Labcast: Best Practices for Hiring Sales Reps at Startups and Expansion-stage Companies

In this week’s Labcast, S. Anthony Iannarino shares some best practices for hiring sales reps at startups and expansion-stage companies.

 Hiring Sales Reps at Expansion-stage companies

Kevin: Hello and welcome to OpenView Lab’s podcast. I’m Kevin Cain, and today I’m joined by Anthony Iannarino. Anthony and I are going to be talking about the best practices for hiring sales reps at early-stage and expansion-stage companies. For those of you who don’t know Anthony, he’s a sales expert and the President and Chief Sales Officer for Solutions Staffing, a top staffing company based in Columbus, Ohio. He’s also the managing director of a boutique sales coaching and consulting company called B2B Sales Coach and Consultancy. And an adjunct professor at Capital University’s School of Management and Leadership. He’s also a prolific blogger. As you can imagine, he’s a very busy guy, so we’re very appreciative to have him with us here today. Hey, Anthony. Thanks for joining us. How’s it going?

Anthony: I’m wonderful, Kevin. Thanks for having me.

Kevin: Yeah, thanks for being with us. So, as I alluded to earlier, we’re talking today about best practices for hiring with early-stage and expansion-stage companies. And what I wanted to do with you today was talk a little about what sort of tactics you see that managers should be employing when they look for those new hires at these early-stage and expansion-stage companies. What best practices would you offer?

Anthony: Now, I think at the early-stage, you’re looking for a different skill set and a different kind of sales rep. And I’ll try to put some borders and a framework around this for people to think about it. But, most of the time when we hire early-stage or late, we’re looking for experience because experience seems to be the one heuristic, or the shortcut that we like to take. If they have experience and they’ve done this before, we’ve had better luck in having them succeed here. But that really isn’t the most important factor at an early-stage or an expansion-stage of a company. What you really need, and I’m going to go to the hunter-farmer analogies, you need pure hunters. You need people who thrive on going out into the wilderness with just a machete and cutting a path where there’s no path in existence.

Now when you’re starting up, you particularly need sales people that have the ability to sell a concept, to sell the vision, and then understand how to sell that concept. So, you’re looking for something different. And you’re creating something new, and sales people are very comfortable selling a product that they believe in and that they can count on and that they know is going to deliver. But at early stages, you’re going to have the trains come off of the track, and you’re going to create enormous value for customers, but there’s a giant learning curve. And you need sales people that are comfortable dealing with that learning curve, who are very comfortable prospecting, and hunting, and bringing new opportunities in, story telling and differentiating, explaining the value of it. We’re doing something different. You haven’t seen it before. But the difference makes a difference. And I think that’s what you’re looking for instead of experience. Because they’ve sold software in the past, doesn’t mean that they’re going to succeed selling something that’s brand new. And I think that it’s true across all markets.

Kevin: So, is there a different way to recruit for that type of sales person?

Anthony: I don’t know that it’s different. But I would say that, you need to focus on behaviors. Behaviors, attitudes and beliefs. I like a behavioral-based interview because I think it gives us the closest picture of the truth that we can find in an interview. In this kind of a situation, when you’re growing and you’re brand new, prospecting is important. So, how do you find out whether or not that sales person really is interested and competent to prospect? So, you might ask questions to understand the behaviors to say, “Describe for me what a model sales week looks like for you.” And you’ll hear all kinds of answers from sales people, “Well, I would do some of this and some of that,” but when you say, “No. Specifically, what’s a model week look like. How much time is spent prospecting? How much time is face-to-face with a client or prospect? How much time is actually updating your sales force automation and CRM? Give me a picture of that”

The more you push on that, the more you start to uncover what are their real behaviors going to be. And if you ask behavioral-based questions like, “How do you prospect?” You get really vague answers. “Well you know, I make some cold calls and I like networking.” “OK fine. But tell me how you do that. What do you do? How do you start that process?” And when you push sales people, you get a much better view of what they’re really willing to do and how they’ll behave when you hire them.

Kevin: Sure. So, I think it’s the basic concept that, you need to dig a little bit below the surface, right? Because on the surface, most people look great on paper, but when the rubber hits the road, you need to dig down a bit deeper and see what’s there to back up all that great appearance.

Anthony: Heck, even I look good on paper, Kevin. I think that that’s true. I tell my clients this all the time, “You’re not hiring the resume.” And they’re sometimes disappointed when… Actually, I’ll say it this way. They’re more often disappointed when they hire the resume, and they say, “That’s not the guy that showed up.” Well, that wasn’t the guy that interviewed either. And the guy that interviewed, you did an interview where you took the shortcuts and went to experience versus behaviors and attitudes and beliefs. And so, you really got what you hired.

Kevin: So, are we really looking at an issue of a lack of qualified candidates or a lack of proper interviewing and vetting skills on the part of the manager?

Anthony: I don’t think that those are mutually exclusive. I think we have two things going on. One, absolutely, we’re looking at a lack of qualified candidates, especially for the start-up period. In my experience, there are fewer pure hunters. There are fewer people that are willing to pick up a phone and make a call to a stranger and introduce themselves. And I think that this has something to do with the way that the tool sets have changed with social media and sales 2.0. And it’s also just a younger generation who’s uncomfortable asking for commitments and interrupting and imposing on people. So, I think that that’s part of it. But that’s only part of it.

The other part of it is poor hiring practices. So, we’re screening resumes. We’re screening out people whose resume doesn’t have the buzz words that we’re looking for on it that indicate experience. And by doing that, we’re not ever getting a deep look at their attitudes, their behaviors and their beliefs, which count for a lot more when it comes to their success than their experience does. So, one recommendation that I make to clients is, instead of trying to find three candidates to do a one-hour interview with, take that three hours and take that towards doing nine 30 minute interviews with candidates. So that you can spend 20 minutes on the phone, it’s enough to start to determine whether or not the person has the attitudes, the beliefs and the behaviors. And you’re not investing a whole hour on someone whose resume is great but who, 20 minutes into that interview, you discover that they don’t have the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

So, it’s a way to invest enough time to figure out who do I really want to spend more time with. And I think that the poor hiring process comes from trying to take the shortcut of looking at the resume, instead of spending time with the candidates that you need to. And spending time with candidates that just have experience but don’t have the beliefs and attributes. So, they hire poorly based on a poor process.

Kevin: Yeah, it sounds like what you really need is a bit of a screening process to help weave through quickly, right? And I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, that’s OpenView actually does. We have our labs team that does the screening of candidates for our portfolio companies, helping them find the best candidates. So, my question to is, if you’re not working with OpenView in that capacity, and you’re not based in Columbus, Ohio, where we can use your services, are there tools or resources out there that you’d recommend that people can use to help with this whole process?

Anthony: I think a good partner like OpenView makes perfect sense. If you have somebody that understands your business enough to be able to do the prescreening, you can eliminate a lot of that time. What you find now with recruiting and hiring, is that when you put an ad out, you get a tremendous response and most of the candidates aren’t worth looking at. But it’s difficult to see below the surface. So, having somebody do some of that screening for you is really helpful.

The other thing that I would suggest, if I were to make one recommendation and there’s not another source that you can go to, 15 to 20 minutes on the phone, do that a couple of times and identify the pool of candidates that have those attributes that you identify. And then make time, not only for you to spend time with that candidate, but for your team members to spend time so you can make a good hiring decision.

Kevin: Sure. So, one more question for you. I’ve read in your blog where you talk about the idea that, if you hire someone and they eventually leave you. They’ve been in a sales role, and now they want to pursue a completely different career, that means you mis-hired. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Anthony: Yeah. I think that this is a point that I’m strong about and if you read the blog, there will be a lot of posts that point to this problem that occurs. There are a lot of people who really need a job. And they’ll accept a job in sales, but really they dream of being a teacher. Or they dream of being something else. And they want money and they want a job, but that’s really not who they are. And when you hire somebody and they tell you, and this is a hiring question that I ask, “What is your dream job? If you could have the perfect job, what would it look like?” And you hear, “Well, my perfect job, I would be a high school math teacher.” “OK, well, then you’re not a salesperson.” Because salespeople, when they leave one sales job, immediately go to the next sales job because it’s who they are and it’s what they do. And they have the ability to create value both for their company and for their prospects. They intended to create that value, capture some of that value for their company and for themselves in a way of commissions. And they view themselves as a sales person.

Kevin: Right.

Anthony: So, one of the issues and challenges we have, is that these people who aren’t really sales people, don’t like to do the activity that they consider to be what they call, “That’s too salesy. It’s asking for commitments. It’s interrupting people. It’s pushing back when we get price objections and saying let me show you the value again.” They’re uncomfortable with all that because it’s really not who they are.

Kevin: Sure. No, that makes a lot of sense. Anthony, this has been a really interesting podcast. Thank you so much for joining us. Before I let you go, can you just let our listeners know where they can find more information about you?

Anthony: I’m the easiest guy in the world to find on the Internet, Kevin. You can go to thesalesblog.com, that’s my main hub for all my activity on the Web, and you can find me there. That’s the easiest place and there are connections for LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, or anywhere else you’d want to connect with me there.

Kevin: Great. Thanks again, Anthony.

Anthony: Thank you, Kevin.

photo by: DonkeyHotey

Share Your Thoughts