Is Hiring Sale Professionals Really About Selecting People With The Best Skills?

Why do we hire the people we do? Human psychology and science help explain our hiring decisions. Many of today’s hiring managers have had little to no training when it comes to hiring sales talent.

Therefore, sales managers rely heavily on the interview process and collective opinion to build sales teams. Trial and error has also been an employable strategy for the few companies that can afford it. This strategy calls for hiring as many salespeople as possible, assessing performance, and cutting the bottom 50%.

Most organizations string together a handful of hiring components, and use them in the interview and hiring selection process.  Assessments are administered, 90-day plans are discussed, and group opinions are weighted heavily to support or deny hiring decisions.  

Although collecting and reviewing information on applicants is par for the course, most managers make hiring decisions based on the strength of positive feelings generated in the first 10 to 15 minutes of an initial interview.

If the initial feelings are positive, they typically strengthen throughout the interview process. Eventually, the sales applicant’s positive traits are associated with their ability to achieve high-performance.  

Subsequently, any required information is collected and used as evidence to support or deny hiring based on the strength of the connection established in the first interview.

Chad Higgens from the University of Washington and Timothy Judge from the University of Florida performed a hiring study, and concluded that employers are “often deluding themselves about how they make up their minds. In reality they are unconsciously swayed by a mysterious and powerful force.” [1]

This mystery force according to Higgens and Judge is the candidate’s attitude, ability to demonstrate positivity, and rapport-building skills. Surprisingly, the most important factor in the hiring outcome isn’t about a candidate’s qualifications or work experience.

Hireability boils down to one simple question…

Is the candidate pleasant? [2]

Synonyms for pleasant: agreeable, fun, amiable, amusing, likable, polite, enjoyable, cool, congenial, charming, cheerful, and cordial.

But you want to see these qualities in the salespeople you hire. Right?

Of course! Great salespeople work hard throughout their careers to enhance these traits. Yet the real question that determines sales success remains….

Are they motivated enough to succeed and do the hard work necessary to drive business?

Or have they just mastered exceptional people skills?

First impressions and personality are important, especially for sales jobs. But likeability has to be untethered from the motivation to do the job. And it would be haphazard to your career and organization if you relied on a thin-slice, intuitive approach to build high-performance sales teams.

Lou Adler, CEO of The Adler Group writes in Hire with Your Head, “A large percentage of these mistakes are made by smart people who make quick simplistic judgments largely based on first impressions and personality. Not unexpectedly, their hiring results are random.” [3]

John Hunter from Michigan State University and Frank Schmidt from the University of Iowa conducted a detailed study peering into the validity and productiveness of hiring methods. They analyzed interviews and other hiring tools for hiring effectiveness.  The main question the study tackled was…  

Which selection tools are most effective in predicting job performance success?

According to 85 years of concrete research compiled by Hunter and Schmidt, the effectiveness in predicting an employee’s success occurs when general mental ability is combined with

  • Structured interviews (mean validity of .63)
  • Work sample tests (mean validity of .63)
  • Integrity tests (mean validity of.65)  [4]


Many hiring managers agree on the importance of hiring exceptional people. But when hiring time nears, instincts and personality prevail.

Hiring managers need to developing repeatable hiring processes. This takes time, trial and error, and getting colleagues to follow a process approach rather than grading candidates on their ability to do “pleasant.”

Have you ever hired a candidate based on their likeability? Do you think you viewed their answers differently based on your interaction with the applicant? Have you ever disliked a candidate in the first few minutes and dismissed their experience and potential contributions to your company?

You’re not alone.

If you find yourself hiring sales candidates who are more sizzle than steak, it’s time to think about implementing a complete sales recruitment hiring process.

Now let’s turn to recent science.

Hiring is about making correct predictions. Research consistently demonstrates an interviewers’ ability to accurately select high-performers varies widely.

Not what you want to hear, is it?

This has caused many researchers to turn their attention to the interviewers’ rather than the interviews’ validity.  Pulakos, Schmitt, Whitney and Smith (1996) conducted a study and found an interviewer’s ability to rate and predict an applicant’s job performance varied substantially ranging from -.10 to .65 using a structured interview methodology. [5]

“There appear to be vast differences in interviewer validity, which suggests the somewhat ironic (though obvious) point that those who do the selecting (interviewers) need to be carefully selected themselves. [6]

Employers must make hiring choices, but they can do more than simply rely on instincts and positive interactions with candidates.

What does science say hiring managers should be looking for?

Past performance is at the top of the short-list.

According to Dr. Dave Barnett, sales hiring and leadership performance consultant: “The best predictor of sales performance is past behavior, not the emotions projected by the sales person.” [7]

Best-selling management author, Dr. Stephen P. Robbins agrees, “We tend to classify people by their traits. The best predictor of a person’s future behavior is his past behavior.” [8]

Next time you’re hiring for your sales team, take a long look into their past behavior. You’re more likely to accurately identify salespeople who initiate contact with prospects, execute more sales activity, proactively follow up with more prospects, and achieve sales goals.

Are you ready to rethink how you can build a winning sales team?

When you scrupulously identify what you’re looking for and combine this with a structured sales hiring process, you will consistently make stronger hiring decisions. Putting objectives in place with a repeatable process will help you measure sales hiring predictability.

The Dollars and Cents of Hiring

Research continues to show wide variability among employee production. Some employees simply out produce others by large amounts. [4]

The validity of your hiring methods can cost or make you millions over time. This is why smart companies continue to make hiring the best people a top priority.

In fact, many careers have advanced and crumbled based on hiring results. Perceptive hiring managers understand why it pays to increase the validity of their hiring methods. They work hard to implement needed changes so they can increase their ability to hire top producing salespeople.

What can you do to strengthen your hiring process?

Can you consistently select the employees who produce the most? What can you do as a hiring manager to increase your odds of picking the top producers?

What will you look for in your next sales hire? Will it come down to personality and likeability?

Will you reorder hiring priorities and look more carefully at past performance?

You can use each hire as an opportunity to learn more---about the interview process, past behaviors, and even your own interview habits.

You can learn to increase your odds of predicting top sales performers, counting on your long-term success rate as you thoughtfully review your hiring objectives, process, and closely examine each individual hire.


[1] 59 Seconds Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman, p. 44-45

[2] 59 Seconds Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman, p. 44-45

[3] Hire with Your Head, Lou Adler, p. 5

[4] The American Psychological Association, Psychological Bulletin, 1998, Vol 124, No 2, 262-274. The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings

[5] The Employment Interview: A review of Recent Research and Recommendations for Future Research, Timothy A. Judge, Chad Higgins, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, Diel M. Cable, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC

[6] The Employment Interview: A review of Recent Research and Recommendations for Future Research, Timothy A. Judge, Chad Higgins, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, Diel M. Cable, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC

[7]Hire Performance: Recruiting a Winning Sales Team, Dr. Dave Barnett, p.30

[8] The Truth About Managing People, Second Edition, Stephen P. Robbins, Ph.D. p 2-3

Software Sales Recruitment Agency Hiring Solutions

That’s not to say personality is unimportant. It’s just not predictable. Like it or not, recruiting is about making predictions.
— Dr. Dave Barnett