Wisdom from sales leaders on preventing and recovering from sales hiring mistakes

The hiring manager’s guide to Breaking Bad

Hiring managers in any functional area will feel the pain from making a bad hiring decision. This story from a close colleague and partner is telling. It is about a conversation he had with a SVP of Engineering for an unnamed huge global aerospace company.

During his final presentation pursuing a six-figure assessment services contract, he made this point about the process and service he was recommending. “Our firm will help you hire the best engineers in the country.”

The SVP abruptly stopped his pitch and interjected. “Look” he said, “there are not enough great engineers out there to fill my demand for talent.” He continued, “What I want you to do is help me not hire any bad engineers. We simply cannot afford that mistake.”

While hiring a bad engineer might get you a plane that crashed, hiring a bad sales rep has its own acute pain and long-lasting side effects. Last month, I observed a workshop on behavioral interviewing. The participants were a seasoned and, I might add, talented group of frontline sales leaders (over 300 years of cumulative expertise in a room of 20). To warm them up and set the context for the day, the facilitator asked them to work individually to think of a time when they made a poor hiring decision. As far as I know, no one in the group said, “I’ve never made a bad hire.” They were then asked to share their thoughts with the group and describe the costs or business impact, of that hire.

In spite of the fact that they considered this question on their own, the output of the dialog yielded some very similar observations. Here are some of the more interesting comments from participants.

Poor Hires

  • They split the team.
  • Cost me at least 2 more months of recruiting and interviews.
  • The money wasted on training, introductions to customers, only to repeat the process after we let them go.
  • It affected the team dynamics
  • Really a poor reflection of our company and me across the board
  • We invested more in investigations and legal fees than we did to hire them.
  • Team and customer disruption, loss of team energy
  • I had to spend way too much time fixing the problem
  • Had to work through HR documentation process
  • I spent less time with other team members
  • I took a chance, wanted to give someone an opportunity and the learning cycle was too long
  • My manager wanted me to hire this person and I caved
  • Total time drain to train, coach, monitor
  • Customer complaints caused me/others to make “fix it” calls
  • I lost credibility with the team
  • Even the hire suffered with time from his family and a negative experience on his resume
  • Internal hire trying to move from inside marketing to sales – too risky
  • Customers didn’t want to see her
  • Wasted time and training resources including my time, my managers and HR
  • My team was watching – how will this set some kind of precedent?
  • The employee was dissatisfied with their performance as much as I was
  • Impact on the team and my workload
  • Adding additional unplanned for recruiting time/costs
  • It was a bad experience for our customers too.
  • Energy drain on the team and me
  • Slowed the learning at team meetings trying to bring this person along
  • Customers were unable to understand our value and products.
  • The rep became very frustrated and upset too
  • It actually put some of our customers in a safety risk
  • Unproductive and stressful on the team, me, my manager and our customer
  • We lost opportunities in the market spending time correcting this problem and that meant we lost revenue during a product launch.
  • Always a drain on the team, constantly trying to pull others down to their level
  • Customers wouldn’t meet with her – other team members had to cover for her
  • It was a major time commitment on my part

Many other comments were not captured, however the themes were consistent. They could be summarized in several “impact and cost” buckets.

  1. Team morale/credibility
  2. Time drain for manager, managers manager, and HR
  3. Customers were poorly served – loss of goodwill
  4. Company and managers reputation and brand were tarnished
  5. Recruiting costs increased
  6. Sales opportunities were lost
  7. Legal and severance costs increased
  8. The person themselves felt like a failure. Career damaging

We then asked flipped the question to ask them to consider the characteristics of one of their organization’s best hires – again, working on their own and then sharing answers with the group. Once more this exercise produced very similar responses.

Great Hires

  • The person was trusted
  • They were very solutions oriented not problem identifier
  • They were direct and open
  • Strong work ethic
  • Strategic thinker
  • Customer focused
  • Passionate about the product and helping customers
  • Peer leader
  • Fun to be around/upbeat enthusiastic but not blind to reality
  • Balanced family and work
  • Proactive to seek opportunities
  • Resourceful
  • Quick study
  • Positive impact on the team
  • Excited and passionate
  • Ethical
  • Offered something to the team
  • Missionary not mercenary
  • Liked challenge
  • Did more than expected without being asked
  • Always raised the bar
  • Eager to learn
  • Tops in technical knowledge
  • Got the job done and had fun doing it
  • Attitude was contagious – people liked being around him
  • Blended in with culture and team
  • Was supported and embraced by other stakeholders inside
  • Concern for customer and customers customer
  • Asked for help and never gave up
  • Self-aware
  • Shared best practices with others for the good of the team
  • Humble but proud
  • Passion for what we do
  • Quantifiable approach to business

Like the first question, there were many other comments not captured, yet the themes are consistent. These characteristics, summarized in similar categories to those listed above, are nearly polar opposites.

  1. Contributed to the team morale/credibility
  2. Did not drain time for manager, manager’s manager, or HR – took initiative and enjoyed challenge.
  3. Passionate about the customers and eagerly served them to build goodwill
  4. Company and managers reputation and brand were enhanced by the persons presence not diminished
  5. Recruiting costs decreased
  6. Sales opportunities were captured not lost
  7. Legal and severance costs were avoided
  8. The people themselves added value to the team, customers and the organization.

When making a decision to hire a new sales rep, you can’t be overly deliberate or you might lose the opportunity to hire great talent. However, your process and due diligence must go beyond gut feel and “winging it” as the consequences are too ominous.

At SalesGenomix we encourage clients to use the 30-30-30-10 decision-making model.

30-30-30-10 Hiring Model

In sales the common maxim is that customers make decisions based on feelings and emotions and justify their decision with facts and logic. We wouldn’t really disagree with that. Hiring is also a buying decision. However, we like to see some weight given to the decision criteria to prevent unforced hiring errors. Try this out on your next hire.

  1. Skills - 30 percent of your decision should validate the selling skills that the person possesses. Are those the skills that you know lead to success in the unique type of selling you do? Can they do what you need them to do? I often discuss turnover with line managers and they have a refrain: "Well we hired John for who he was, everyone really liked him." But, I had to fire him for what he couldn’t do. That means he lacked the fundamental sales skills to succeed.
  2. Motivations – 30 percent of the decision should weigh the individual’s motivations and how they are driven to approach tasks, relationships and influencing others. What drives that person to do their work? Will they do what you need them to do in the job you are trying to fill? This is a tricky area but I have had less skilled people with strong motivations make quota. On the contrary, I have seen highly skilled reps with little or no strong motivation who fell short of expectations.
  3. Values – 30 percent your conclusion about the candidate is whether they fit your culture – are they aligned with your core values and the cadence of your organization’s process? Do they share a passion for the company or team vision and will they be a net add to the team? Are they a fit for your culture? This is an important part of your organization’s value proposition to talented players. The well-known shoe and apparel company Zappos (now an Amazon company) had to hire 250 customer care reps in Las Vegas. Its was an $11 an hour job. Their culture was so highly regarded they received 25,000 applicants to fill the slots.
  4. Gut Feel – 10 percent. The problem is trying to quantify a gut feeling. Interviews are an unnatural meeting environment, especially when a motivated buyer (the sales manager) is meeting with a motivated seller (the candidate). Over the years there are some good questions to ask yourself whenever making this chemistry check decision. It’s difficult to not see this as a trump card even though it's 10 percent. Try these out on your next hiring decision. Credit goes to the many sales leaders I know who taught me these key checkpoints:

    • Are you excited about hiring this person? Do you feel a sense of excitement and energy that makes you eager to bring them into the team? If you are not excited now, you never will be.
    • Is this someone you would invite over to your home for dinner? This one sounds a bit corny, but if you don’t want to introduce them to your family doesn’t that tell you something?
    • Would you buy from this person? If this individual called on you to sell you anything, a car, a house, maybe even your own product, would you see yourself buying from them?
    • Do you see this person with the company 5 years from now? A job hopper is a job hopper. A manager of mine at Xerox used to say that any applicant with more than 3 sales jobs in 5 years was a knock out. The exception was upwardly mobile reps in the same company who went from inside sales to a territory and then to major accounts or sales management.
    • Do they have a trail of blue ribbons? This is tantamount to reading the racing form. The same Xerox manager wanted everything from top seller of Girl Scout cookies to 5 years in a row as a member of President’s Club. Winners tend to win over and over. You need to look for accomplishments where they excel at what they do over time.

In summary, avoiding costly hiring mistakes requires a consistent approach to your selection process. Consider the many possible tools you can employ to source, screen, assess and select a new hire. The more rigor and discipline you can put into the process the more likely you will have the desired outcome and the greater the probability that you will make your quota, attend this year's incentive trip and of course, cash that bonus check at the end of the year.

Good Hiring!

P.S. One last piece of advice. If you happen to make that bad hiring decision, cut your losses early. I would warrant that most of us know we made a mistake with a few weeks maybe even a few days. If you suspect that you were somehow fooled and there are early warning signs and symptoms that you goofed, don’t hang on for hope. Certainly you have to follow whatever HR guidelines you are accountable to, but don’t let your decision to fire linger hoping things will get better. Trust your instincts; they are likely right. Clients tell me the worst managers are quick to hire and slow to fire.

John Hoskins

John Hoskins

Co-founder at SalesGenomix
John Hoskins is a co-founder of SalesGenomix and author of Level Five Selling - The Anatomy of a Quality Sales Call
John Hoskins