SEMA News—July 2011

8 Steps for Smart Sales Hiring

Gearhead vs. Sales Pro

By Troy Harrison

Editor’s Note: Most of the specialty-equipment companies contacted in a recent SEMA survey said that they planned to hire new employees in 2011. Salespeople were at the top of the list. To learn more about the traits and skills of successful salespeople—and how to hire them—we contacted freelance writer, author and webinar speaker Troy Harrison. In the story that follows, he discusses the qualities of top salespeople, how to test for and uncover those traits, and how to interview and hire the right people.  

Few things are more critical to the health of a company than the ability of its salespeople to bring in profitable business, yet too many companies in the automotive specialty-equipment industry consider sales traits and skills last when hiring salespeople. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. This article is focused on helping you hire salespeople for the right reasons—and in the right way.

The aggregate level of selling skills in the specialty-equipment industry is low in comparison with other industries of similar types and compensation. The reason is simple: When we hire people, we hire performance enthusiasts—gearheads, if you will (which is not an insult). Yet, we expect them to look, act and behave like salespeople once they are on the job. Further, we seldom train them in selling skills. Instead, we invest time and money in training them on the skills they already have—technical and automotive skills.

Can you see the disconnect? We hire one type of person and hope that he or she behaves like another type.

We’re not suggesting that being a performance enthusiast is a bad thing. In fact, it’s important in this industry that the people we hire are hobbyists. The good news is that there is a huge supply of salespeople who love cars; many times, however, they aren’t the people who get hired for specialty-equipment sales jobs. But it’s possible to change that situation.

Smart sales hiring means just that—hiring with your head and not your gut. Studies by The Wall Street Journal have shown that 63% of all sales hiring decisions are made within the first five minutes of meeting the applicant. That means owners or managers are making a decision that they like the applicant, and then all the things they do subsequently in the hiring process are designed to reinforce that decision. Not surprisingly, this results in a lot of bad hires and lower sales than could be achieved.

The first component of smart sales hiring is understanding the order in which candidates should be evaluated. Think of candidates as having three main aspects: traits, skills and experience.

Traits are the things that we just are—the makeup of our personalities. Some traits contribute to selling success, and some detract from it. We want to hire the right mix of traits for our sales job because those are things that cannot be trained or coached.

Skills are specific job skills that candidates have learned in their careers through training or work. In selling terms, the key skills are dialoging (the ability to converse comfortably with customers); questioning (the ability to ask the customers the right things to assess their needs and wants); listening (the ability to mentally capture the information given by customers); and presenting (the ability to communicate product features and benefits). There are other important skills, such as detail orientation, follow-up skills and service orientation, but the four above are the basic building blocks of successful selling.

Experience has to do with the candidate’s past jobs, potential product knowledge and, in the automotive specialty-equipment industry, may also have a lot to do with personal automotive enthusiasm, skills and accomplishments. Here is where a lot of hires go wrong. Too many sales interview processes focus almost exclusively on past automotive projects, lap times or show awards. Those things are great and important—if the person is being hired to build cars instead of to sell products to other people. If a candidate is being hired to sell, there are more important considerations.

To discover these features in an applicant, we need to understand a few hiring rules.

Smart Sales Hiring Is a Process: What’s nearly as important as the people you do hire is the people you don’t hire. Impulse hires are the enemy of good selling and good sales forces. To be successful in hiring salespeople, you need to have a hiring process that includes multiple types of contact and multiple types of communication coupled with some due diligence.

Past Performance Tends to Be the Best Predictor of Future Performance: Yes, bad things can and do happen to good people—but they don’t happen consistently and repeatedly. If a salesperson has succeeded in the past, he or she is likely to succeed in the future. The reverse is also true.

Traits and Skills are Transferable: Applicants for sales positions are frequently turned down because “they don’t come from the industry.” That’s silly on multiple levels. Everyone has to enter the industry somewhere. If a salesperson has the right combination of traits and skills to succeed at selling telephones, for instance, it stands to reason that he or she might have the skills to sell cylinder heads—particularly if he or she has a passion for cars. Be open to enthusiasts from outside the industry.

Never Hire From a Pool of One: The vast majority of employment mistakes come from hiring from a “pool of one.” Someone walks in the front door, says, “I can sell,” and gets hired. Successful hires come from building a pool of people, comparing them for suitability and then letting the cream rise to the top.

The Process

Smart sales hiring is a process. By taking a series of steps, you can eliminate inappropriate hires and hire the right people for your company. This process has been proven successful in hiring salespeople across numerous industries, compensation levels and types of salesperson—including for the automotive specialty-equipment industry.

Step One:
Design Your Salesperson 

First and foremost, you have to decide what type of sales rep is appropriate for your business. Do you need an outside salesperson who will be doing a lot of prospecting, or is your role more of an inside technical-rep position that is primarily responsible for answering questions, identifying applications and taking orders? Are you selling wholesale or to end-users? How much can you afford to pay a salesperson? Remember that past performance tends to predict future performance. Ideally, you want someone who has succeeded in similar types of work.

Take the time to put all this information down on paper. Doing so will save you a lot of time and pain later. You can’t get what you are looking for unless you know what you’re looking for first.

Step Two:
Build a Candidate Pool

To avoid hiring from the “pool of one,” start your search by letting people know that you are searching. That means advertising and posting your position wherever possible. Two of the best Internet hiring boards are CareerBuilder and LinkedIn. Depending on your area, or might also be good. In some areas of the country, they can generate good candidates; in other areas, they generate nothing; in all areas, they are cheap enough to find out. And don’t forget SEMA News, SEMA eNews and as ways to publicize your opening.

When you write your advertisement, your job is to sell potential candidates on why they should want to work for you. Job descriptions are fine, but you need to also market yourself in the same way that you would market to potential customers. Critical things that should be covered include why someone would want to sell for you, whom you sell to and what the job pays (this saves a lot of time and pain later).

Your objective is to build a large pool of candidates. True, three-fourths of your candidate pool will be so inappropriate that you will only screen their résumés and pass on them. But while it’s easy to say “no” to people who approach you, it’s impossible to say “yes” to those who don’t approach you.

Step Three:
Pick Appropriate Candidates

Résumé screening often dissuades owners from performing a real hiring process, but it doesn’t have to. You can eliminate inappropriate résumés pretty quickly by scanning.

First, avoid job-jumpers. If you want to keep someone for longer than a year, don’t hire people who have a track record of frequent changes. Stick with candidates who have had at least three years on the same job in the last five years. You can eliminate a huge part of the candidate pool right here.

Then knock out candidates whose résumés include obvious spelling and grammatical errors. There’s nothing worse than trying to buy a part from someone whose e-mails read like a 13-year-old’s text messages to a BFF (best friend forever).

Next, you’re looking for candidates who have been successful in similar types of sales. As a general guideline, look for salespeople with a past history of success who list their achievements on their résumés (“top salesperson last two years,” “grew sales 30% annually,” etc.) rather than simply listing job duties. Ideally, you want to know both duties and success.

Finally, look for some tie to the automotive specialty-equipment industry, either in past job experience or in personal interests. There are few industries where personal enthusiasm is critical for sales success, but the specialty-equipment industry is one
of them.

Step Four:
The Phone Interview

In today’s world, good selling requires good telephone skills. Whether your salespeople are engaged primarily in phone sales or in outside sales, telephone work is essential to getting the job done.

The easiest way to find out if your prospective new employees have phone skills is to put them through a short phone interviewing process. Use just a few quick questions designed to see if the candidate has a good phone voice and demeanor. See if applicants can quickly make the mental adjustment to a selling mode because the point of the phone interview is to sell themselves.

All you need here are a few quick questions, such as, “What makes you want this job?” and “Why would you be good at it?” This phone interview isn’t rocket science, but disqualify anyone who isn’t a good fit.

Step Five:
The Initial Interview

Now it’s time for face-to-face interviewing. Make the most of this opportunity. You can learn much about a candidate in the first interview, but you must remain emotionally detached. In smart hiring, your goal is not to “like” or “dislike” people—it’s to understand whether they are what they say they are. To do this, make a very careful review of the résumé.

Every salesperson tells a story through his or her résumés, and some of these stories contain more fiction than others. To
combat this, you need to trace the candidates’ histories.

Ask detailed questions about each stop in their careers.

  • What did they make?
  • How were they paid?
  • What were their sales numbers?
  • Did they receive any awards or recognitions? If so, can they prove that by showing you letters or other awards?
  • What did they like least and best about each job?

Have them describe a typical day, and determine how it fits with yours. As you probe the answers, make sure that the numbers match up. Salespeople who lie typically don’t think the lies all the way through to their logical conclusion, which means that something is wrong if the achievement and compensation packages don’t match actual earnings. One lie equals disqualification.

Ask all candidates to e-mail you three business references along with a short paragraph about why they would be the ideal candidate for the job. Review their answers for communications ability.

Step Six:
Reference Checking

You must check references. Studies show that 40% of all hires are completed without reference checking. That means that a candidate who can’t find anyone to say anything good about him or her still has a two-in-five shot at submitting three names that will never be called.

Don’t let those odds work in the candidate’s favor; be the person who checks. You will be surprised at how many references don’t come back strongly. You need at least two positives with no negatives (sometimes references don’t call back) to keep a candidate.

Step Seven:
Get a Second Opinion

To keep you from an impulse hire, have someone else get involved in the process. Have another manager, a friend or a consultant interview the candidate. This is definitely one of those times when two heads are better than one—plus, it helps to find out if the candidates can keep their stories straight.

At the end of the process, sit down with the other interviewer and narrow the pool. By now, you might be down to one candidate or you might have a handful.

Step Eight:
Third-Party Assessment

Now it’s time to go where you can’t through interviewing: inside the candidates’ heads. As a final step, you should have the candidate complete a third-party psychometric assessment to discover their traits and suitability for the job. (Remember, traits are something that we can’t teach). The Profile Sales Assessment by Profiles International is a good one, but there are numerous others, such as the SalesMax assessment. The important thing here is that the assessments are a measure of one’s personality and suitability for the role free of personal biases.

Now you have enough data to reach a hiring decision. Is it a lot of work? Yes. Is it expensive? A little. By the time you do all the advertising and assessing, you’ll spend around $1,000 or more. Even reading this article has been a substantial investment of time. But your company deserves
the investment.

You will never get the right results with the wrong people working for you. The right hires will produce the right results.

Troy Harrison is the author of Sell Like You Mean It! and the president of SalesForce Solutions, a sales force training and development company located in Kansas City, Missouri. He has written more than 300 articles for sales publications as well as automotive publications.  

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