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The Red Flags of Sales Recruiting: No Need to Take Action (don't hire them in the first place!)

Aug 17, 2007
If you've seen the movie adaptation of David Mamet's stage play "Glengarry Glen Ross", no doubt you're familiar with Alec Baldwin's infamous scene in which he delivers one of the most memorable motivational sales speeches of all time. If you've worked in sales at any time during the last 14 years since the movie was released, chances are either yourself or someone you know can recite chunks of Baldwin's speech, or at least some of the key takeaway phrases ("coffee is for closers!").

For those of you who haven't seen the movie, Baldwin portrays a real estate shark (albeit briefly: he's only onscreen less than 10 minutes) brought in by fellow brokers Mitch and Murray in order to rally their sales team and roll out the guidelines for the monthly sales contest. The top two salespeople get to keep their jobs while everyone else is canned. At the end of his tirade, Baldwin responds to Ed Harris's question of why he's there. "I came here because Mitch and Murray asked me for a favor," Baldwin sneers. "But I said the real favor is follow my advice and fire your (rear-end) because a loser is a loser."

Meeting dismissed. Harsh? Absolutely. Motivating? Without question it motivated the unproductive reps to take action, just not the actions Mitch and Murray would have hoped for (you've got to watch the movie to find out what truly desperate people in these circumstances will do).

The first five minutes of movie blatantly establishes that the entire sales department, with the exception of top-producer Al Pacino (nominated for an Academy Award for his role) has already begun the downward death spiral many salespeople go through once industry burn-out has begun to set in.

For those of you with a background in sales management who have seen the movie, you probably recognize that the intent of the sales meeting at the fictional Rio Rancho Properties was not to motivate the reps to sell; it was to motivate them to leave.

Mitch and Murray's reasoning: turn up the pressure to an unbearable level and the ensuing war of attrition will weed out the ones that can't take the heat, thus saving the management team from the unpleasant tasks of either confronting the reps regarding their lack of production or terminating them in person.

For many sales managers across companies of all sizes, turnover is a way of life. Dealing with performance issues comes with the territory: either you address it with your reps individually or someone will be addressing yours with you. Whether a sales rep leaves voluntarily or is escorted to the door by security, it's a painful process to watch someone go from excited candidate to promising newcomer to frustrated rep to underachiever to latest casualty.

I have yet to meet a manager who wouldn't rank firing people at the bottom of the list of "most rewarding aspects" of their job. Looking back at the interview process, most sales managers will admit they recognized the red flags that ultimately led to the undoing of a particular candidate once he or she became an employee, but for whatever reason chose to overlook or downplay them.

I've spoken with sales managers and business owners who, after an exhaustive parade of unsuccessful hires and terminations, have come to the conclusion (incorrectly, I might add) that it's virtually impossible for them to predict whether or not any one candidate will be successful in their organization based on a handful of interviews. "Salespeople are professional interviewers, right? Aren't they trained to tell you exactly what you want to hear?" So they devise a recruiting strategy that consists of establishing some rough hiring guidelines (ie., Bachelor's degree, minimum of 2 years sales experience) bring on the first person that looks presentable, throw them a bunch of dead leads and/or disgruntled customers, point them to a phone and if they fall to produce in the first 90 days, get rid of them.

Recruiting the RIGHT people is no easy task, so it's understandable how one could adopt this scattershot philosophy. My advice would be that if you want to make every working day feel like a week while ushering in your own demise, then adopt this strategy immediately.

While this is an extreme example, most hiring managers would concede there have been occasions when they have overlooked critical flaws in a candidate's background, character, etc. simply because they were desperate for someone to step into the position, only to watch it blow up in their face down the road.

If you are the type of manager who is swift in taking action upon the realization you have made a bad hiring decision (and by that I mean terminating the employee), then I applaud you. There is nothing worse than watching someone toil away just to collect a paycheck. But wouldn't life have been easier if you hadn't hired them in the first place?

One of the keys to successful recruiting (particularly in sales, where the candidate criteria can be more subjective than with other roles) is to pay close attention to your gut instincts and if something about a candidate doesn't sit well with you, move on to another candidate!

If you're an individual with a lot of pet peeves, then you'd better do your best to determine early on in the interview process whether or not a particular candidate has the potential to drive you crazy. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by recognizing those subtle indicators of future "termination-worthy" actions. Here is a handful that I watch out for when interviewing sales candidates:

The Inaccessible Candidate. It bothers me when I am unable to connect with a sales candidate on their cell phone after 2 or 3 tries. If I'm not able to get through to them after a reasonable number of attempts, why should I assume that one of their prospects or customers would be able to? I can appreciate not answering calls from blocked numbers, but I don't think refusing to answer because they don't recognize the phone number is a legitimate excuse. Who's to say I'm not a referral from a client?

The candidate who gets too personable, too quickly. Like many of our clients, sales reps in our industry are essentially consultants: we do not sell a product and the services we provide are highly customized based on the needs of our clients. In addition, our firm operates on a retained basis (whereas the majority of our industry is comprised of contingent firms), so in order for us to justify an up-front engagement fee it's imperative that we establish credibility and capacity very early on in the relationship.

Our clients look to us as professional consultants and solution providers, first and foremost. If a personal relationship develops beyond the scope of our obligations, great, however, our clients to do hire us to discuss deep-sea fishing, my nephew's wedding and whether or not the Marlins can pull a rabbit out of a hat this Saturday against the Cubs. If this is the route a candidate takes in an attempt to immediately try and establish rapport with me, what makes me think he or she is going to act any differently with one of my clients? There is a time and place for those conversations: just make sure they're not in the first 15 minutes of our initial conversation (that is, of course, unless I happen to mention the Marlin's current winning streak).

The Agreeable Candidate. It always bothers me when someone sits across from you, looks you in eye and agrees 100% with everything you say. It's one thing if I'm at a cocktail party making small talk with my co-worker's spouse with whom I've just met. It's another thing when I'm having a serious business conversation with an individual I'm either considering recommending to my client or adding to my own team.

If you're interviewing a candidate that appears to be in agreement with everything you say, you've either got a "yes man" on your hands or you're talking way over their heads and they're too intimidated to say so. There's an old business cliche that says if you have two people within an organization that think exactly alike, you have one too many people. Either way, you need to keep looking.

The Blame Game. The majority of people leave their jobs either because they do not get along with their immediate supervisor or they simply do not like what they're doing from the hours of 8 to 5 each day. That's understandable; I think all of us have been there at one time or another. The problem I have is when a candidate consistently points the finger at someone or something that stood in the way of their success, thus forcing them to look for a new line of work. This is particularly troubling when you have a candidate with a less-than-consistent work history (more than 2 jobs in the last 5 years).

"The job was not as described," is a way of saying "I didn't fully investigate the opportunity." "The company was not financially sound," in the candidate's mind is better than saying "I failed to do my due-diligence and research because I was desperate for work." "My boss had unrealistic expectations." They probably should have figured out what those expectations were before they accepted the position.
About the Author
Thad Greer is an Executive Headhunter with Priority Recruiting Solutions, Inc. http://www.priorityrecruiting.com, a nationwide executive search firm headquartered in South Florida. His blog, "Confessions from a Serial Recruiter", http://serialrecruiter.blogspot.com serves as a resource for employers and job seekers alike.
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