Before we get into the prickly subject of teasing out the sales superstars from the ‘also-rans’ when hiring new sales staff, we need to understand that the main tool that we use to select staff is at best going to give a seasoned interviewer a 1-in-4 chance of getting it right.

In the hands of an untrained or inexperienced interviewer it will be little better than putting on a blindfold and picking a CV from the pile in determining whether a candidate is going to perform on the job.

It has been common knowledge for decades that the selection interview is a very poor predictor of whether a candidate is going to perform in any job. When it comes to sales jobs, the interview becomes even less effective, as most sales candidates are able to present themselves well at interview, are adept at brushing over the areas they would rather you didn’t explore and usually arrive with glowing references. Whilst some recruiting managers may see these factors as evidence of sales skills, most will grimace with pain in recalling occasions of hiring staff that were good at interviews but precious little else.

When you look at the bottom line of the revenue generated by a salesperson hitting one hundred percent of their targets, as opposed to someone hitting just forty percent, then the need to make the most from the imperfect art of staff selection becomes clear. There are three practical steps that any sales manager can take to reduce the risks of making poor selection decisions at a time when strong sales performance is more important than ever.

Know what you are looking for

Going into the interview process without having clear goals on what you want to measure is as ineffective as selling without clear goals for prospecting, call cycles or sales plans. How will you select the right candidate if you don’t know what you’re looking for?

The reliability of the selection interview rises dramatically when the interviewer has a clear picture of the behaviours, skills and competencies associated with success in the job. For those of you with a strong HR function in your business, your first port of call should be the job description and competencies for the specific vacancy.

Raise your game in interviewing

The next step to increase the effectiveness of interviews is to ensure they are conducted by someone who knows how to do it. Interviewing is a bit like driving a car, in that you hardly ever meet someone prepared to admit they aren’t very good at it. It seems to suggest that we are not a good judge of character or our interpersonal skills are somehow incomplete; both of which are admissions few sales managers would feel comfortable making.

The reality is that selection interviewing is a prized skill, developed through practice and training in effective interviewing methods, most notably behavioural or competency based interviews. If you don’t interview very often or are untrained, then bring in a seasoned and trained interviewer to help you reduce the risk of making a poor selection decision. If interviews are likely to become a significant part of your job, then get trained in Competency Based Interviewing.

Back up your selection decision with reliable supporting information

The greatest improvement that can be made to the process of selecting the right candidate is to add other criteria to back up your decision. Most recruiters make superficial in-roads here, usually in checking references, but few take sufficient steps to make a strong selection decision.

We already know that there is no perfect correlation between the selection method used and performance in the job, but the more steps we take to assess the candidate, the more we reduce the risk of getting it wrong.

References are as notorious as interviews when it comes to making selection decisions. How many of you have been on the brink of firing a useless salesperson when they flounce into your office and announce they are leaving? What kind of reference are you going to give them to help them on their way? Also, remember that many separation packages reached outside of employment tribunals include ‘a good reference’.

I’m not suggesting that recruiting managers should stop checking references, but would advise that they use the same diligence as they apply to the selection interview by asking the same competency based questions and insisting on specific examples. References should always be checked by phoning the referee, as people will tell you much more than they are prepared to write down. In sales, it also pays to get a reference from a key client of the candidate as well as the employer to get a sense of how their customers see the candidate.

Sales aptitude/psychometric tests bring objective, independent and unbiased information into making the selection decision. They will help identify sales superstars, people unlikely to cut it in sales environments and the personal development plans required to get a good candidate to be a great performer before the Employment Agreement gets signed.

Just ensure the test you use is from a reliable test publisher; something that a freebie downloaded from the internet is unlikely to deliver. Sales simulations and role plays are little used in New Zealand, but bring valuable additional information on how the candidate is likely to perform in the job. Choosing simulated role plays that have been tried and tested to ensure they measure what they claim to measure is the first step to ensure you don’t fall into the trap of choosing a tool that won’t do the job. Secondly, ensure that the role play fits the sales job you are assessing. A relationship sales role where long term business is generated through sales presentations to panels of decision makers requires a different role play to one-off high volume retail sales.

Following these three steps isn’t a quick or easy process, but the time and financial investment in getting a clear picture of the person you want to recruit, acquiring the skills to interview effectively, and backing up the shortcomings of the selection interview with additional measures of candidates effectiveness will reap huge dividends in increased sales volumes by effective salespeople.


Stephen Evans is CEO of People Central.