3 Key Questions You Must Answer When Hiring Salespeople

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In his book No B.S. Ruthless Management of People & Profits, business coach and consultant Dan S. Kennedy presents a straightforward assessment of the real relationship between employers and their employees, and dares you to take action. In this edited excerpt, the author reveals the three questions you need to answer about any sales candidate you're considering hiring at your business.

If you do nothing else for your business in the near future, you ought to at least take a fresh, analytical, tough-minded look at what you're getting from your people as a whole and individually for the money you're spending.

Most business owners accept shockingly poor sales results as if they make sense. In the hearing aid industry, the “close rate”—people who come to the store, get a hearing test and get a full sales presentation—ranges from as poor as 25 percent to as good as 40 percent. Out of every 100 people, 60 to 75 who come in suffering from hearing difficulties and in need of a hearing aid do not buy! How can anyone managing this business accept such a thing?

In the automobile business, roughly 20 percent of the people who come into a showroom buy a car there. That means 80 of the 100 people who left their homes, got in their cars, drove across town to the car dealership, braved the selling environment, and looked at, asked questions about, and even test-drove cars that interested them were not sold a car. To me, that's incredible. Awful. Embarrassing. Yet car sales managers confronted about this shrug and tell me, “That’s about right.” No. It isn’t.

If people come to buy, they all should buy. If that’s not happening, you should be racking your brain to figure out what you're doing wrong. When it comes to your salespeople, it’s not just a matter of “Can they sell?” It’s a matter of “Will they sell?” and “Will they sell here?” I learned this from a top sales management consultant, Bill Brooks, and it's profound. The reality is, somebody who might be a good salesperson at Company A may be a lousy salesperson in the same job at Company B.

And this is what makes hiring by resume so flawed.

But how can this be? After all, auto sales is auto sales, so a guy who was successful at the Cadillac dealership in Chicago ought to succeed at the Cadillac dealership in Cleveland, or the guy who was successful at the Cadillac dealership in Chicago should thrive at the Lexus dealership in Chicago. Wrong.

Different people flourish or flunk in different environments.

Let’s start with the first question: Can they sell? If you're hiring experienced salespeople, then you can answer this question by looking at their experience to date, checking their references and seeing proof of their commissions earned. If you're hiring inexperienced people and making them into salespeople, then you might rely on more in-depth interviews, including discussing what they think is the right thing to do in different selling situations. You might utilize an aptitude test purchased from one of the many companies that provide assessment tests. And you’ll be looking for nonsales experience that evidences the attitudes necessary for success in selling. For example, one client of mine with a very successful sales organization who hires only people with no prior selling experience asks, “Have you been successful in anything?” and “Have you struggled and found something so difficult you almost quit but then stuck with it and succeeded?”

The second question: Will they sell? Again, if you're recruiting experienced salespeople, you can look into their historical track record. If they had peaks and slumps and inconsistent results where they were, you’d need a good reason to believe they aren’t going to import their inconsistency into your business. If they increased their sales and earnings year to year, you could hope for that same pattern in your employ. If they stagnated, you’d need good reason to expect otherwise. Sometimes just the change of scenery will revitalize a bored or complacent experienced pro, but that will usually be brief. If they got complacent there, they’ll get complacent here.

When considering “Will they sell?” you’re trying to solve the mystery of motivation, and that’s not easy. But self-motivation leaves clues. The most recent sales book they've read, most recent sales seminar they've been to, most interesting technique they've introduced to their repertoire in the past year. What can they tell you about their goals?

If you're hiring inexperienced people for sales, again, you have no specific history to consider, but you do have nonspecific history, basically the person’s whole story. Did they work two jobs to get through school or did Mommy pay their way? Have they worked in any job dealing with the public, like waiting tables? Are they really interested in a sales career or settling for it because they can’t find what they want? If they're interested, they’ll already be reading books, listening to CDs, and educating and preparing themselves.

The third question is the trickiest. Just because they can and will sell doesn't mean they’ll excel at selling in your employ. Your company culture may be very different than ones they've previously experienced. You may require them to present things in a way they feels is deceptive, dishonest or unethical, or they may feel hamstrung and neutered by the ethical restraints you impose on the way they present things. You may have a better-defined program you insist be complied with than their prior employers. They may welcome the organization and discipline, or they may chafe at it. These matters need to be explored in lengthy, frank and detailed discussions once you get serious about a candidate. There's no point in hiring a sales professional without full disclosure of your program and how tough you are about compliance with it.