Hire Salespeople with Your Head – Not with Your Gut

Are you hiring with your head or your gut? When it comes to hiring salespeople, the majority of bad or mistaken hires are caused by hiring with the gut rather than the head. Why is this? To be honest, I’m not sure. Some of it may come from a belief that hiring salespeople is a bit of a “black art.” Some of it simply comes from misconceptions about hiring for attributes that don’t correlate to actual sales success.

Let’s look at a few of those misconceptions and how they can ruin a hiring process:

Misconception One: “I hire athletes because they’re competitive.” This is one that I’ve heard a thousand times. How, exactly, this misconception became part of the sales hiring “knowledge base” I’m not sure, but it definitely has. The problem is that athletic prowess doesn’t coordinate to selling prowess. Selling is an activity of thought and persuasion. Athletics are a pursuit of physical prowess and feats. Yes, I know there’s a mental aspect, too – but if you’re wondering about the correlation, let me put it this way. If a past football player can demonstrate that he was able to take the ball in his hand, and using his words and personality, persuade the other team to let him cross the goal line, then I’ll buy into the idea that there is correlation.

I heard this one a few years ago from a recruiting client. He proudly said to me, “I want you to hire someone who’s played team sports. They’re competitive. All my successes have come from hiring athletes.” Well, I did a little investigating and discovered that he exclusively hired athletes – which meant that all of his failures had come from hiring athletes, too, and his success ratio was 40 percent. So I recruited him a nerdy girl. She was very cerebral and a big Star Trek fan, and played role-playing games on the weekends. It took her all of eight months to become his top salesperson. Why? Because she was so cerebral that she was quickly able to grasp what her customers needed, figure out the right product, and persuade the customer to buy. That’s sales. And she changed his hiring patterns, and he’s far more successful now.

Misconception Two: “We need industry experience in our hires.” If there’s anything that is a predictor of a failed hire, it’s a search for “industry experience.” One of my clients used to have a very basic hiring system. If you walked into their office and said that you worked for one of their two biggest competitors, you were hired. Period. The result was that they had the worst sales force in the market – because their two biggest competitors were taking care of their good salespeople, my client was getting the people they were happy to get rid of.

The reason “industry experience” is so seductive is that it presents a shortcut. “Aha,” the hiring manager thinks, “I can bypass all the time I’d otherwise spend teaching this salesperson my business, and get right to the selling.” It’s tempting. The trouble is that, normally, you’re getting the people that your competitor is glad to let go – which means that their potential (and yours) is limited. You’re far better off getting people who have the potential (in terms of skills and traits) to be a top performer in your industry, and living with the short-term period of getting them up and running.

Misconception Three: “If they interview well, they’ll sell the same way.” This one is particularly seductive because it’s so logical. An interview is a sales call, right? So, why wouldn’t we see a mirroring between someone’s behavior on an interview and a sales call? Well, it has to do with mindset. More accurately, how someone behaves on an interview is the best case scenario of how they will behave on a sales call. When you’re trying to gauge how they will behave on a sales call, dial your expectations back about 10-20 percent.

Misconception Four: Hiring in your own image. This might be the worst and most dangerous of the misconceptions. We love to look for ourselves in our employees, protégé’s, and applicants – and when we see those traits, we forget everything else. Full disclosure: I did this early in my sales management career. I interviewed a guy that looked so much like me it was like looking in a mirror – and it was one of the most epically bad hires in the history of sales!

Turning the bad into worse: And, once we’ve committed one of the mistakes above, we almost always make it worse – we double down on the misconception and hang onto the person even long after our head tells us that it’s time to let go. I kept the guy I referred to above for a year, even when I knew that it wasn’t going to work. Why? Because I was emotionally involved. That’s what defines hiring with your gut. You get emotionally involved in the hire and can’t make the intellectual decision to cut bait.

So, how can we keep ourselves safe from these misconceptions, and move toward hiring with our head? Here are two quick techniques you can implement immediately that will improve your hiring:

First, be the bouncer. Have you ever been to one of those velvet-rope nightclubs where they have the big guy with a clipboard, wearing a suit, determining who gets in and who stays out? They have a very simple philosophy. When someone walks up, they first seek to exclude them, rather than including them. They have a general idea in their head of what people they want to let in – and they evaluate new additions to the line based on how they don’t live up to that standard. And if that’s you – unless your name is on the clipboard – you won’t get it.

So to start, look for red flags – reasons to exclude the applicant from the hiring process. Make a list of “deal breakers” that are indicative of traits that will lead to failure in the job. Then make a list of questions designed to reveal those deal breakers – and when you spot one, pay attention and exclude the candidate! We fail because we seek to include first. Through the first interview, be like the bouncer – and your clipboard is blank.

Second, use a psychometric profile. The very best human judgment is still that – human and fallible. If you really want to get to know your new candidate, use some sort of a psychometric profile to reveal their traits. A quality profile should include the ability to match success patterns of your job to the traits of the employee. By doing this, you can again divorce “gut” hiring from “mental” hiring.

Hiring with your head isn’t easy. It’s tough. But to succeed in hiring, it’s also essential.