The Black Box of Sales Hiring

5 tips for hiring good salespeople who stay

Back Web Only Apr 23, 2015 By Steven Yoder

For all its importance to business survival, companies tend to fail miserably at hiring sales staff. A 2011 survey of more than 400 firms by DePaul University researchers found that hiring one seller costs $29,000. But a lot of that money flutters out into the ether; a third of recruits don’t make it through their first year.

Hiring managers fall for the same tricks that lead customers to buy bad products — salespeople know how to sell themselves in interviews. So what does it take to bring on sellers who will stay and become solid producers?

Here are five tips based on DePaul’s data and expert advice from those who help companies land better salespeople:

1.) Trust good analysis, not your gut. Clinical psychologist and hiring consultant Christopher Croner, author of Never Hire a Bad Salesperson Again, tells Selling Power magazine that hiring managers should stop going with their hunches. Instead, zero in on the characteristics that make current top producers successful and test for those. Croner’s company performs a psychological test that identifies candidates with the traits that matter most for sales staff across industries: need for achievement, competitiveness and optimism.

2.) Word of mouth still wins. In the DePaul survey, the biggest group of managers (61 percent) said employee referrals were their best source for finding new talent that panned out. Internet job site hires and internal hires placed a distant second (39 percent) and third (35 percent) as productive hiring sources. 

3.) Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Croner says sellers who have hit their numbers in the past may have benefited from what was around them, like a great marketing department or a product with brand-name recognition. And while industry knowledge matters, nonteachable qualities, such as the ability to persist in overcoming barriers, matter far more.

4.) Focus on college grads. The data indicate that those with a bachelor’s degree, especially from a sales program, work out more often in sales jobs. In the DePaul survey, turnover and percentage of college grad hires were inversely proportional — as companies’ percentage of graduate hires climbed, their turnover rates fell. 

5.) Invest in your hiring process. Companies that hire a lot of sales staff know just how much it costs to bring in the right people. So they’re willing to invest on the front end rather than lose on the back end. Medical device sales recruiter Linda Hertz, who runs the Los Angeles -based Linda Hertz Group, says a successful company she works with has a 6-step process for hiring sales staff: phone interview, face-to-face interview with the hiring manager, 1.5-hour mini-IQ test, test run in the field with a company sales rep, interview with the hiring manager’s supervisor and final interview with that manager’s supervisor. All of that takes two to three months. That may shock managers who think they need the new person tomorrow, but it saves money and time down the line.

There’s a lot of advice out there (this, for example) about the best sales force hiring process. Choose the one that works for you, measure your results and tinker til you get it right.

For more on the gap in sales education, check back next week for Steven Yoder’s April feature, “Sales Pitch,” next week. Sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll email you when it’s available online. 

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