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Seeking superior sales help The standard methods of finding new employees might produce great quantities of applicants, but low-quality salespeople.

The big question clients often ask is how to hire good salespeople. They want to know exactly what to look for, but no one strategy nor formula is the

Seeking superior sales helpThe standard methods of finding new employees might produce great quantities of applicants, but low-quality salespeople.

Dec 20, 1996 12:00 PM,
Ted TateTate is president of Tate & Associates, a sales training and business consulting firm in Me

The big question clients often ask is how to hire good salespeople. They want to know exactly what to look for, but no one strategy nor formula is the total answer. We are dealing with people, and the diversity is endless. Gray areas are perpetual. But here are some tips.

Common senseIf someone’s explanation about a negative situation is unduly vague, sounds suspicious or doesn’t add up, pay attention to your gut feeling. If the person is an excellent candidate in other respects, then she certainly deserves further investigation.

Sometimes you won’t be able to verify the incidents, or the results of your investigation will be of no help. But be sure to respect your initial gut feeling. Nine times out of 10 you’ll be right.

Don’t invent excuses or make it easy for people to lie to you during an interview. Sometimes we find ourselves wanting a candidate to be qualified, just to get a position filled. Every time I’ve seen this happen, it leads to grief.

Check referencesAny time you hire someone for a job, call former employers. Sometimes it isn’t what they tell you about the person, but what they avoid telling you or their demeanor that can give a clue, especially about sensitive issues. Although laws protect applicant’s rights, and I advocate following these laws to the letter, you as a prospective employer would be remiss not to check with previous employers.

ToughnessI wish I had a dollar for every client who made a bad hire because he felt sorry for the candidate, wanted to give the person a break or because the candidate promised that bad behavior would never happen again. Hiring out of sympathy is a big mistake. These people are often the ones who create the biggest problems once hired. You are not in the business of, nor are you qualified to be, counseling damaged people. That’s a job for professionals.

People who won’t accept responsibility for their problems by getting help on their own won’t take your help either. They may pretend to so they get a job, but that’s about it. When the day comes you have you fire them, and it usually does come, they leave you a little more damaged than when they arrived. Saying no to someone who really doesn’t belong in your company doesn’t make you a mean person. You may be doing the person a favor.

ExperiencePart of experience is learning to make a decision based upon what you know, can find out about and have the time for. After that point, decide, and get on with it. I’ve seen employers lose good candidates because they were so unsure of themselves they stalled too long in making a decision. The better qualified a candidate is, the easier it is for the person to find good employment in other places. Don’t fear making a decision.

The experiences you accumulate along the way, both the failures and the successes, will give you a deeper insight into hiring people who can and will do a good job for your company. Successful people are always willing to fail, not intentionally, of course, but they are willing to learn from failures. Success without risk is nonexistent.

When interviewing you may run across some typical sales job candidates: drifters, the status quos and the sales winners.

* The job drifters. These are people who are looking for a job to fill the time until something more important happens. Their job history will reveal five or more jobs over the last five years. One clue often dropped by these people in an interview is a statement such as, “If I can’t make it in sales, I can always go back to driving a truck, or teaching, being a secretary, etc.” Another give-away is they may tell you they dabble in real estate or something else in their spare time.

These people are sometimes good at hiding the truth, using resumes without proper dates or with dates that are incorrect. The best cure is asking all candidates to fill out a company application form and specify that you’ll need exact starting and ending dates of previous positions. During the interview you simply go over each job one at a time. As you do, confirm the exact starting and ending dates. With job drifters you’ll see they start to show bigger gaps in jobs, perhaps admit to jobs they don’t show on the resume because they weren’t at those jobs long enough for them to matter.

Because they like people, job drifters will go into sales. Some have good sales abilities and even look good in training classes. They problem is these people have no deep roots, at least not as far as your sales position is concerned. They see your job as a way to survive until something better comes along. They’ll do what it takes to keep the job, but no more. These are frequently the lowest or borderline performers. Eventually they will leave you just as they have left every other job, sometimes without notice. People who don’t value a job to start with are rarely concerned about their employer’s problems.

* The status quo candidates. These are people who hit a comfort zone financially. When you examine the earnings records of applicants, watch for people who are earning close to what they earned four or five years ago. In their own mind, that’s what they are worth. These people have little desire to grow. They are seeking a job that offers them an opportunity to earn enough income to remain in their comfort zone. They may really be good sales people. They may have friendly personalities. They may even tell you how much they love selling, and they won’t be lying. The problem is that once they hit the comfort zone, they start to cruise. These people won’t go the extra mile or take risks; they just want to cruise along.

These people make up a large part of America’s sales force. They are never the best, but then again, they are not the worst either. They are average and aren’t going anywhere else. They may keep you going, but they’ll never make you rich.

One of the big fallacies of motivation is that money works best of all to motivate people. Although salespeople must be given an opportunity to earn a decent living, once people get to their comfort zones, money quickly loses its power.

If money really had any true motivational power, thousands upon thousands of straight commission salespeople would be working night and day making sales calls and earning huge incomes. Anyone who has been in sales knows the woods are full of straight commission salespeople who barely make ends meet, week after week. Once they earn enough to pay their basic needs, they slack off.

* The sales winners. These people form a rare breed for one simple reason: anyone who can really sell successfully can pick just about any sales position out there. What these salespeople want is success and growth. If they feel your organization is growing and has a future, they may find you.

Remember, these people don’t need a job; they can always get that. They are seeking opportunity, new adventures. They want to test themselves with tough problems and exciting challenges. Sales winners will find out something about a potential employer before they seriously consider any job offer. Just as you qualify potential employees, they will qualify you. It’s rare they’ll mail you a resume. Usually you’ll hear about them through word of mouth. One of the finest salesmen I ever hired first came to my office to sell me a product. When I saw him in action I knew I had to hire him. It took quite a bit of my own sales talents over several weeks finally to convince him to work with our company. It turned out to be a great decision for both of us.

These kinds of individuals like to work with, not for, a manager. They need their bosses to respect their independence. Although these types are always self motivated, a talented mentor can help them grow further. You’ll find most of them have extensive training and usually are receptive to new training and new ideas.

These people represent a minority of the world’s sales force. They are hard to come by and sometimes hard to keep. But hire enough of them, and they will build you an empire.

Finding qualified candidatesWhen the time arrives to hire new people, the first thought is to place an ad in the newspaper. The best result so far as volume of responses comes from ads placed in the Sunday classifieds. Unfortunately the quality of the people responding is often disappointing. This is true in all categories and seems most noticeable when you advertise for a salesperson.

Personally, this is really the second from last place I’d use to seek out a salesperson. It isn’t that I wouldn’t use classifieds because I have and still may. But I have found better methods to try first because they usually produce a higher quality candidate.

As far as employment agencies go, almost all of them focus on the lower-paying, high-turnover jobs. They make money by sending in as many candidates as they can gather, hoping the sheer numbers will create a job fit. I have had little success with agencies in hiring good salespeople. I would use them in a pinch, but they represent the last place I’d try, not the first.

What I would hope you’re looking for is a person with good people skills, which usually translates into good selling skills. These are intangible skills and impossible to train someone into developing. You can teach them technical information about your products or services. You can’t teach someone to like people, to accept rejection many times a day and still smile.

Forget the old saw about hiring salespeople who know the industry. It’s nice when you find someone, but you had better focus on sales ability as the single most critical issue. It’s the area that can make or break your hire.

Describing the job to othersToo often people ask for what they want when they describe a job. “I need someone to travel three states with her own car and close on one call.” Who would really recommend that to anyone but an enemy?

Be a salesperson yourself. Talk in terms of what’s in it for the new hire. You don’t have a job offer; you have a career opportunity for some lucky person. Describe the positive aspects of the position so people will want to pass the information along. Just be careful not to misrepresent the job.

“I’m looking for someone special who would appreciate a real career opportunity in our sales department. I’d like to find a sincere person who would really appreciate an opportunity to grow professionally.”

Finding good candidatesThere are a number of places to look for new salespeople:* Your best salespeople: If you have a really good salesperson now, ask for referrals. Winners hang out with winners, losers with losers.* Your competitors: If you belong to a national or local trade association, you can place an ad in its newsletter or in your trade’s press, such as in the S&VC classified section. Be sure you mention total confidentiality and your company name. Otherwise perfectly good candidates will be afraid to respond. Another strategy is to casually mention your needs at trade association meetings where salespeople may be present.* The salespeople who call on your company: I always speak to salespeople who called on me, just out of courtesy, even if I am not a prospect. Most of the times I would be appalled at their lack of basic selling skills, although I’ve never made any comments. On some rarer occasions I have run into what I considered excellent salespeople. On three of those occasions, I hired them to work for me and got great results.

Always keep your eyes open for a good salesperson, no matter where you are. You never know if the person may consider moving to your business. It may be immediate or they may call you later.* Your customers: They have other salespeople calling on them, including salespeople who work for your competitors. They also have friends and associates you don’t know. Ask them for referrals.* Your suppliers: People who sell to you have a good reason to try to help you. They also have salespeople calling on them, and they, too, have friends and associates you don’t know.* Your attorney, your accountant and any other business consultants: Salespeople call on them, too, and they also have clients who may be salespeople. And some of their clients, friends and associates may be available. Ask them for referrals.* Sales lead clubs, tips clubs or business networking groups: Memberships consist of salespeople or business owners who meet on a regular basis to exchange sales leads. Some of these groups are run informally by a group of salespeople; others are organized and require payment of dues. The best way to locate them is to read the events calendar in the business newspapers and magazines in your community. Another way is to ask salespeople if they know of any.

Go to the meeting as a visitor. They always have a part where people get up and introduce themselves. When you do, share your career opportunity with them. Be sure you have plenty of business cards with you, and hand them out liberally. Some of those salespeople at the meeting may not need a job but have a friend who does. Make sure they know it’s OK if they or a friend contact you privately at your office. When people are considering changing jobs, they need assurance you’ll keep it strictly confidential.

Superior salespeople are out there. With some investigation and determination, and a lot of your own sales skills, you’ll find people who can help your company grow into something they can be proud of, too.

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