April 2, 2014

Stop Fooling Yourself into Bad Sales Hires – (Guest Post from A-Player Talent Guru)

I was talking sales talent with A-Player expert and talent guru Eric Herrenkohl when he shared this story with me. It was so valuable that I asked him to capture it in writing for a guest post here:

Jim is a high-powered CEO with terrific natural sales ability. Clients and prospective clients alike love to have him around. While his charisma serves him well in rainmaking, it was killing him when he hired salespeople. Here is Jim’s story and the lessons he learned the hard way:

When Jim entered a conference room to interview a potential salesperson, he first tried to warm up the candidate by connecting with him or her on a point of common interest. Fairly quickly he would get a read as to whether the other candidate was personable and relational vs. cold and analytical. He only wanted to hire highly relational people. If they were cold and aloof, they were out.

But it was Jim’s next step with the candidates he liked that was costing him. Once he decided that he/she was the kind of relationship builder he wanted for his team, Jim reverted to doing what he did best – he started selling. He told stories. He got people energized about his business and its potential.  He filled the room with his own energy. Then he left the conference room, went down the hall, grabbed the Vice President of Sales, and told him to hire the person.

Time and time again, 18 months later the company was firing these salespeople at a total cost that exceeded $1 million dollars per person when you accounted for both hard costs (salary, benefits, bonuses, computer hardware and software, company car) and opportunity costs (all the promised clients that failed to follow the salesperson to Jim’s company, and the prospects that never transformed into clients).

Jim was angry and frustrated. He had been sure that each of these new hires was going to be a rock star. None of them turned out to be so.

Then Jim had an insight that stopped him in his tracks. Jim only hired people when he connected with them and felt a positive energy that reminded him of his own energy and approach to sales. And he realized that there was a very good reason he was feeling such a strong and powerful energy in the room – it was his own! When he went into sales mode, he injected so much energy and personality into the discussion that everyone went away feeling great. But once these new hires were away from Jim and sitting in their own new offices, not only did they not have his level of charisma, they typically lacked the tenacious prospecting ability needed to succeed.

Once Jim figured this out, he put himself on leash scaling back the amount of energy and enthusiasm that he injected into interviews. He got more focused on asking good questions and listening for evidence that people had both a successful sales track record and a proven sales methodology.  He also got better at allowing silence to linger in the conversation in order to test if prospective salespeople could use their own energy and charisma to move the conversation forward. Jim’s hiring judgment improved and his hiring mistakes decreased in the following months.

Lessons we can take away from Jim’s interviewing:

  • Listen more, talk less.  Spend more time asking questions and listening and less time talking and selling. Particularly when we are unprepared for an interview, we talk too much and as a result the candidates we are interviewing talk too little.
  • Focus on accomplishments, not just personality.  While personality is important in sales, understanding someone’s past accomplishments best helps us to evaluate her sales ability. We have all learned the hard way that just because someone has a great personality does not mean that he or she can sell. Decide whether someone has enough charisma to check the “personality box” on your interview scorecard.  Then move on and evaluate if this person has ever actually been successful at sales in the past.
  • Team up.    One of the best ways to improve your interviewing results is to team up with someone with a complementary (read opposite) personality and approach. If you exude personality like Jim does, partner up with someone you trust who is more analytical and less trusting than you are. While one of you asks questions, the other observes, takes notes, and then asks follow up questions. You will be amazed at what you uncover.

eric-herrenkohlIt’s very easy to fool ourselves into making a bad hiring decision. Remember that when interviewing, we are qualifying prospective employees and seeking to weed out people who don’t have what it takes to make it. Some simple steps like those described above can go a long way to reducing these mistakes and identifying people who can and will do the job we need done.

Eric Herrenkohl is author of the Amazon bestseller “How to Hire A-Players” and President of Herrenkohl Consulting, a retained executive search firm that works with the top executives in manufacturing and supply chain. He’s been a valuable coach to me, he’s a trusted friend,  and my main GoTo resource when it comes to all things talent.