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Does hiring salespeople have to be an uphill battle?

I am often struck by the hopelessness of hiring managers who lament the lack of great salespeople, while filling their ranks with legions of under-performing and underwhelming sales personnel.

On an intellectual level, these seemingly bright managers understand that there are plenty of people out there who would make great salespeople, but still they find it so very hard to identify and hire them.

If it is true that about one in four people possesses the necessary wiring to succeed in sales, why is it so difficult to find them? Surely even a random selection process, devoid of the deep-dive into a candidate’s wiring, experience and pedigree, ought to produce better results than most current hiring practices?

I believe that the root cause of bad hiring decisions is a combination of two very connected factors. On the one hand, human nature being what it is, we make a decision on whether we like or dislike someone in a fraction of one second. In fact, Alexander Todorov and Janine Willis, of Princeton University, produced a seminal white paper that argues that we make a decision about someone’s likeability or not in one-tenth of one second.

What emerges in the interview process that follows that ‘millisecond judgment’ is a form of confirmatory bias. If the interviewer was immediately disposed to like the candidate, he is much more inclined to hear positives responses which underscore his initial positive bias. On the other hand, if the interviewer immediately forms a negative bias towards the candidate, he is more likely to hear answers that support his negative bias.

In either case, he feels certain that he has made the right choice and is likely to give himself credit for his brilliant intuition in ‘getting people.’ How many times have you heard it…”I just know it when I see it, it’s a gut thing.” Well, that part, at least, is correct. It is all too often a gut thing and that is why we so frequently get it wrong.

The second reason that we so often miss in interviews is that we eschew candidates who do not conform to the stereotype that we imagine for the position. Those ‘getting people’ instincts actively eliminate candidates who might seem a little different. The interviewer worries that the candidate might be difficult to manage. She worries that the team might not warm to the candidate and, as such, she continues the search for a more amiable hire.

David Ogilvy wrote in Confessions of an Advertising Man “Our business needs massive transfusions of talent…and talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among the non-conformists, dissenters, and rebels.”

Ogilvy’s assessment of great talent as dissenters and rebels couldn’t be more accurate – particularly as it relates to salespeople. They don’t fit the model we subconsciously take into the interview process and their self-assurance and direct manner can make us uncomfortable during the interview.

Great sales producers come with baggage. In all my years hiring and managing them, I can’t think of a single one of the best of them who did not stretch my patience from time to time. This baggage, when sensed by the interviewer, and when coupled with her immediate biases, results in what we believe are smart and safe choices when they are, by any reasonable estimation, entirely the wrong choices about 60 percent of the time.

Any company that depends on salespeople must have an interview process that mitigates the possibility of allowing our immediate biases and our resistance to a little baggage to miss hiring real great sales producers. A well structured interview that focuses on sales wiring, with specific questions designed to uncover the key traits essential in sales, has to become the norm in the hiring process.

Focus on the things that really matter; is the candidate driven to succeed? Does she listen well? Does she have sufficient reserves of resilience to thrive in an environment where no is often much more prevalent than yes. This is the stuff that matters, even if it doesn’t almost come in a neat package with a ribbon on it.

About Caliper - For nearly half a century, Caliper has been helping companies achieve peak performance by advising them on hiring the right people, managing individuals most effectively and developing productive teams. The accuracy, objectivity and depth of our consulting approach enable us to provide solutions that work for over 25,000 companies. To find out more about how Caliper can help you identify and develop people who can lead your organization to peak performance, please visit us at  or call us at 609-524-1200. Email to contact Caliper.