Why Hiring Sales People is So Hard, Part 1

You were excited when you hired your new sales person. This new guy was going to really shine. He had a great resume. In the interview, he impressed you with his enthusiasm and said all the right things. He was even a success at a company in your industry. You were happy. Your boss was happy. But now, six months later, the results aren’t there and it seems like the person down the hall is not the same person you hired. What went wrong? Why is hiring sales people so difficult?

If this story sounds familiar, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In fact, some studies show that as many as 50% of candidates who are successful in one job fail in their next role. The reason they failed, and the answer to how to avoid it in the future, may surprise you.

Part of the reason is that environment plays a huge role in the success of a sales person. Environment is everything from your processes, to team structure, to the level of support and resources. If your environment or processes are vastly different from where they came from, that can impede success.

Another reason, frankly, is that even mediocre sales people are great at selling themselves. They know the product and they know your pain points. It’s not hard to make that sale. But an even more interesting reason that has emerged in recent years is the idea that we’re actually looking for the wrong traits when we evaluate someone for a sales job.

What makes a successful sales person?

Close your eyes and imagine a person you would expect to be a good sales person. You’re probably picturing someone outgoing, assertive, enthusiastic, and ambitious; a typical extrovert. And the more extroverted the better, right? Research actually suggests otherwise.

For a while now, psychologists have been pointing to a weak link between extroversion and sales performance. In one such study Adam Grant of the Wharton School of Business looked at the personality profiles and revenue generation of 340 outbound call center sales employees in the US.

What Grant found was that typical extroverts (as measured using the validated Big 5 personality measure) performed no better than their introverted colleagues. More interesting, though, is who did perform the best. The group in the middle – what psychologists calls ambiverts – outperformed both groups. These ambiverts generated 24% more revenue than their extroverted colleagues.

The secret to sales success, it seems, is actually to recruit someone who is more balanced on the introversion/extroversion scale. The problem with highly extroverted people, Grant notes, is that they’re likely to focus heavily on their own perspectives. They’re more likely than introverts to dominate a conversation and that makes them less adept at listening to the needs of others, which is a crucial skill for sales, especially in B2B. Swing the pendulum the other way, though, and you end up with someone who is too analytical and not outgoing enough to build the relationships necessary in sales.

The extroversion/introversion scale is one of four trait scales that we measure with The McQuaig System (our assessments are based on the same Big 5 model as Grant’s research). We call it the Sociable/Analytical scale. At one end you have someone who is extremely people oriented, sociable and outgoing, and at the other end, someone who is analytical and oriented towards facts and ideas rather than people and emotions.

How do you find your ideal?

The challenge for hiring managers is that these traits can be faked short-term; in an interview, for example. In fact, a study done by Michigan State University found that interviews are only accurate predictors of future performance 14% of the time, but they are used to make hiring decisions 90% of the time.

HR and hiring managers need a way to identify a candidate’s natural disposition in order to be certain they are making a good hiring decision.

Behavior-based interviewing can help. Behavior-based reference checking can be even more useful. And scientifically sound assessments can provide an even higher level of insight to empower better decision making.

What Grant’s research doesn’t mention are the other critical traits of a successful sales person. Whether a person is an introvert, extrovert or ambivert is just one aspect of personality and, based on our research, not the most important to look at in a sales role – especially if you’re looking for what’s called a “hunter” or “rainmaker”; someone who is consistently good at new business generation.

We’ll explore the most important trait to look for when hiring this type of sales role – and the one hardest to fake - in part two of this series.

If you’d like some help creating the profile of a successful sales person try our free Job Analysis Worksheet. It will help you document what a successful candidate needs to possess and gain consensus with the other stakeholders at the table.