategy, the stage of the business (i.e., startup or later stage), the customers targeted by your strategy, and buying processes at those customers. This is true even for firms in the same industry. Think about the difference between sales tasks at Nordstrom, where personalized service and advice are integral to strategy execution, and Costco, where low price and product availability make sales tasks less complex and variable.

The first step in smart hiring and productivity is understanding the relevant sales tasks in your market and strategy and then reflecting those tasks in hiring criteria and a disciplined hiring process.

Focus on behaviors. Research based upon thousands of exit interviews shows that a primary cause of poor performance and turnover is poor job fit. People, especially salespeople with a variable pay component, become frustrated when they’re hired for tasks that are a poor fit with their skills and preferences. Conversely, as the saying goes, “You hire your problems.” Zappos CEO Tony Hseih estimates that bad hires have cost his firm $100 million. Famously, Zappos will pay people to leave voluntarily after a few months on the job.

The key is to focus on the behaviors implied by the sales tasks. In many firms, this means upgrading assessment skills. Managers are excessively confident about their ability to evaluate candidates via interviews. In reality, studies indicate a low correlation (generally, less than 25%) between interview predictions and job success, and some indicate that interview processes actually hurt in hiring decisions: the firm would have done better with blind selection procedures! The best results, by far, occur when those making hiring decisions can observe the potential hires’ job behaviors and use a recruitment process based on a combination of factors, as illustrated in the following graphic:

sales, candidates, culture-fit, reference checks, the people group

How to evaluate a candidate for a sales position