Sales Force Focus - Hiring the High-Flyers

We've looked at the importance of role-fit and how to plot your future sales strategy based on your resources, it's now time to examine where (and how) you can recruit those high performers.

Jim Collins, author of the influential Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... And Others Don’t, highlights how having the right people in the right roles is what gives the most successful organisations their competitive edge.

He writes: ‘We expected that good-to-great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats – and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage “people are your most important asset“ turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.’

Food for thought there, especially when you’re talking about spending thousands of dollars recruiting people for your sales organisation! Let me paint what may be a familiar picture. You are looking to hire a salesperson. The agency provides some candidates; quite a few look good on paper, with relevant experience; being salespeople, many of them also interview well and are able to answer most questions plausibly. You make an offer because, after all, you need to get vacancies filled as quickly as possible to ensure you meet your numbers.

Six months later and it’s clear you’ve made the wrong decision! The new rep failed to deliver, despite seeming to have so much initial promise. Now the costs of this poor decision begin to mount up: there’s the cost of the missed opportunities, the cost of the damage to client relationships, the salary costs, plus the development and management time; and then there’s the cost of finding and hiring a replacement. This totals to an eye-watering figure, especially when it’s repeated frequently across a large organisation.

How much better would it be if you could predict a candidate’s performance potential prior to actually hiring them! Over recent years, sales-specific candidate assessment tools have come on in leaps and bounds. It seems assessment has finally come of age in the world of talent management, with analysts like Aberdeen Group now focusing on benchmarking in sales.

Lead indicators

What’s more, the analysts are beginning to highlight the importance to organisations of so-called ‘lead’ indicators – we emphasise performance potential, for instance – rather than relying on lag indicators such as staff turnover. Even using traditional financial metrics are fraught with difficulty in this context: it’s an old business truism that trying to manage a company based on its reported results is like leaning over the stern of a ship and trying to steer it by looking at the wake….

Today, the focus on talent is more relevant than ever as pharma sales forces transform to smaller, more sophisticated, elite units. As sales organisations face up to the rapidly evolving conditions in today’s marketplace, the imperative to improve hiring decisions has become even more pressing.

Robust assessment

A robust and objective assessment process that accurately predicts performance potential is the key to unlocking the performance problem. Ideally, such an assessment is based on a global High-Performer benchmark, so you can compare candidates across geographies and, just as importantly, you have the ability to benchmark them against the best the global talent pool (including your competition) has to offer, rather than just the best within your own organisation.

Another factor to take into consideration is the need for consistency across large organisations, so that results are reliable across teams and geographies. For instance, you should check for availability of ‘tests’ in key local languages so candidates in certain geographies are not disadvantaged by issues of understanding the assessments properly. At the same time, there is also the requirement for consistency of interpretation: if the output is overly complex (rather than comprehensive) and requires a specialist to interpret the results, inevitably a degree of subjectivity is introduced between different experts’ interpretations.

Finally, a sales talent assessment is far more accurate if it is role-specific. Clearly, a sales manager is not a ‘super-salesperson’; a call-centre role is different from that of a Strategic Salesperson, which is different again from a Key Account Manager role. Accuracy in predicting performance potential is considerably improved if an assessment is role-specific.

So what are the benefits of assessing candidates for vacancies within your organisation? The most obvious is that you can hire new salespeople with increased confidence that they will be able to perform at the required level in that role. You are looking at what candidates are capable of, given the right support and motivation.

Some assessments may also provide a detailed development needs analysis ‘straight out of the box’, and they may also tell you what motivates an individual. The benefit of this approach is that the employer can address any relevant skills gaps immediately with highly-targeted training (rather than a wasteful ‘sheep-dip’ approach), so the on-boarding process is more effective and ramp-up much faster. And, if you understand a candidate’s motivators, you can take those into consideration too, enabling the individual to receive all the relevant support needed to perform at a high level from the outset. This obviously becomes a lot more feasible as organisations down-size and switch to a team-mix of fewer, higher-level, more highly rewarded resources.

Unexpected benefits

Organisations are learning that unexpected benefits also come out of the assessment process, not least that of building the employer’s so-called ‘hiring brand’. Companies are finding that a culture of excellence and achievement – a high-performance environment – is very successful at attracting the best talent (provided the employer follows through by supporting this environment properly), and this reputation soon spreads. Where sales is seen as something of an elite in the company, based on their ability to deliver results, a virtuous circle is formed and the organisation becomes increasingly attractive to the right kind of talent.

Just one word of warning on assessments in conclusion, however: it is important to understand that not all assessments are the same. Cheap psychometrics, of which there are many on the market, do not achieve anywhere near the levels of predictive accuracy of more comprehensive assessments that take into account all the relevant factors – behaviour, skills, critical reasoning and motivators. Issues of cultural fit to the organisation and the markets it serves are also relevant, so hiring decisions should always be taken in the context of a robust interview process, as this is the best way of evaluating cultural fit.


It’s clear that talent is a key differentiator for organisations, and yet many are only paying lip-service to this notion. In 2008, the authors of a McKinsey report* had this to say: ‘Companies like to promote the idea that employees are their biggest source of competitive advantage. Yet the astonishing reality is that most of them are as unprepared for the challenge of finding, motivating, and retaining capable workers as they were a decade ago.’

Thankfully, since then, readers will be reassured to know that assessment has at last come of age, providing the means to identify, motivate and retain high-quality talent with the potential to perform in the roles they are being asked to fill. The best sales talent assessment tools are dynamic and align both employees and the organisation with the expectations of the market. They enable organisations not only to select talent most suited to existing roles but to assess potential to grow along with the organisation – enabling employers to ‘hire for the future’.

This, in turn, enables pharma companies to maximise revenue and to optimise the efficiency and return from their sales organisations as a virtuous cycle of recruitment and retention delivers genuine competitive advantage. In the final two articles we will examine how effective sales talent assessment enables pharma organisations to develop their talent, drive retention strategies, maintain the talent pipeline, and engage in credible succession planning.

*‘Making talent a strategic priority’ by Matt Guthridge, Emily Lawson and Asmus Komm, McKinsey Quarterly, January 2008.

This is part 3 in our Sales Force Focus series, for more information on identifying and recruiting the right sales talent, also read PART 1 and PART 2!

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Mar 19, 2013 - Mar 21, 2013, Barcelona, Spain

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