Hiring an effective sales person is one of management’s most difficult tasks.  That’s because 90% of the person you hire is hidden beneath the surface.

When interviewing a hiring candidate or coaching an employee, it’s helpful to visualize the image of an iceberg with 10% visible above the surface, and 90% invisible below the surface:

The visible 10% is necessary, but limited information:

  • Skills
  • Experience
  • Education

The invisible 90% is the essence of the total person and helps to create a good job match.

  • Thinking Style
  • Behavioral Traits
  • Occupational Interests

The difference between what you see and what you need to see can make the difference between hiring a top performer or an underperformer.

Companies that use pre-hire and coaching assessment tools discover that certain key attributes for attaining sales success are not always apparent during a traditional interview relying on a résumé and scripted questions.  Key attributes are often hidden below the surface (of the iceberg) and have the potential to sink your sales forecast, if they are not discovered in time.  These include competitiveness, self-reliance, persistence, energy level and sales drive.

Furthermore, there are seven important sales behaviors that affect sales performance and are often invisible even with existing employees.  They are (1) prospecting, (2) closing, (3) call reluctance, (4) self-starting ability, (5) teamwork, (6) building and maintaining relationships, and (7) compensation preference.

Companies that use pre-hire and coaching assessment tools to see more of the total person can also increase the likelihood of hiring top performers by asking themselves this question:

  1. Which of these two choices is more likely to result in an effective sales person?
  2. Hiring someone with technical expertise and training them to become a sales person, or
  3. Hiring someone with sales aptitude, and training them in the product knowledge and technical aspects of the job?
  4. That’s simple. I think you are almost always better off hiring someone with sales aptitude and educating them in the technical part of the job.

Here’s why…

  1. In any population of people, there are far more people with technical aptitude than there are with genuine sales aptitude. So, good sales people are harder to find than good technicians.  That’s one of the reasons why a good sales person earns more than a good technician.
  2. Sales is a more difficult job than engineering, technical repair, or any of the other highly technical professions. Technicians invariably work with “things”, and “things” have reliable and known characteristics.  Sales people, on the other hand, invariably work with people.  Each individual person is ultimately an unknown combination of thoughts, feelings, values, goals and beliefs – incredibly complex.  Now add together a group of people in the context of a business, and you have a very difficult and complex situation, full of unknown variables.

If you can find someone with the qualities to handle this chaos — the discipline to work an unsupervised, effective workweek, the personal self-image strong enough to withstand daily rejection, the personal motivation to press on no matter what – then believe me, training them in technical details is the easy part.

  1. Technical people who become sales people almost always view their job as essentially uncovering technical problems to solve, and then proposing solutions to those technical problems. While this is a component of the job, it dramatically limits the sales person’s effectiveness.

Those of you who are familiar with my “peeling the onion” analogy will recognize that “technical problems” are very near the surface of the onion.  As long as a sales person views their job as that of finding solutions to technical problems, they’ll never penetrate to the heart of a customer’s goals and motivations.

While technical problem solvers are working at the surface of things, the professional sales people are working with their customers on systems and partnerships.

The largest sales I ever made were always at deep levels in the organization, where systems and corporate philosophies and values were more important than technical issues.

  1. Finally, from a very pragmatic point of view, it is easier to educate someone in product knowledge and technical applications than it is to train someone in sales skills. Ultimately, product knowledge and technical issues are knowledge, and knowledge can be learned.  Sales, on the other hand, requires a complex combination of aptitudes, motivations, beliefs, concepts, skills, processes and tools.  You are far better off hiring someone who has the raw core competencies to develop into an accomplished sales person, than someone who has gained knowledge, but doesn’t have the aptitude.

Having said all that, I have one last thought.  Don’t think that just because someone has sales aptitude, they don’t need instruction in the competencies that make one an effective sales person.

Just like any other profession, there are specific competencies that effective sales practitioner’s practice.  You can make your company’s success far more likely by looking below the surface (of the iceberg) when you’re hiring and when you’re promoting by using aptitude assessment tools.  You can make your company’s success far more likely by seeing to it that sales people are trained and then stimulated to continually develop their skills than if you simply allow them to learn by trial and error.