Finding & Keeping Good Salespeople

By David M. Fellman

This is the first in a two-part series. Part one focuses on hiring salespeople. Part two focuses on retention and will appear in the next issue of PostPress.

“As I look at the industry,” a printer told me, “I see great things being done on the printing end. We have fantastic capabilities. We’re just not very good on the selling end or at sales management. I think most of us struggle with finding and keeping good salespeople.”

It’s an age-old problem: Where do you find good salespeople, and how do you keep them? The answer to both of those questions starts with this one: What exactly do you want your salesperson to do?

The answer probably seems obvious: I want my salesperson to sell! But doing this right requires more thoughtful consideration. Do you want your salesperson to develop new customers or to service established customers? If the answer is both, what’s the mix between those two activities? Do you want your salesperson out looking for things to quote or selling innovative applications of your production capabilities? There are plenty of candidates for most good sales positions, but are they really good candidates for your sales position?

Hunters

The prime directive for most businesses is to grow the business, and for a printing firm, there are only two ways to do that: gain new customers and/or sell more to your current customers. It’s generally acknowledged to be easier to do the latter, which I think provides evidence that you need someone with special skills and attitudes to do the former. I don’t have any factual data to prove this, but my consulting experience suggests that maybe 10% of all current printing salespeople have well-developed hunter skills and attitudes.

Hunter skills include questioning, listening and negotiating. Hunter attitudes start with a very competitive nature, and a desire to avoid getting bogged down in details. Now, that should scare you, because the definition of a good salesperson for most printers would include being detail-oriented and working well with the production side of the business. You have to understand, though, that you don’t pay a hunter to get orders or to process them, you pay him/her to create a decision – the decision to give your company a chance. A pure hunter will do that and your company will (hopefully) benefit from the lifetime value of that customer. The (hopefully) part reflects the distinct possibility that it won’t be a long and full lifetime if you expect a real hunter to farm that account too.

Farmers

The hunter/farmer analogy is not as clean as I would like it to be because it’s based on the idea that hunters kill and farmers grow. A better analogy might be obstetricians and pediatricians; one is responsible for the birth of a relationship and the other is responsible for maintaining its health. The hunter/farmer terminology is pretty well accepted, though, so let’s continue to use it.

Farmer skills include questioning, listening and negotiating, too, but there’s a significant difference in the application of those skills. For the hunter, questioning and listening are essential to finding weaknesses in the status quo, and negotiations are mostly about positioning a higher price as the solution to a problem, or possibly a better way of doing something. For the farmer, questioning and listening are more about getting the specs on every project right, and the justification for a higher price can be tied to proven performance.

Farmer attitudes start with a commitment to customer satisfaction, and that should scare you a little bit too. As I tell salespeople in seminars, a large part of their job is to be the advocate of the customer to the company; in other words, the salesperson communicates the customer’s needs and wants to the company, and fights for the customer’s best interests. At other times, though, the job description shifts, and the salesperson has to be the advocate of the company to the customer; in other words, sometimes the bearer of bad news.

I have never been one who believes in the idea that salespeople should be called something else, because of a stigma attached to the sales profession in our society. I do believe, though, that account manager is a very good title for a salesperson whose primary responsibility is customer maintenance rather than new customer development. I think the combination of representing the customer and representing the company is well-defined by the phrase managing the account.

Where do organizational skills fit into all of this? From my perspective, strong organizational skills are a significant asset for a hunter but an absolute necessity for a farmer. To put that another way, I will tolerate some organizational deficiencies in a salesperson with a proven ability to develop new customers. I’ve found that you can’t tolerate the same lack of organization in an account manager, though, because the largely reactive nature of the position requires strong organization and prioritization skills.

Missionaries

My dictionary provides several definitions of the word missionary, one of which is: somebody who tries to persuade others to accept or join something. In our industry right now, there’s a pretty significant need/opportunity for missionaries who can sell innovative applications of our capabilities and technologies. From printing on textiles to what I like to call extreme personalization, 21st century printing capabilities have opened up vast new possibilities for business communications.

The problem, though, is that these applications don’t sell themselves, so we need salespeople who can sell them. Missionary skills certainly include questioning, listening and negotiating, but they also include an intellectual component that not all hunters have. To put it bluntly, you have to be smart enough to understand both the technical aspects and the communications potential. And then you must have both the patience and the creativity to develop and sell a program, not just a relationship or a product.

Missionary attitudes include that patience, and also a commitment to the concept of return on investment. A true printing missionary is almost always selling something that costs more than the status quo. That means his/her negotiation position will almost always be: “Yes it costs more, but it’ll work better and therefore be a better investment.”

Your Sales Position

The point of all of this, of course, is that the person needs to be matched to the position. If you have a need for a hunter or a missionary, you won’t be happy with the performance of a person with farmer skills and attitudes. So how do you know what skills and attitudes a candidate possesses?

First, all of your recruiting material should stress exactly what you’re looking for. Second, most of your interview and reference check questions should be about confirming these traits. Third, don’t ever hire a salesperson without first testing for the skills and attitudes the position requires.

Recruiting

It’s important to understand the difference between advertising and recruiting. One is mostly passive, the other is highly proactive. Most printers seem satisfied to list the job on one of the online services. That strategy usually fails, though, and the reason is simply that the person you really want to hire is not looking for a job right now.

Think about this for a moment. There are only two reasons why someone would be looking for a job. One is that there’s something wrong with the job they have, and the only other is that there’s something wrong with the person. Now, there certainly are good people in bad situations out there, including very good people who have become available through layoffs and business failures that were in no way their fault. But I still think it’s fair to say that the majority of job-seekers – especially sales job seekers – are job-hoppers or poor performers or very possibly both. I think the salesperson you really want to hire is working right now, and performing at a high level right now, and loyal to his/her employer … but smart enough to listen if something potentially better comes along!

How do you reach people like that? One possibility is to hire a search firm, but there’s a significant cost attached to that and no guarantee of success. A better strategy, I think, is simply to network through your family, friends, suppliers, customers, etc. Describe the opportunity in general terms and the skills and attitudes you’re looking for in specific terms and ask if they know anyone who might fit the bill. Hopefully, between advertising and networking, you’ll come up with a few viable candidates.

Interviewing

A job interview has both buying and selling elements to it. It’s fair to say, though, that most printers put the cart before the horse, trying to sell the job to the candidate before they’ve decided that they want to buy that candidate’s services. I urge you to focus on the buying side before you spend any significant time trying to sell the job.

My interviewing strategy is pretty straightforward, and it doesn’t include questions like, “what did you like about your last job?” Or “what did you not like?” I start with a statement, “Here are the skills and attitudes I’m looking for … ” and continue with a challenge: “Convince me that you possess these skills and attitudes!”

I would probably not be as direct if I were interviewing, say, a candidate for a design or prepress position. A salesperson, though – certainly a hunter or a missionary – should be able to handle this sort of situation. The way I look at it, the interview process is the first element of testing a candidate. By the way, I would never hire a salesperson on the strength of a single interview. I make it a point to have at least two face-to-face meetings, and I have talked with some candidates three to four more times on the phone. I’m also a very strong believer in having others in my organization talk to each candidate. The better you get to know a candidate before you make a hiring decision, the more likely it is to be a good hiring decision.

Testing

As noted, the interview process is the first element of testing, and I hope you see how my interviewing strategy puts a candidate in a selling situation. My requirement for testing goes well beyond that, though. Just as I would never hire a salesperson on the strength of a single interview, I would also never hire one without input from an in-depth psychological profiling tool. One such tool – and one I’ve been using for many years – is the Caliper Profile (www.caliperonline.com). Here’s a quote from Caliper’s own promotional material: “The Caliper Profile is a personality assessment instrument that objectively quantifies an individual’s competencies, and identifies candidates with the strongest potential.” I have found this to be an invaluable sales management tool.

Caliper tests for personality characteristics such as ego drive, assertiveness, empathy, self-structure, abstract reasoning and idea orientation. In other words, Caliper can tell you if a candidate is a hunter, a farmer, a missionary or some combination of all three. I can also tell you that, in my experience, Caliper has been uncannily accurate.

Here’s my proof of that statement. I have had clients over the years who didn’t want to take the time or spend the money to test candidates before hiring. I have always insisted, though, and in numerous cases where we ultimately hired a candidate we’d tested, I revisited the Caliper report with my client six months later. “OK, you’ve watched this person in action for six months,” I have said. “Now tell me if the Caliper Profile accurately describes the person you’ve gotten to know.” The response has always been the same: “This is amazing!”

No matter how carefully and thoroughly you interview, you’ll never know a candidate pre-hire as well as you will after he/she has been working for you for six months. Caliper – or any other in-depth assessment tool – can give you a look into the future. I hope you’ll agree that you have to be crazy to hire a salesperson without taking that look.

Part two of Finding and Keeping Good Salespeople will focus on retention and will appear in the next issue of PostPress.

Dave Fellman is the president of David Fellman & Associates, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, a sales and marketing consulting firm serving numerous segments of the graphic arts industry. Contact him by phone at 919.606.9714 or by email at [email protected].