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Hiring Commissioned Salespeople? Don’t Use a Standard Selection Process

I’ve only had brief bouts with commissioned salespeople but I learned two things from my experience that I carry with me to this day whenever I talk to people about this subject:

  1. It is one of the toughest jobs to start and be successful in.
  2. It is one of the toughest jobs to hire for.

As for point one, I don’t know what to say. We’ve tried a ton of different programs to help people get their start in these sorts of positions. The most successful people don’t seem to need too much guidance though. We’ve tried giving training pay for a month or two just to see if we could get them over the hump but it never made much sense in the dollars and cents department.

As for point two, that’s really where my mind took a flip. I couldn’t figure out why our selection process, no matter how well defined and executed, still ended up with 75%+ turnover in the first 90 days. Behavioral assessments be damned, something wasn’t adding up. Here’s a quick shortcut on something that took me a couple months to figure out:

Most selection processes assume that the company has the most at risk in making the selection. Given that assumption, questions are asked in a way that will reduce that risk or make the risk more acceptable.

Whenever you are hiring a commissioned salesperson though, that risk now falls squarely on the candidate. There is a serious opportunity cost for that person if they take a job that they don’t succeed in (because they won’t get paid). So if you are looking to reduce risk in your selection process (as you would typically do), you are actually increasing the likelihood of a bad fit hire. You throw a hitch into their risk assessment efforts that make it difficult to determine if they could be successful.

So we started talking to sales candidates like we would talk to a partner. We talked about our process, our business, success rates, failure rates, industry trends, leads, turnover… whatever. We focused questions of the candidate on past results, skill sets and industry or job specific knowledge. We helped them decide how they could handle our risk factors as a willing partner and we would evaluate their talents (and possible pitfalls) like we would a partner. If it meshed, great. If not, no biggie.

Was it a grand slam? No, but it was significantly more effective than the behavioral based, scientific process we used to use. It also helped us identify those who were entrepreneurial minded and interested in growing their own portfolio of business (because that’s what it really takes to be successful in this environment).

It didn’t change the fact that commissioned sales positions still stink to identify the right talent for but it at least made it easier for us to identify quickly those who were wholly unprepared to take the risk that commissioned sales demanded.