Man holding large Now Hiring sign

The Five Biggest Sales Hiring Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

The most repeated question I’m asked everywhere I travel in my sales consulting practice is this: How do we hire good salespeople?

With unemployment at historic lows and generational transitions sweeping through the workforce—Baby Boomers retiring from jobs with no one to fill their place—sales hiring has become a critical business priority. The “war for talent” is real, and you better be prepared to win that war for the success of your company.

What I’m seeing in this crisis is sales managers, in total desperation, filling open spots with anyone who can fog a mirror. That makes things worse, much worse, for a bad sales hire, like a bad meal, can poison everyone seated at the table.

Here are the five biggest sales hiring mistakes I’m observing right now and how you can avoid making them:

  1. Falling in love with one person
  2. Fishing in too small a pond
  3. Accepting resumes at face value
  4. Asking about the hypothetical future
  5. Not screening for cultural fit

Sales Hiring Mistake One: Falling in Love with One Person

This is by far the biggest sales hiring mistake I see leaders making. You meet a person, you like a person, you become convinced that this person would be perfect for an open sales seat at your company. You hire this person.

And guess what? It doesn’t work out. Why? To turn a phrase slightly, because love is blind and hiring is an eye-opener.

When you fall in love with someone, a romantic prospect or an employment prospect, you don’t see their faults and with stars in your eyes believe that everything will work out. Love will find a way! Alas, at least when it comes to hiring, it does not.

Here’s your alternative. Start by defining the open sales position you want to fill. Clearly outline the responsibilities of the role and the specific, measurable outcomes associated with those responsibilities. Armed, then, with these metrics, pursue a rigorous, objective process for finding a great fit.

What do you do with the people you fall in love with and want to hire? Encourage them to apply for the job and ask them to go through the process like everyone else. In this way sales hiring becomes a clear, results-driven selection system, not subjective, gut-feel emotional guesswork.

Sales Hiring Mistake Two: Fishing in Too Small a Pond

This second sales hiring mistake is a lot like the first one, it just differs by degree. Instead of falling in love with one person, with this mistake you only have a handful of people to choose from and pick the candidate who offers the least possible downside.

That’s no way to build a team of world-class sales professionals.

A deep pool of candidates offers you many options and an opportunity to pick the brightest and best. How in the world, however, do you achieve this with unemployment at historic lows? In a word, culture.

Culture is the key to successful sales hiring today. Becoming a place people want to work at, a place people love coming to on Monday morning (or any other day of the week), in short, becoming an employer of choice.

Just like when prospecting, where the best new customers come from existing customers who are thrilled with your work, the best new salespeople come from existing salespeople who are thrilled with their work. When you have a culture like that, resumes pour in for open seats and new hires count their lucky stars to be selected by you.

MORE: Intentional Culture Creation for Sales Leaders

The added benefit of having a great sales culture is this: when you attract top talent to your team, you’ll also retain that talent, reducing turnover and the need to hire for the same position over and over again. You’ll also drastically reduce expenses related to recruiting, interviewing, selecting, and onboarding.

Sales Hiring Mistake Three: Accepting Resumes at Face Value

Speaking of resumes, accepting them at face value is sales hiring mistake number three.

Yes, I know, the tried and true hiring document is the resume, but with downloadable templates and resume writing services, most resumes are not what they seem. Not that people are lying, it’s just that they’re putting the best face on their employment history, and you’ve got to get below that facade, injecting truth serum into your sales hiring process.

The truth serum I use is the Career History Form from Topgrading. This is a legal, binding document that a candidate completes and signs. It asks for all of a person’s work history, the names of former supervisors, reasons for leaving every job, and more. I’ve used this document literally hundreds of times and do not receive one penny from Topgrading as an affiliate or reseller. It’s just one of the most effective sales hiring tools on the market today.

What do I do with resumes? I collect them at the front end of the sales hiring process. They tell me how technologically savvy candidates are and how well they use the English language (or their recruiter). I score each resume based on a match with the position profile I created to avoid Hiring Mistake One and send the top ten (or so) candidates a link to complete a Career History Form. I then base the rest of my interactions with them off of that form and not their resume.

In other words, a resume is a ticket to enter the theater, but it doesn’t get a person on stage. A completed Career History Form and a solid phone screen interview gets them on stage.

Sales Hiring Mistake Four: Asking About the Hypothetical Future

That’s the first of the three interviews to use in the sales hiring process: the phone screen interview mentioned above. The other two are the chronological, in-depth interview and the reference interview.

The key in all of these interviews is to be behavior-based in your inquiries. That is, asking questions, and only questions, about a person’s actual actions in the past. Most job interviewing is focused on the hypothetical future, “What would you do if …”

The hypothetical future tells you nothing about a candidate except how well they can guess the answers you’re looking for. Neither does it predict performance. Only the past can do that, because the future is an extension of the past, especially in sales.

Again, pull out your position profile. Move through the responsibilities listed on it and the specific, measurable outcomes you created for each responsibility. Now ask questions about real life situations a candidate has experienced that parallel the profile. Double and triple click on your questions for examples and personal stories. Explore successes and failures without shame or blame. Sometimes you learn more about a person in how they respond to a failure than a success. Pepper your conversation with lots of, “Tell me more … Tell me more … Tell me more.”

Sales Hiring Mistake Five: Not Screening for Cultural Fit

The final sales hiring mistake is screening for skills only and not for the values that are at the heart of your company’s culture.

Skills are important, yes. You don’t want to hire a salesperson who can’t use the phone to set appointments or a bookkeeper who can’t balance a checking account. And, no, some skills can’t be taught to good people. I can’t balance my checkbook to save my life, and no one taught me how to use the phone to set appointments. I just did.

So it’s not an either/or choice—job skills or cultural fit—it’s a both/and choice, job skills and cultural fit.

Which means you need to know the values at the heart of your company’s culture and the behaviors that demonstrate those values in real life. This takes a bit of work, but it’s worth it. Now, without tipping your hand (As in, “Tell me about a time you showed integrity.” You’ve got to be more discreet than that.), ask about situations in a candidate’s past where these values were put to the test (As in, “Tell me about a time when you made a big mistake with a client. How did you discover it and what did you do to fix it?”)

Here’s The Bottom Line

Most companies only see one in five new sales hires go on to make a meaningful contribution to revenue generation. Half of the remaining four become marginal contributors, and two leave their job in disarray. You cannot build a successful sales organization based on a 20% hiring success rate.

As a sales leader, make attracting and retaining top talent one your highest priorities. Avoid these sales hiring mistakes and implement their powerful, effective alternatives.

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