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3 Secrets to Hiring Great Salespeople

Portrait smiling barista in coffee shopPortrait smiling barista in coffee shop

Dear Annie: The recent article about meeting 2016 sales quotas caught my eye because I think we’re about to blow ours. The main reason is two members of my team whose results over the past few months have been extremely disappointing. I feel like I have no one to blame but myself, since I hired both of them — one as my own replacement, after I got promoted to this sales-manager job back in March. (In fact, I hired him because he reminded me of myself at a younger age but, boy, was I mistaken about that.) Now I’m looking at replacing these two, and possibly bringing on one more person, but I can’t afford to get it wrong this time. A lot has been written about this, and I’ve been studying up on it, but I’d welcome any suggestions you might have. — Kicking Myself

Dear K.M.: First, take a deep breath and stop beating yourself up. There’s no logical reason why talented salespeople should automatically make strong sales managers, yet companies persist in trying to turn one into the other. “Selling and managing, including hiring, require very different sets of skills,” notes Dave Stein, co-author of Beyond the Sales Process: 12 Proven Strategies for a Customer-Driven World. Having spent the past 30 years coaching sales teams and their bosses, Stein says that whoever promoted you without enough (or perhaps any) management training “deserves at least half the accountability” for your current pickle. He points to research showing that the failure rate among star salespeople “rewarded” with promotions like yours is a startling 85%.

Not only that, but even seasoned sales managers hire plenty of people who don’t work out. “Depending on whose research you read, annual attrition rates among business-to-business salespeople average from 25% to well over 40%,” Stein observes. “That’s partly because so many salespeople are excellent at selling themselves in an interview.” Someone who reminded you of your younger self was “probably really skilled at subtly imitating you,” he adds. Again, don’t kick yourself too much. Relying on instinct, or “gut feel,” is one of the most common hiring mistakes sales managers make, Stein says, even after years of experience.

So what should you do instead? Here are three ways Stein says you can increase the odds of hiring the right people this time around:

  • Don’t go it alone. A time-tested way to tell how well someone will fit into your organization’s culture, and understand its goals, is to invite a couple of colleagues to sit in on meetings with candidates. Stein recommends a three-person interviewing team, but they don’t have to be the same two people (besides you) every time. If the manager who initially hired you is still there, for instance, you might ask him or her, along with perhaps a high-performing member of your current sales team. The point is to get more than one set of insights about each applicant, and Stein recommends it even for sales managers with years of experience.
  • Stick to a consistent hiring process. Stein has seen many sales managers go wrong by trying to wing it. “You need to think hard about precisely which skills and attributes your best salespeople have, based on what’s been most effective in reaching your particular customers,” he says. “Once you have that profile, make a list of interview questions with definite right and wrong answers — no exceptions.” This takes a lot of thought ahead of time, he adds, but it’s worth the extra effort, since relying on a “disciplined, black-and-white set of hiring criteria cuts sales-staff turnover to an annual rate of 5% to 15%.”
  • Require candidates to simulate real-life sales calls. It’s hard to guess how well someone will perform without seeing him or her in action, so Stein recommends role-playing exercises he calls simulations. “I’ve known many sales managers who have been horrified or embarrassed during their first customer meeting with a new rep they just hired,” he says. “It happens more often than you would guess.” For a short guide to designing effective simulations, take a look at a recent post on Stein’s blog.

One more thought: Along with the studying you mention that you’ve already been doing, Stein recommends three “terrific” books about sales management you should be sure to read. They are The Sales Manager’s Mentor, by Jeff Lehman; The Sales Manager’s Survival Guide, by David Brock; and Sales Management Simplified by Mike Weinberg.

“Get your employer to foot the bill for some in-person coaching and training classes, too,” Stein adds. “Beyond hiring, managing takes a whole set of specific skills” — and, whether or not you hit your 2016 sales targets, “your success in your new role depends on how quickly you can learn them.”

Good luck!

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