Where have all the competent salespeople gone?

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Getting The Edge In Professional Selling 
Terence A. Hockenhull

THREE YEARS AGO, I was asked to hire a competent sales team. At the time, I thought it a somewhat a daunting task. After all, the company I was doing this for, sells specialty products and materials. I felt it unlikely that finding the right people would be an easy task.

Nonetheless, advertisements placed with an online recruitment company yielded a large number of applicants — so many, in fact, that I worked on the following formula. For every 60 applicants, only 30 were worth a second look. My search for qualified civil engineers yielded nurses, psychology graduates, and fashion designers! Of the 30 qualified applicants, less than half had provided contactable telephone or e-mail addresses, or alternatively, when contacted, said they had no interest in the job (the one they had applied for!).

Now down to 15 applicants, one-third failed to turn up for a scheduled interview. Of the remaining 10, only three were worth short-listing. The rest either displayed characteristics during the interview that made them unsuitable or couldn’t really say why they wanted to change jobs, work for a new company, or advance their career. Of the remaining three, one got hired!

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Now, consider for a second that I had to hire eight salespeople, three technical engineers, and a couple of administration personnel. During the four months it took me to get all on board, I carefully read through over 1,000 applicants’ CVs and interviewed well over 100 people. Now, perhaps this sounds like I am complaining!

Not half as much as I am today! I still need good people to make up for natural attrition, the odd one or two who, for a number of reasons, really haven’t worked out, and also to fill a couple of new positions that have recently been created. Would I be happy if I had 1,000 applicants to choose from? Even 100 might at least give me a pool large enough to get one or two people on board.

The same online recruitment specialist yields very few applicants; those who do apply fail in every respect to meet the job advertisement requirements. I’ve recruited head-hunters to find the right people; to date, their performance has been nothing to write home about.

A bit of a rant, I know, but it’s really very frustrating when you have a position that needs filling and you can’t find applicants. The trouble is, few of the positions I am hiring for are really trainable; I cannot just bring someone on board and expect to teach them what they need to know.

Sure, product knowledge is easy; I have a career stretching back 25 years during which I have trained thousands (no exaggeration) of salespeople. But again, this is only useful if you find individuals who have the “right stuff.” Can you train someone to be more tenacious, aggressive, personable, or relational? Can you change a person’s work ethic, application, intelligence, flexibility, or commitment?

Interviewing candidates is a highly skilled task, and it takes time and commitment to make sure you invest in the right people. The trouble is, when you don’t get the applicants in the first place, the pool is so much smaller. I actually asked my HR supervisor to call the online recruitment company and ask them for some pointers on how to encourage more people to apply. Their solution was to make our advertisements more generic. But isn’t this a bit like going to a department store to buy a shirt and spending half a day trying on trousers, shoes, socks, underwear, hats and gloves as well as shirts?

I don’t know; on this occasion, I certainly don’t have all of the answers. I sympathize with anyone who is out there trying to hire experienced people and cannot get a good pool of applicants to choose from.

In closing this article, I would comment that bringing the wrong person into your organization (just because he or she is the best of a bad bunch) is unlikely to yield a satisfactory outcome. Nine times out of ten, they will prove to be disruptive to the organization, fail to perform to expectations, and generally leave within a short period, making you face the whole recruitment cycle over again.

Terence A. Hockenhull is a long-term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant who currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.