Why Businesses Shouldn’t Lower Their Standards when Hiring Salespeople

by Dr. Christopher Croner

As the economy (finally) heats up, hiring managers are desperately trying to fill sales openings. Faced with stiff competition for a small pool of applicants, they might be tempted to compromise on the quality of new hires. It’s easy to rationalize: Thanks to the pandemic, the nature of sales has changed. The role is less forward-facing than it used to be, and anyone can give a virtual presentation. Good communication skills are all a salesperson really needs. 

Not so fast.

Before extending a job offer to a so-so candidate, hiring managers should understand that filling a position with any qualified warm body, simply to plug a hole, is a recipe for disaster. 

Lowering expectations on a sales role will inevitably compromise results. 

What made a great salesperson pre-COVID is still what makes a great salesperson — and that x-factor is Drive. Because the nature of sales is changing so rapidly, it’s more important than ever to be selective and hire a driven achiever.

Drive is comprised of three non-teachable traits: Need for Achievement, Competitiveness and Optimism. A person either has Drive or they don’t, and only 20% of salespeople do. 

Here is why hiring managers should resist the temptation to compromise on new hires and hold out for a candidate in that 20%:

A bad hire is really expensive … The average cost to onboard a new employee is $240,000. Wrong hires account for nearly 80% of all turnover rates in business. And a look at the big picture shows that businesses which onboard a bad hire can actually see a bottom line cost of $840,000. This includes the cost of hiring new employees, how much it costs to keep employees on staff, the cost of paying employees their severance pay when they are let go, missed business opportunities, and the potential for damage to the company’s reputation and/or client relationships.

… and can even lead to the death of a company. An ongoing pattern of “churning and burning” through salespeople has a ripple effect. The presence of bad salespeople, and their lackluster performance, could negatively affect client relationships, company culture and the bottom line. Now that competition is heating back up post-pandemic, businesses may not be able to recover from a bad hiring decision.

For younger and/or smaller companies, compromising on new hires can lead to failure even more quickly. Putting the company’s hopes, dreams and future on the shoulders of only a few people — what happens when they don’t perform?

In a remote work environment, it’s too easy for bad salespeople to hide. Because so many roles have transitioned to remote work, it’s easier for a bad salesperson to coast. No supervisor is sticking their head into the home office to check in. There’s no “peer pressure” from co-workers in the breakroom. Low achievers can stay on the payroll for a long time before leaders realize they aren’t performing.

The Need for Achievement (which is part of Drive) is particularly important with remote work. Salespeople need to get up, focus and be motivated on their own. They need to make call after call, presentation after presentation, with no direct supervision. Yes, an average salesperson might be able to give a good presentation, but if they don’t have the Drive to make those meetings happen in the first place, it’s all for nothing.

Technology is only as valuable as the brain behind it. (So make sure that brain is Driven!) For years, technology has been squeezing the middleman out of sales. For example, people can buy insurance online; they don’t need to meet with a salesperson to choose a policy. But this doesn’t mean a business can rely on tech to do all the heavy lifting; it simply means businesses need smart, Driven salespeople who can utilize social media platforms, apps and websites to build their brand and attract customers. 

Average talent doesn’t know how to do those things, or even that technology should be leveraged to find customers, analyze data and support sales efforts. No matter how smart technology becomes, it will never be possible to automate Drive.

Similarly, soft skills aren’t enough to sustain sales success. Soft skills like emotional intelligence, empathy, adaptability and active listening are certainly a plus for salespeople to possess. But on their own, they aren’t what ultimately yields results — so hiring managers should not be distracted from seeking Drive. 

There is a common notion that since everyone has moved online, selling is now about good writing and good communication skills. While having these skills certainly doesn’t hurt, at the end of the day, a salesperson still has to convince somebody. Salespeople still have to put themselves out there and risk rejection.

Holding out for a Driven candidate is worth it, because there’s a huge achievement gap between average and high performers. High achievers can outperform their more average co-workers by up to 400%. That kind of ROI is more than worth the extra time and effort it might take to find and hire a Driven salesperson.

Pairing that knowledge with the fact that a low performer will need extra coaching and perhaps a corrective action plan — while costing the company money in lost sales opportunities — makes the decision to hold out for a high performer obvious.

It’s possible to train a new hire on industry specifics, teach them about the sales process, and coach them on sales strategy and technique, but it’s not possible to instill Drive where it doesn’t already exist. It’s the one thing candidates must already possess. If someone doesn’t have it, hiring managers should keep looking. Period. 

Need a Sales Superstar? Five Tips to Help Businesses Hire for Drive

Insights from Dr. Christopher Croner and Richard Abraham

Identifying, attracting and hiring high-achieving salespeople requires patience and discipline, especially given the current talent shortage. It may be tempting to fill an empty role (and save time and work) by hiring someone who’s merely qualified, not Driven.

However, compromising on the caliber of hires is not an option: The quality of a business’s salespeople directly determines the quality of their results. Here are five things businesses can do to find and hire the most Driven high performers:

Attract high-Drive candidates with targeted job listings. High-Drive people are attracted to high-Drive situations, so that’s how hiring managers should position their company in job listings. (Bonus: Low-Drive job seekers might decide for themselves that they’re not the best fit after reading the description.) Businesses can accomplish this by using words and phrases that are literally and subliminally full of high-Drive signals. For example: 

  • “High-potential sales position”
  • “Minimum of X years of experience successfully selling tech”
  • “Role includes the excitement of pure new business development, a.k.a. hunting
  • “Compensation is robust for those willing to work hard”
  • “Intense championship sales team”

Look for résumés that indicate Drive. When reviewing a candidate’s résumé and/or LinkedIn profile, there are a few indicators of high Need for Achievement (which is a crucial component of Drive):

  • The candidate is a passive (rather than an active) candidate. Passive candidates are those who are currently employed and not seeking a new opportunity. Salespeople high in need for achievement are usually performing well and financially rewarded in their current roles. Therefore, they are not actively looking for a new position. Of course, they are often willing to consider a better opportunity if approached by a recruiter.
  • The candidate is not a job-hopper. Job hoppers are candidates who change jobs frequently, often spending two years or less in a position. A few changes very early in career are acceptable. However, frequent changes thereafter can indicate a habitual lack of commitment (low need for achievement) which may also impact their performance on any new team.
  • The candidate is able to provide some concrete metrics to show that they have been successful previously.

Businesses that need a salesperson who is ready to hit the ground running should look for two to three years of previous experience at a similarly sized company. If the candidate is from a larger company, consider whether their previous success was because of their own effort or because they had strong brand recognition and collateral materials in their corner.

Don’t limit the search to active job seekers. Salespeople with the most Drive might not be actively looking for a new job. Businesses should proactively search resources like LinkedIn to find candidates who are an ideal match across the board in terms of experience, geography and other characteristics. Businesses can reach out to them and explain why the opportunity they’re offering is a better fit than what those salespeople are doing right now. 

On the flip side, businesses should not stop looking for Driven candidates once their open position is filled. Even businesses not actively trying to hire someone should constantly be on the lookout for superstars. 

Use a quality sales aptitude test … Businesses should screen candidates before the interview with a sales assessment test, administered to every candidate being considering (not just some people some of the time) to identify high-potential applicants and avoid those with less promise. It’s important to make sure the assessment uses a question format that eliminates faking and can track the candidates’ level of consistency in their responses. SalesDrive’s proprietary DriveTest® is one such assessment. Based on 90 years of research, as well as on SalesDrive’s own work, it helps businesses identify Driven candidates who display Need for Achievement, Competitiveness and Optimism.

… and follow it up with a behavioral interview. Candidates who pass the sales assessment earn the opportunity to meet for a one-on-one behavioral interview. Hiring managers should ask candidates to discuss their previous work-related experiences that reflect the characteristics needed in a new hire. Remember, the best predictor of future behavior is previous behavior. Questions like these will be helpful:

Q: What’s the toughest goal you’ve ever set for yourself? How do you plan to top it? (Allow the candidate to fully answer the first question before proceeding to the second.)

A: Has accomplished a very challenging work goal; has a specific plan to top that goal.

Q: Tell me about the last time you worked with no direct supervision. What was most challenging about that assignment for you? 

A: Challenges relate more to keeping others (e.g., colleagues, customers) on schedule, rather than their own time management.

Taking steps to identify the presence of Drive from the very beginning will pay off for years to come. Businesses that do their due diligence up front will thank themselves later.

Christopher Croner, Ph.D., principal at SalesDrive, and Richard Abraham co-authored Never Hire a Bad Salesperson Again: Selecting Candidates Who Are Absolutely Driven to Succeed, which details Dr. Croner’s research and practice in identifying the non-teachable personality traits common to top producers.

Dr. Croner received his B.A. in psychology from DePaul University and his master’s and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He developed the proprietary DriveTest® online sales test — an assessment based on 90 years of research on the subject as well as on the company’s own work — and The Drive Interview®, both used for hiring “Hunter” salespeople. Using this methodology, he has helped more than 1,200 companies worldwide to hire and develop top-performing salespeople.

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