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Donkin on Work - Psychometrics

March 2007 – Choosing a sales team

I had a friend once whose job was to sell hovercraft. He worked for two or three years in this job but never completed a single sale. I wasn’t surprised. I wouldn’t have bought one from him either.

Another friend thought he knew how to haggle until he tried to buy a vase in an Arab souk and ended up paying more than the original asking price.

What makes a great sales person? Well it has nothing to do with what you put in your CV according to Rob Scott, marketing and sales director of Austin Benn, a sales recruitment specialist. “We have a saying in the sales industry that the best sales people have the worst CVs and the worst sales people have the best CVs,” he said.

Mr Scott was speaking during a round table discussion organised last week among various recruitment consultants to talk about the on-line recruitment market. I confess to some confusion over on-line recruitment. With some 4,200 dedicated job boards in the UK alone and new ones emerging all the time, this is a crowded market place.

Anyone can set up a web site to register job candidates and store CVs. The trend in recent years, after the initial success of mass market on-line recruiters such as Monster, has been to concentrate on niche markets. While Jobserve, for example, posts jobs in other categories, it has become dominant in the information technology sector.

Beyond these large sites there are hundreds of smaller sites trying to occupy ultra specialist niches. Meta-tagging technology on search engines makes them easy to find.

I ran the phrase “jobs in pig farming” through Google and it came up with more than a million possibilities - not all recruiters it should be said - but these included three companies at the top of the search that specialised in farming work and others further down the list that were offering specific pig farming jobs.

Websites are so easy to establish that some companies will register names for certain work specialities to capture searches. Some of these companies will then list links to the sites of client recruiters on their web site home page.

Further, the collection of technologies under the ubiquitous term Web2.0 has made it so simple to apply for jobs that some people are placing dozens of applications at any one time without necessarily knowing much about the employer or the available jobs.

Others are not looking for work, opting instead simply to register their details. In the recruitment business where, as I pointed out last week, so much work has been commoditised, these people are known simply as “passives”.

To deal with this mass of possible candidates, recruiters are using sifting technologies that bring everyone back to square one. If it’s not technologies then it is time-consuming manual sifting that often has to be done if a recruiting consultant is to justify its role in selecting the kind of candidate who should perform well for a client.

But how do you sift out a good candidate when, as Mr Scott pointed out, the CV doesn’t tell the whole story or even part of the story?

One way is to introduce a psychometric test which again, has become much more accessible than used to be the case, through internet delivery. A week ago I was persuaded by SHL, the human resources company that specialises in psychometric testing, to undergo a couple of tests designed to find good sales people.

There is nothing in my CV or in my past experience to suggest that I might be a good sales person so I thought I should give it a go. The first thing that James Bywater, SHL’s head psychologist, was at pains to point out, is that selling has changed.

The Willie Lomans of this world have not all died. They would fit the old-style category that equates selling with hunting. Today, however, a lot of companies are using a farming analogy in sales. You find a client then look after them with all kinds of after sales services.

Mr Bywater is using SHL’s OPQ 32i personality questionnaire alongside a motivational styles questionnaire to help client employers find the people that best fit their specific selling needs. “There are so many different sales roles out there so this tests enables to match various qualities shown in the outcome against their specific needs,” he says.

The downside to these tests from the candidate’s point of view is the time they take to complete. I was online for about an hour and a half and found the whole process a little bit disorientating.

It is said that you can’t really fail personality tests so they are described in the industry as questionnaires. But I seem to have failed this one. “I would say that probably you would not be the greatest sales person I have ever seen in my life,” said Mr Bywater. I know an understatement when I hear one.

He went on to point out my good bits such as identifying with the customer. “You are good at mirroring people and good sales people do that,” he said. This apparent skill, entirely subliminal, is something I hate.

I spend my time in meetings trying to unfold arms that I have unconsciously folded to match the person opposite. I lean back when they do and scratch my nose in unison. Sometimes it’s fun to turn it into a game by instigating the body language and watching whether anyone follows. I bet others do that too. There should be a self-help group called people mirrorers anonymous.

Nels Wroe, recruitment portfolio manager at SHL, says the company began to use the OPQ test for finding sales potential when some of its clients had expressed disappointment with competency profiling used traditionally by human resources departments.

He argues that sales departments in many companies often have different characteristics to those of the rest of the organisation but sometimes managers have difficulty identifying the qualities they need for a particular job in a changing marketplace.

“Pharmaceutical sales in the US, for example, has changed completely, where sales people and their customers now have to deal with a highly regulated marketplace. The classic sales qualities: confidence, drive and resilience, are still there, but they need to be supplemented with an ability to adapt and to listen.”

On-line psychometrics, mechanical sifting techniques and web-based job boards all have a role to play in selection. To what extent are they changing the work of traditional recruitment and headhunting? Some such as Norrie Johnston, managing director of Executives Online, have argued that online recruitment is suitable for all job tiers. But is it suitable for all kinds of work and what are the implications for the recruitment professional if it is? It’s a question worth debating.

See also: Testing the tests

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved