Through current technology and pre-hire survey methodologies based on behavioral science, employers have a consistent, reliable, and efficient means of checking references. As a result, they will encounter fewer surprises during the interview process and after the hire. Ultimately, they will achieve competitive advantages with a new sales force equipped to identify opportunities, modify tactics and messages, and close more deals.

Hiring the New Sales Force

Long before the prospective customer has identified a problem and understands what is needed, today’s effective sales rep is offering thought-provoking insights. Winning business in today’s competitive marketplace, with buying decisions made by astute and sometimes unconventional purchasers, requires much more determination and prowess than simply timing the conversation before an RFP is issued. At any point in the process, sales professionals may need to reframe conversations and change minds.

The players and rules have shifted with a trend away from solution-selling. “Owing to increasingly sophisticated procurement teams and purchasing consultants armed with troves of data, companies can readily define solutions for themselves,” noted a recent article in Harvard Business Review entitled The End of Solution Sales. “In this world the celebrated ‘solution sales rep’ can be more of an annoyance than an asset. Customers in an array of industries, from IT to insurance to business process outsourcing, are often way ahead of the salespeople who are ‘helping’ them.”

In such situations, the best sales reps have moved on from yesterday’s approaches. A recent study by SkillSurvey®, Inc. identifies specific areas for improvement required of salespeople in order for them to become more successful.

Today’s Requirements: Creativity Counts

The SkillSurvey research data, obtained over a fifteen-month period ending in June 2012, consisted of feedback from the professional references of 1,433 sales job candidates. The survey revealed that:

• About one-third of sales candidates needed to improve their ability to meet their sales goals.

• More than 27% were lacking the desired skills to modify and tailor their sales messages as needed.

• Over a quarter had moderate-to-high developmental needs when it came to using a variety of methods to locate sales opportunities.

At the same time, research from The Sales Executive Council of the Corporate Executive Board explored how the best sales reps can overcome the shift in buying behaviors among better informed customers. “High performing reps teach customers where they learn,” the Council reported, “delivering disruptive commercial insight that effectively reframes the way they think about their business and the problems facing it.”

The Council further identified three types of scenarios based on a customer’s level of familiarity with the problem that require reframing. An underestimated problem is of greater magnitude than originally understood or must be appreciated differently. An unrecognized driver is a root cause that had not been considered. An unanticipated problem might have gone completely unnoticed, until a moment of detrimental impact, without the sales rep’s forewarning. In the process of reframing and teaching, the rep presents the new approach or better way of managing these situations, and positions the supplier as providing the resolution.

Securing Talent Through Competency Modeling & Technology

The move toward “insight-selling,” as described in The End of Solution Sales, often requires that sales professionals seek out and work directly with “change agents” in “agile organizations.” That’s a tall order—both for the seller and for the manager hiring new sales talent. Building the kind of sales staff that can assess and navigate this changing world also requires a new level of insight into reps’ competencies during the hiring process.

Thanks to online technology, collecting information from candidates’ references can now be automated, helping hiring managers to assess potential sales talent. Online survey tools enable employers to avoid making risky assumptions about skill sets that are not easily evaluated in the interview, ensuring that they source and select sales employees with a history of success.

Software ensures speed, consistency, and quality during the reference-collection stage. Through an automated process:

1. The recruiter sends a pre-composed e-mail to candidates requesting reference contact information. While this can be done at any stage in the screening process, the best practice is to do it prior to the hiring manager’s interview. Input from the references can then guide the interview itself.

2. Candidates enter contact information for the required number of references, including managers, peers, subordinates, and business partners.

3. The references receive an e-mail notification from the candidate requesting their participation and explaining that the candidate has signed a waiver of liability.

4. References complete an online survey consisting of approximately 20 questions, rating the candidate on behaviors that have been validated against success in the targeted sales position. References can also write-in verbatim comments on the candidate’s strengths and areas in which they could improve.

5. The software aggregates the feedback from the references to ensure confidentiality and produces a report for the recruiter or hiring manager, presenting results and anonymous verbatim comments for each candidate. Candidates can be compared with one another across skills and behaviors.

Ideally, the questions asked of references pertain to the skills and behaviors that correlate with the success of the sales position. For instance, in online reference-checking for sales positions, the survey should ask: “Compared to others in the workplace, to what extent does the candidate:”

• Establish rapport easily with a wide variety of people?

• Monitor industry trends and modify sales messages accordingly?

• Quickly identify the decision-maker in an organization?

Rankings on such criteria, and the interview follow-up questions they elicit, can enable organizations to identify those candidates most likely to be successful. The behaviors required for insight-selling are sophisticated and evolving. Armed with survey data, interviewers can probe and better assess a candidate’s ability to employ strategies like those mentioned in The End of Solutions Sales, including: finding accounts with emerging demand, targeting the “mobilizers” (the “go-getters, teachers, and skeptics” who tend to value big ideas over supplier loyalty and who typically like to ask questions), and coaching prospects on the buying cycle.

In addition, having learned from verbatim comments provided from a reference that a candidate “could benefit from establishing a rapport before discussing business and from listening a bit better before advancing his objective,” an interviewer could ask a candidate to participate in a mock sales meeting to observe the candidate’s selling style. Specific, behavior-based questions could also be asked in the interview to gauge the candidate’s typical approach and to determine how coachable the candidate would be.

Bottom-Line Results for Best-in-Class Companies

Organizations have been achieving immediate results in their sales hiring through the use of 360°-style behavioral feedback via reference-checking, including these:

• Fortune 500 firm Quest Diagnostics, which increased its ability to predict successful performance of sales reps. After just one year, its retention of sales reps exceeded 90%, well above the national average, and with a high percentage of those achieving their sales targets.

• A media company, which documented that 87% of all those asked to complete a reference-check did so, and within less than a business day. It was then able to identify 6% of its sales candidates as possible risky hires.

• A global healthcare organization, which discovered that references scored 20% of its sales candidates as either medium or lower. It saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary costs associated with bad-hires and avoided time wasted recruiting replacement candidates.

• Leading financial services firm SunAmerica, which increased its production of new hire sales reps by 34%, while it reduced turnover from 22% to 2% in the first 16 weeks.

The confidential nature of the online reference-checking process is a major factor in turnaround and reliability. With confidentiality preserved and all parties protected from liability, references typically report on an applicant’s skills and behaviors in candid detail.

Long-Term Outcomes

Today’s hiring managers face unprecedented challenges in helping their organizations maneuver the transition from solution-selling to insight-selling. Conventional sales methods are abandoned and surpassed by the confident, nimble, skilled sales professionals willing and able to work with stakeholders who are highly-energized, but often more skeptical and less accommodating than yesterday’s advocates.

Through current technology and pre-hire survey methodologies based on behavioral science, employers have a consistent, reliable, and efficient means of checking references. As a result, they will encounter fewer surprises during the interview process and after the hire. Ultimately, they will achieve competitive advantages with a new sales force equipped to identify opportunities, modify tactics and messages, and close more deals.

About the author

Shannon Yeagley

Shannon Yeagley is a Marketing Manager for SkillSurvey, Inc. She develops, implements and manages…

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