The quality of its sales force makes or breaks a business. Some say it takes deep product or service knowledge; some say it's drive; others look for people who build relationships; a few say it's all these things. Lots of opinion, but fewer facts, shape how we seek out sales talent.
In my book Million Dollar Hire: Build Your Bottom Line, One Employee at a Time, I move beyond opinion and call on the science of human capital measurement to answer the question: How can we improve the odds of finding the best sales talent?
Many recent findings actually surprise HR professionals and sales managers. For example, often, sales managers focus too much on candidates' positive characteristics; the areas where more is better. They look almost exclusively at what assessment professionals refer to as "the Bright Side" of the candidate, intelligence, drive, interpersonal skills, past accomplishments, etc.
But evidence shows that capturing information about the candidate's "Dark Side," where more can be worse, reduces the rate of failureand turnover that comes with making the wrong hiring decision. For example, I recently designed assessment-based hiring tools for sales professionals and sales-oriented account managers with a client who tracked the tools' results over two years, with hard data.
The program built upon research in other organizations showing that, by measuring a candidate's "Dark Side," it's possible to identify basic tendencies that flower when people come under stress, pressure, or new demands; part of a salesperson's everyday life.
I found some great results when these ideas were put to work. The most interesting came when candidates who were measured on these qualities were tracked for two years once on the job.
In the project, new hires were tracked to evaluate their actual sales performance. Sales professionals with an extreme inclination toward building relationships and pleasing others actually sold less, more than 20 percent. Why? The data suggest too much time being devoted to "pleasing" rather than "selling," and adopting too cautious an approach when it comes time to ask for the sale.
For account managers, it was employees with Dark Side tendencies, bold, colorful, mischievous, who exceeded their selling targets at the Hehighest rate; beating those low on these qualities by more than 30 percent. Why? Here, evidence shows that employees willing to ‘take on' their sales prospects, drive at changing their views, and challenge them without fear of driving them away were the winners."
Those too high on boldness also turned over at a higher rate. We had to make a decision in building on the two years of data and refining the program for future use. Did we want to hire those who produce far higher sales, but turn over at a higher rate? Or were we willing to give up sales gains in order to lower the rate of turnover?
Here's where inclusion of "Bright Side" information produced a unique answer. The study showed that account managers turned over primarily when their level of boldness outpaced their (Bright Side) level of basic mental ability. The solution was to set a hiring standard that required increasing levels of boldness to be offset by increasing levels of basic intellect. eing bolder led to more sales and lower turnover, as long as the employee was smarter than they were bold.
Most sales managers get a sense of the Dark Side qualities only after they make a hiring decision, and see people on the job. The real payoff, though, comes in measuring these tendencies before making a hiring decision.
For sales jobs, the data are compelling. Those who focus on "the relationship side" of the sale produce less. Those who challenge, drive, and take center stage win more. But the trick is not letting this boldness outshine smartness. It takes both to find real winners in a sales setting, and the payoff is larger than most sales managers might imagine.
David P. Jones is author of Million-Dollar Hire: Build Your Bottom Line, One Employee at a Time and president of Growth Ventures Inc., a human capital advisory firm.