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The Myth of Hiring Experienced Sales People
When most companies hire sales people, the major criteria usually includes having some years of experience selling in the same or a similar industry, and a good track record of good sales results.
However, if you were to look closer, these are not the critical success factors that will determine if the sales person will deliver results for you.
One key reason is that the market place that we are operating in is constantly changing. You will notice that:
• Customers are getting more and more demanding and knowledgeable;
• Competition is getting more and more intense;
• The things you sell are getting more and more complex, etc.
In some markets, the changes within a 5-year period can be so drastic that it’s beyond recognition.
So if you are hiring based on past experience, how do you know that what worked in the past is going to work in the future? The same factors that gave you success in the past are getting less and less relevant for today’s and the future’s challenges.
What about a good sales track record, you might ask. Surely, if a sales person has been consistently producing great results will still continue to produce great results.
Unfortunately, unlike many other professions, the sales profession is one where dealing with failures is essential to becoming a successful sales person. No successful sales person can claim that he or she has never been rejected by customers, or has never lost deals in an ongoing basis. In fact, just like in many negotiations, the better sales person knows when to “walk away” and seek other better prospective customers, while the weaker sales person hangs on too long to customers that are never going to buy.
Hence, if you see sales people who seem to have “perfect” track records in the sense that they always reach or exceed sales targets could be:
• Selling in a monopoly where customers have no choice but to buy from them;
• Entering the market in an early stage so that they got the biggest customers in that market;
• Selling for a well-established brand to loyal existing customers that really need little persuasion to buy
This is not to say that having the relevant experience and a good track record is not important to a sales person. It just means that having some years of sales experience and a track record is no indicator of future performance.
The Critical Behaviors that Drive Sales
While companies are always looking at sales figures to determine the success of their sales force, most of the time it is the sales process (i.e. how you sell) that determines the results you get. How well the sales process is being executed depends largely the habits and behaviors of each sales person.
Different companies will have different sales processes for different customers in different regions who are buying different product lines. Hence, the critical behaviors that drive sales success will vary from case to case. The sales processes that companies have can include:
1. Selling only to a few Strategic Accounts, and sales people will have to work through complex relationships so as to gain buy-in from all levels in the customer’s organization;
2. Constantly generating new leads and getting new customers to buy frequently; or
3. Having a balance of new business development and key accounts management so that sales people are getting both new and existing customers to buy from them with varying complexity, etc.
In reality, sales processes can get a lot more complicated as different customers in different markets have different needs that have to be satisfied in different ways. So what if you aren’t quite sure what is the sales process for the next sales person, here are some “generic” critical behaviors that apply to most sales processes (and which are found lacking in most sales people too):
• Constant prospecting to make sure the sales person fills up the pipeline. Most sales people, no matter how experienced, will prefer to deal with existing customers than to look for new ones. However, if the sales person shows the disciplined behavior to keep on prospecting for new prospects, that is a sign of a good hire;
• Constantly exploring what are the customers’ “pain” or problem areas, and pro-actively seeking to provide solutions or suggestions to customers to help them overcome those challenges;
• Making sure that the relationship with the customer are developed with all major key influence in the customer’s organizations, rather than relying on one single contact. Such sales people are also usually good developing relationships with less influential “informants” who can provide critical information
• Learning from mistakes and customer rejections so as to do better next time. In a similar vein, knowing when NOT to pursue a customer when it’s not worth the time or effort, AND spend time looking for new and better customers instead, etc.
Hence, during your interviews with candidates, you can ask the following questions:
• “If I were a prospective customer, and you want to do business with me, how would you go about making that first contact?” (Do a role play, and also ask the candidate what is his usual modus operandi)
• “What makes your customers buy from you instead of anybody else? Why have some other customers chosen NOT to buy from you?” (Note: if the candidate gives general answers like “because I provide good service”, probe in deeper by asking “what is good service”)
• “Typically, how many people do you have to communicate with before you can get your sale? Can you cite an example where you need to work through many contacts before getting the sale?” (Get the candidate to draw his customer’s organization chart if need be)
• “Are there any instances that you thought you probably have won the sale, but somehow lost it in the end? What do you think you can learn from such cases?” (Beware the candidate who’s very confident and tells you he knows his customer real well)
• “Are there times when you need to give up on a specific sale? What happened and what did you do then?” (Watch out for the candidate who claims “I never give up any sale!” It is a sign of poor priority management and qualifying skills)
Developing Competent Sales People
It may not be surprising that most if not all of your candidates fail in ALL of the above questions. It could well possible that even some of your existing experienced sales people fail some of those questions too. (Or else sales consultancies like us will be out of business very soon!)
The next question will be: if we then set such high standards that no candidates actually display the required critical behaviors, does that mean we don’t hire anyone?
The good news is that such critical sales behaviors can be taught and learned. In fact, high-performing sales people learned to become high-performers throughout their careers. Only a handful few high-performers are “naturals”.
Hence, while most candidates are unlikely to display the critical behaviors that will drive sales for you, you can pick those who display some of those behaviors, AND are willing to learn some new ways to make more sales, you then may have a winner in the near future.
Some companies are unwilling to invest time, effort and money to develop their new sales hires because of the following reasons:
1. “We expect the new sales hire to perform immediately, that’s why we hire them for their experience!”;
2. “We don’t have the time and resources to hand-hold these sales people who can’t perform”;
3. “If we teach them too much, they may turn around and work for our competitors.”
What these companies have to realize is that if they could hire the sales people who can produce immediate results, and don’t need any form of training or coaching, that’s great. However, such sales people are rare, and those few who are available will probably ask for a very high pay package. In any case, since prior experience and track records are never guarantee of success, companies might just have to train and develop their new sales hires so that they form critical sales habits and behaviors.