How do you determine which candidates will perform for your agency based on a stack of paper? You can’t. High-quality hires are few and far between, and in recent years, the process of attracting and retaining a new business person has become almost a competitive sport.
Even The Duval Partnership is not immune to hiring challenges when it comes to high-performance new business professionals who are versed in the agency world. After bringing on some salespeople who did not ultimately perform to our standards, we knew we had to make some changes to our hiring process.
Over the past few years, we’ve been working with a sales recruiter to source our new business hires. The process has been rigorous and eye-opening. I want to share some of what I’ve learned with you.
Takeaway #1: Hire before you need someone.
Agencies often try to hire people when they needed them yesterday. This limits their candidate pool and forces them to pick the best of a smaller bunch rather than finding someone who is truly best for the role.
Takeaway #2: Use a multi-step interview process.
We have been using a 3-step interview process. Here’s an example of how it helped us filter candidates in a recent round of interviews. We started with resumes from 75 candidates, and thirty-five of those made it through our first round of elimination. After a quick initial vetting call, twenty candidates were invited to go through our interview process. Half of them made it through the first interview and assessment to the second round of interviews. Of those 10, four made it to the third interview.
The first interview is structured for us to ask them questions. The second one is an opportunity for them to ask us questions. And in the third interview, the candidates present us with their 30-60-90 day plan for success.
Ultimately, we ended up with four very strong, qualified candidates to choose from. In fact, they were so good that we decided to extend offers to two of them when we had initially only planned to make one hire.
Takeaway #3: Cast a wide net so you can more meaningfully assess sales abilities.
With a larger candidate pool, you can make more nuanced observations and comparisons about the best of that group. A larger group elevates the baseline and makes it more meaningful to be “the best” of the bunch.
When you have multiple qualified candidates, you can rank them by assessment scores and compare strengths and weaknesses between candidates. Additionally, you can cross-check candidates' scores against the information provided in their interviews to verify capabilities alignment.
Takeaway #4: Prospect for candidates just like you do for new business.
Just as with agency new business outreach efforts, it pays to be proactive when sourcing salespeople. It’s not enough to wait for someone to respond and hope they will be a fit for your needs.
Additionally, it’s too easy for candidates today to use automated processes to send their resumes out for hundreds of open positions with a single click. If it’s not worth them taking the time to understand your business, they don’t really want to work with you — so why let them? Go out and find the people you’d like to work with and let them know what you have to offer.
Takeaway #5: Desperation invites poor results.
Just as hiring in a hurry for an immediate need won’t serve you well, the same is true when it comes to candidates who desperately need a job. The problem is that someone in that situation will say whatever they think you want to hear to get the job. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to trust what they are telling you and — if you hire them — are likely to end up with someone who is not a great fit for your business and the role. Get out of that cycle by hiring right-fit candidates before you desperately need them.
Sales interviewing tips:
- Resumes are rife with misinformation and exaggerations. Use assessment tests to verify skills that have been self-reported. Evaluate candidates based on demonstrated results in a range you deem acceptable for the skills and capabilities necessary to succeed in the role. Don’t get attached to a candidate whose test results don’t support what they have told you.
- When interviewing, push back on candidates’ claims. Ask for more information. Question strategies, approaches, and statements that seem too good to be true. Drill down on their sales math and the numbers and activity that have led to their success at each stage. It will quickly become apparent who knows their stuff and is representing themselves accurately.
- Pay attention to the questions candidates ask of you and how they answer your questions. Are they asking questions that have already been answered — perhaps revealing that they aren’t a great listener? Do their questions reveal that they are a strategic thinker? Are they clear? Succinct? Do they talk around a question rather than answer it directly? In a prospect-facing role, these abilities factor into whether opportunities are won or lost.
- Get them out of their comfort zone. You need to know how candidates will react in adverse, high-pressure situations. Will they get emotional? Defensive? Will they shut down? How do they react when they are put on the spot? Can they improvise and maintain their composure?
- If you aren't in sales, get some help when it's time to hire a new business, sales, or business development person for your agency. Hire a sales trainer or reach out to someone you know in sales and ask if they can help craft the interview questions and assist in the vetting process.
- Be wary of being "wowed." It's common for hiring decisions to be made based on first impressions or gut instinct. Don't be so impressed by certain aspects of the candidate that you gloss over other details. These are notoriously bad reasons to hire someone (and can also be a red flag for affinity bias).
- Beware the “magic Rolodex.” Agencies are always looking for that special individual with limitless contacts who can get them new business. But if they can’t perform, their connections are meaningless. And someone who can perform will compensate for any lack of connections. So be cautious about putting too much weight on who your candidate supposedly knows.
- Don't skip steps because you find a candidate you like. People who communicate well often find themselves in sales and business development positions — they interview well and make a great impression. Sometimes it is only after hiring that you’ll discover they’ve misrepresented their experience or abilities. Throughout our interview process, we eliminate some candidates who initially are standouts, while other candidates emerge as true superstars. Who we like at step one is always different from who we like at step three.
Interviewing questions for your next new business hire
What are some good questions to ask your agency’s next salesperson or business development person during the interview process? For your interview to be effective, make sure that you have identified the skills you are looking for, and develop a questioning strategy around those areas. These questions (which are modified from the Sandler Training we use) are broken down by some of the skill areas that are most critical for success in a sales role.
Attention to detail, planning and organization:
How do you go about getting the information you need to get started on a new project or to make important decisions?
How do you prioritize your projects and work responsibilities during the week?
Describe a project where you had to gather and analyze details before moving forward.
- How did you determine which facts and information were most important?
- How were you able to stay on track?
Describe the last time you prepared a sales call plan or agenda and what it included.
- What format did you use?
- How often do you write down your sales call agenda?
- Do you pre-plan all of your sales calls?
- How do you communicate your agenda to the prospect?
How did you prepare for this interview?
When prospecting, what is the greatest number of “no’s” you ever pushed through to eventually get to a “yes”? Tell me about that. How many “no’s” do you typically go through with a prospect before reaching a “yes”?
How do you determine which prospects are a waste of time and which are worth going back to repeatedly throughout the multiple rejections? How do you remain positive despite the high rates of rejection?
If two prospects give you a “yes,” one via cold calling and one in person, do they both carry the same weight and significance, or do you think there is a difference?
What would make you decide that a certain method or channel is not worth your time for prospecting?
Tell me about the last time you had to make a quick decision to make something happen – something that is not normally your responsibility, but in this instance, you had to jump in.
- Why did you have to make a quick decision?
- How did your decision to jump in affect others?
- Did you step on any toes in the process?
- Looking back, did you make the right decision? Would you do anything differently?
Follow these tips to improve your outcomes next time you hire an agency new business person. Don’t forget to explore our eBook to learn more about hiring for new business.
Make better, smarter hiring choices:
- 3 Common Sales Hiring Mistakes Made by Creative Agencies
- Before You Hire an Agency New Business Person: Needs Assessment
- How to Compensate Your Agency New Business Person
- Onboarding Your Agency’s Business Development Hire
- How to Meet Your Agency’s Sales Goals
This post was updated for accuracy and relevance on July 8, 2021.