Prospective clients often come to us with a typical problem: many of the salespeople they hired seemed great during the interview process, but under-performed once they were hired.
When a new sales hire doesn’t work out, the loss is huge. Poor-performing salespeople can cost thousands in lost opportunities and revenue, and worse yet—damage a company’s reputation and credibility.
As part of Peak’s 5 step process for recruiting top sales talent, we help our customers clarify their hiring requirements so we can focus our search on finding candidates with the specific characteristics and traits that will make them successful in our customer’s unique selling environment.
Oftentimes we find that companies use job descriptions when hiring salespeople that require candidates to have certain qualifications. Over the years we have found that the typical hiring requirements of most firms have little to do with sales success. In fact, some of these “need to have” conditions adversely limit the pool of candidates and create great costs for the business.
Sometimes these requirements are carried over from previous job descriptions or tossed in to fill out a job description. The bottom line is that they detract from the focus on what really matters.
Why Many Need to Have’s are Not Really Need to Haves:
Many of the typical hiring requirements that employers use in job descriptions are neither necessary nor sufficient for sales success. Here’s the top 3 “Need-to-Have” requirements most often listed in job descriptions and why your company doesn’t actually require them.
1. Why salespeople don’t “need-to-have” university degrees:
Steve Martin writes in the Harvard Business Review that more often than not, top sales people are born, not made. Martin administered personality tests to over 1000 top salespeople and estimated that:
“Over 70% of the top salespeople are born with ‘natural’ instincts that play a crucial role in determining their sales success.”
Dave Kurlan, the author of Baseline Selling, too points out that “salespeople don’t succeed because of their education.” As Kurlan points out, many top companies like Google who carefully study their recruitment efforts, have arrived at the conclusion that there is no correlation between higher education and success.
What Kurlan and Martin are pointing to is that selling prowess is not determined by a piece of paper or four years of tuition. Too many companies require their salespeople to have university degrees—when such a requirement has nothing to do with sales success.
The question then arises: what determines success in the sales world?
Our experience has taught us that top sales achievers have certain innate qualities, traits and attributes—what Martin called “natural instincts.” We call these traits the Sales DNA. A candidate’s Sales DNA is the most importance factor in determining sales success.
Selling is something that comes naturally to the best salespeople. It’s something a university education cannot teach. This is why it makes little sense to require a university degree for a sales job.
What is this Sales DNA? Gallup has researched these traits of top sales achievers for over 30 years and concluded that the Sales DNA includes traits like “motivation, ability to influence and build relationships; creativity, innovation and problem-solving abilities; and natural tendency to derive joy from their work.”
Our experience over the years has confirmed this too. More often than not, the top sales earners are successful NOT because they have a college degree, but because they have characteristics such as ambition, drive, confidence, optimism, goal-orientation, persistence, competitiveness and curiosity. That’s why our recruiting process includes not only strict, behavioural based interviewing by our seasoned interview team, but third party, psychometric testing that spells out not only what drives an individual, but how they can be managed to produce optimal sales results.
2. Why salespeople don’t “need-to-have” experience:
Many sales job descriptions stipulate that the candidates “need to have” X years of experience.
But, like education, past experience too is a poor determinant of sales success. It matters not where someone worked, but how they behaved in a relevant and similar sales environment and whether they demonstrated the behaviours required to be successful.
Gallup conducted a massive study of over 250,000 sales reps in over two dozen industries which revealed that “sales is primarily a talent-driven occupation.” Top salespeople have innate talents or tendencies that are “extremely difficult or even impossible to teach.” Thus, experience, like education, has little impact on sales success, or in Gallup’s not-so-subtle words, “traditional reliance on experience, education, and skills or competencies is a grossly inadequate and often misleading way of building your best team.”
In all our years of work with top companies around the world, we too have found that experience cannot predict future sales success.
There are several dangers with relying on past experience as the key to recruiting.
Experience doesn’t protect an employer from mediocre salespeople who just happened to work in a fast growing company. The candidates’ sales numbers may look pretty on paper but they might be extremely poor when looking across the industry or even at their colleagues. Sometimes top salespeople are the product of their environment, and may not be able to duplicate their past success in their new environment.
Experience may even be a detriment to selling in certain situations. As people’s buying habits and methods change, sales tactics learned years ago can seem obsolete and harsh today. Experienced salespeople might need to unlearn their past habits, costing money and time for a new employer.
Top sales people keep up with changing times and are flexible enough to sell to today’s buyers. However mandatory hiring requirements often stand in the way of spotting real sales talent. Many salespeople with great sales DNA, yet only have 5-7 years of experience, are often disregarded by companies that make it mandatory for candidates to have 9+ years of experience. Maturity may play a role in ensuring that a seller can relate to a potential buyer, but if a sales candidate has demonstrated that they can perform the job successfully, does it really matter if they have less years of service than the job description requires?
Experience is not a holy grail when it comes to recruiting, nor should it be dismissed, especially if it is in the same industry or niche. It can be a useful tool but should not become a hard-fast rule while screening sales hires.
“Research by Leadership IQ confirms that 46% of all new hires fail within 18 months of being hired, chiefly due to ‘attitudinal factors’.”
3. Why Salespeople don’t “need to have” sold X product previously:
Experience in selling a similar product is perhaps the most desired requirement in recruiting. Experience tells us, however, that if a candidate has been successfully selling the same kind of products, this experience can be a good indicator as to whether they will be able to contribute to your bottom line from day one. To sum it up, if a candidate has sold similar products to similar industries and worked in familiar environments, then their contacts, innate understanding of the vertical, and past selling habits might come in handy at your company.
But as with the other two requirements, this requirement isn’t overly necessary.
Working for the competition in the past is no guarantee that they will excel at your company nor an indicator that the sales person will fit with your organization and culture. In fact, working for the competition may be a detriment if it means they think and do things considerably different than what your company requires. Their specific product or niche experience should be viewed through the lens of your own organizational needs.
Remember that it is not necessary that only salespeople who have worked for direct competitors will be able to succeed at your company. In fact, many employers overvalue sector experience so much that they miss out on other great sales hires and stellar candidates who may not have worked in that sector before, but have worked in environments with a similar offering, selling process, buyer, and prices and would be rewarding hires nonetheless.
Each selling role and environment is unique—even within the same sector. A Hunter’s DNA will push them to succeed even if they don’t have sector experience. It is a great sales attitude and work ethic that creates great sales results.
As we have said before, sales recruiters should expand their pool of candidates by recruiting across a variety of industries. Often, the industries may differ, but the sales approaches, product features and selling tactics can be the same.
Searching within a broader candidate pool, might help you find great salespeople in a more cost-efficient manner than if you restrict your search for people within specific industries. The larger the pool of candidates the more leverage an empolyer will have in hiring the ideal person at the right price.
Companies can unknowingly limit their candidate pool if they continue looking at these meaningless requirements when filling their sales jobs. When the starting pool is weak and screened based on unnecessary metrics, well-meaning companies lose out on star sales professionals who can boost revenues.
Hiring people with top-notch sales DNA—personality and behavioral traits— will lead your organization towards A-players and radically lessen chances of attrition or failure.
Like what you’ve read? Check out our eBooks here!
Rally the Troops—Gallup Business Journal
Hiring for Attitude—Research & Tools to Skyrocket your Success Rate—Leadership IQ
What Google Might Know About Hiring Salespeople—Customer Think
Are Top Salespeople Born or Made?—Harvard Business Review
Photo Credit: george.bremer via Compfight cc
Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.
He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.
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