Author Archives: Andrew Rudin

One Sales Interview Question We Can Live Without

Every day, I read articles online that I disagree with. No biggy. Much rarer is when I read business advice so ill-conceived, so dangerous, so off-the-wall, that I react with my forehead colliding with my keyboard.

“awfjsoefivfdljkmdvfl;jkvxcljkvxcljk;m,..,m.” You can quote me.

It happened today when a colleague shared a post on LinkedIn titled, Recruiters Share Can’t-Miss Interview Questions to Disarm Candidates. A banal topic, but the word disarm piqued my curiosity. I had to read on.

At the top of the article appeared a section, For sales positions. More curiosity. But that chaotic character string resulted when I got to the last sentence. Actually, I lied. The whole paragraph is just wrong:

“We interview candidates for both our internal company and for clients throughout the US. If someone is interviewing for a sales position, we’ve found that this question provides a lot of insight: What is the most expensive item you’ve ever purchased? The rationale behind it is that salespeople typically stop producing when they are ‘comfortable’ with their income, so this question provides insight into what may be ‘enough’ for them. For example, if I said that the most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased is a pair of $50 shoes, I may potentially not strive to make as much money as someone who answers, ‘I splurged and purchased a $500 pair of shoes because I knew that wearing them would be my motivation to make even more’.” 

Do top producers make a lot in order to spend a lot? Or, do they spend a lot, and therefore, they’re uber-motivated to make a lot? Either way, the notion that flamboyant spenders make good salespeople is a horrible stereotype. Besides being patently discriminatory, the interpretation also begs the question, “if it’s true sometimes, does that make it true all the time?” Answer: no bleeping way.

The recruiter’s question is misguided. I know top-producing salespeople who make Jack Benny look like a spendthrift. And I’ve met others who foolishly ensnared themselves into deep consumption traps even though they couldn’t sell their way out of a wet paper bag. A sales candidate whose appeal comes from the fact that he swaggers in wearing a pair of $800 Santoni Darian Cap Toe Oxfords?  Are you kidding me? He’s been paying the minimum on his credit card balance for the last 25 months, and lives with his parents!

Maybe for this interviewer, the best evidence of potential motivation shouldn’t be the candidate’s shoes, but his physical behavior. For that, I’d suggest she seek someone who packs a bottle of Maalox and chain smokes. Now there’s someone outwardly nervous about making enough money! But is that stressed image really what you want? Is that the face you want to project to customers? And, more ominously, what does motivation derived from fending off bill collectors portend for the safety of your organization, your customers, employees, and other stakeholders? The questions are not intended to be facetious or hypothetical.

If you seek the One Best Question to ask sales candidates in 2019 – and there really isn’t a single question – I suggest ditching “what’s your most expensive purchase” for “when do you plan to retire?” If the candidate is 30-ish and says “not one minute past 40,” hire that candidate immediately! I don’t care whether he or she drove to the interview in a Hyundai Elantra. Or rode a bike.  F-I-R-E: it’s the new expensive wardrobe.

Online, you can find loads of more useful questions to ask sales candidates. In practice, however, I don’t believe sales interview questions need to differ much from those you’d ask a non-sales executive. The best guide I found comes from Harvard Business Review (7 Rules for Job Interview Questions that Result in Great Hires, by John Sullivan, February 10, 2016).

  1. Avoid easy-to-practice questions
  2. Be wary of [answers to] historical questions
  3. Assess their ability to solve a problem
  4. Evaluate whether they’re forward-looking
  5. Assess a candidate’s ability to learn, adapt and innovate
  6. Avoid duplication [by asking for information that’s already on a candidate’s resume]
  7. Allocate time for selling [your organization to the candidate]

I’d also ask the candidate to talk about resilience.  Salespeople experience frequent setbacks. So, in addition to learning how goals were over-achieved, find out about responses and reactions to failure.

For many interviewers, the last rule represents an often-missed opportunity. Not only does it help reveal whether your organization matches what the candidate wants, but it offers the interviewer a reciprocal chance to convince the right candidate to join. And if the candidate isn’t right, he or she could share that information with a friend or colleague who is.

How to Execute Better Strategy

In these tumultuous times, I lust for every bit of surety I can find. I search for rules, immutable truths, and superlatives. My motive is patently self-serving. Limiting my perspectives saves time. Nuance? Things to consider? Outliers and exceptions? Too squishy! Give me something concrete I can hold onto for dear life.

Here’s a superlative that has endured since I learned it in graduate school in 2005:

“All business failures result from using the wrong strategy, or executing right strategy the wrong way.”

If only I could find more like this one.

Over many years, I’ve experienced revenue craters fomented by bad decisions, misguided assumptions, and cruddy planning. I blame myself for some of them, but that’s between us. Regardless, this trusty superlative worms its way into every aftermath I’ve analyzed. Thank you, Professor Todd.

Organizational vitality depends on sound strategy. When planning and executing strategy, companies must grapple with uncertainty. There’s no avoiding it. Executives must recognize what they don’t know, and make assumptions to fill the gaps. That requires a remarkable blend of intelligence, prescience, confidence, and courage. No wonder strategy development scares the bleep out of people. “Our current engineering, supply chain operations, and product planning are based on our expectation that 25 years from now, there will be a robust global market for long-range jetliners. Please pass the Maalox.”

Strategy is defined as a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim. Companies should develop strategies whenever any crucial resource or result is constrained or difficult to achieve. For most companies, that includes securing capital, innovating new products or services, hiring human talent, or capturing revenue. Similarly, strategies are instrumental for achieving objectives such as high customer satisfaction, customer success, and market share percentage. Stuff that every company wants, and there simply isn’t enough to go around. None of these outcomes can be left to chance, assuming, of course, that your goal is longevity.

Without strategy, the central mission of an organization – finding and capitalizing on opportunities – would depend on happenstance. A company without a strategy is like an untethered ship at sea without power, steering, or means for navigation. Unable to harness the forces of wind, tide, or other locomotion to go anywhere, the vessel just bobs around. Many businesses operate the same way, abdicating their outcomes to vicissitude. Que será, será. This is the mantra under which many companies operate, though it’s never used as braggadocio.

But how much does strategy matter? The Evergreen Project, conducted between 1986 and 1996, asked that question, and the study revealed that companies with a strategy performed better than those without. That seems obvious, but the study offered another insight by revealing the magnitude of benefits over time:

“Financially successful companies all had a clearly defined and well-articulated strategy. No exceptions. These companies outperformed the losing companies by a 945% to 62% margin in total return to shareholders, had a 415% to 83% advantage in sales, a 358% to 97% advantage in assets, a 326% to 22% advantage in operating income and a 5.45% to -8.52% advantage in return on invested capital,” wrote Rich Horwath in an article, Does Strategy Matter? 

“While many companies have been able to survive without a clearly defined strategy in written form, a question looms: How much better could they be doing with a strategy? The 22% gain last year might seem impressive, unless of course it could have been a 65% gain with a solid strategy behind it.” Of course, Horwath can’t posit the answer, other than “A company or product or service can certainly survive without strategy, but it will never thrive.”

I agree. But even for companies that envision and execute strategy, there’s no such thing as certain survival. More Maalox.

When I taught an undergraduate class, Strategic Uses of IT, I used case studies, and asked my students questions to pique their strategic thinking. “What did [Company X] trade off when its executives decided to implement [name of project]” Many students were able to go well beyond connecting the dots. But some delivered a common response: “they traded off money.” While that’s technically correct, I was looking for deeper insight.

I followed the first question with, “when company X implemented this project, what didn’t – or couldn’t – they do as a direct consequence of that decision?” Examples: Providing customers high-touch luxury experiences trades off low-price leadership. Generating large profit margins sacrifices high inventory turnover. Offering extensive point-to-point airline routes precludes maintaining hub-and-spoke operations.

Over time, I learned that this strategy exercise can be vexing for students and seasoned executives alike. I also learned that when executives are vested in their strategy, the common response changes to “I don’t think we’re trading off anything.” Early-stage strategy ossification, happening before our eyes.

The trade-off concept is key to understanding strategy. When you can parse the answer into more than one outcome or consequence, you’re thinking strategically.

Before undertaking strategic planning, understand its characteristics:  

  • Strategies are based on assumptions – e.g. existence of a customer need, economic forecast, availability of key operational or technological capability, continuation of a trend or trends
  • Every strategy involves making trade-offs – “instead of pursuing [X], we will pursue [Y]”
  • Strategies create potential weaknesses –Effective strategies provide strength, but choices not taken present future vulnerabilities. It’s important to recognize what they are.
  • Strategies contain inherent risks and opportunities – By definition, the purpose of strategy is to capitalize on opportunities, and achieving them carries inherent risks.
  • Strategic execution requires committing and consuming resources – including time, money, and/or physical and mental energy

 

While understanding the characteristics of strategy is an important first step for success, I’ve discovered through practice that effective strategies tend to . . .

  • identify and address consequential matters. Start by asking the right questions. One client told me that they wanted to direct their strategy toward “providing every user in the agency a suite of desktop applications software.” That vision didn’t overcome the “so what?” test. I recommended the organization ask a different question about the results they wanted, and focus effort on a more meaningful outcome.
  • use sound assumptions. A frequent trap. Many strategies are based on outsized or unrealistic estimates, or tenuous predictions.
  • be clear and unambiguous. An example of one that’s not: Customer Obsession is an Employee Engagement Strategy, Too.
  • be difficult to replicate. FedEx, Amazon, Zappos. These companies have been endlessly analyzed, and their strategies are well-known to competitors. But they are also complex, involving the entire company for execution, not just a department or two.
  • be grounded in what’s possible. The Fyre Festival was logistically doomed from the start. Any bets that SpaceX will successfully complete a Mars mission by 2022?
  • minimize potential conflicts of interest. This one just came across my desk: A company developed a strategy that rewards Sales for capturing revenue, but penalizes Operations for failing to meet customer demand. I forecast intense infighting until the strategy is scrapped.

Ethics and strategy – it’s complicated, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t address it. For society, business strategies can produce outcomes that are beneficial. The credo for Conscious Capitalism provides both inspiration and guidance:

“We believe that business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence, and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity.”

Contrast that lofty ideal with Theranos, a once high-flying startup which used strategy for nefarious purposes. Stakeholders were harmed. People likely died as a direct result of the company’s activities. For a time, the company’s strategy was considered effective, but now Theranos is defunct, leaving destruction and pain in its wake. Never assume an effective strategy is also kind and benevolent.

Ethics problems start when strategies are revenue- and profit-focused, to the exclusion of all other outcomes. Every year, I call out a new list of offenders in the Sales Ethics Hall of Shame award – a showcase for executives who believe the revenue-profit ends justify the means to achieve them.

Ethical strategies don’t occur by prescribing rules or steps, but by asking questions:

  1. Is the premise of the strategy good? This is a central question behind the ethics and efficacy of for-profit prisons. Does a business model that that depends on the incarceration of people for revenue and profit help society as much as it rewards the owners and investors of the company?
  2. Are the intentions of the strategy honest? Strategies that depend on factual obfuscation and deceit are not ethical.
  3. Does the strategy protect stakeholder interests? Ethical strategies include mechanisms for ensuring bad ethics and dishonesty don’t metastasize and harm employees, vendors, customers, and investors.
  4. Does the strategy reward – or penalize – employees who exercise sound moral judgment? Every company inducted into the Sales Ethics Hall of Shame has failed this question.

If we’ve learned anything from the Wells Fargo and VW scandals, protecting companies from calamitous risks requires answering these questions not just in the C-Suite, but by corporate boards. Especially by corporate boards.

Strategies are a progression, a continual work-in-progress. On November 8th, 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported these artifacts:

  • “Ford is getting into the electric scooter business.”
  • “Vice Media plans to shrink its workforce by as much as 15%.”
  • “Google is gearing up for an expansion of its New York City real estate that could add space for more than 12,000 new workers.”

Each, representative that the companies have set their sights on goals necessary for survival or growth. And these objectives will evolve into new ones. With strategy, there is no “final triumph.” There are also no superlatives, rules, or immutable truths to ascribe. Is Vice Media’s plan to shrink its workforce the best strategy? It’s impossible to say. In the strategic analysis, all we can do is judge is whether it was effective at achieving the intended goal – and move on.

Acquisition and Retention: The Yin and Yang of Customer Strategy

For customer retention, which of the following do vendors commonly perform:

  1. Provide outstanding service and loyalty benefits
  2. Impose switching costs through technological impediments and contractual restrictions
  3. Engineer convoluted pathways for customers who want to terminate services
  4. All of these

The correct answer, of course, is All of these. Every enterprise must retain customers. It’s a strategic challenge, and the path can be rocky. But two things are clear: 1) vendors have multiple tools at their disposal, and 2) customers don’t always benefit.

There’s a lot of confusion about customer retention. Some people ask, “which is better: acquisition or retention?”, implying that the matter is either-or. Some argue that companies invest too much on acquisition and too little on retention. Some assert that retention is preferable to acquisition because retention costs less. And finally, some mistakenly believe that retention tactics create only benign outcomes for customers.

With zealots on both sides, it’s easy to fall into the either-or trap, but it’s a false dichotomy. Without acquisition, there’s no retention. No business can survive long-term without acquiring and keeping customers. And as a practical matter, churn is inevitable: Business needs change, customers become insolvent, or they get acquired. Because revenue contribution from each customer is uncertain, companies must build sales pipelines to keep new opportunities flowing. On the other hand, profit margins from existing customers are generally higher than for new ones, so keeping customers is also very important.

In fact, every effective customer strategy involves:

  • Account acquisition: how do we identify, cultivate, and capture new opportunities?
  • Account retention: how do we keep our customers?
  • Account revenue growth: how do we facilitate increased spending or “share-of-wallet”?
  • Account win-back: how do we resuscitate past clients that can continue to benefit from our product or service?
  • Account divestment: how do we jettison customers that we can no longer support profitably?

At startup companies, acquisition and retention are immediate concerns. But as companies mature, customer strategies become more complex. Businesses can alter their core offerings or delivery models. In addition, customers can stop buying for many reasons – some preventable, some not. Along the way, once-lucrative accounts can become financially less attractive. Customer strategy isn’t complete unless it addresses all five challenges.

A key business development challenge for every organization is matching its capabilities with external opportunities, and customer strategy must address this mission. That defies relying on “industry standards” for guidance. I searched for “customer strategy best practices,” hoping for insight like “on average, machine tools manufacturers dedicate 28% of their marketing spend on capture, and 72% on retention.” Nothing. Nada.

It’s not hard to understand why. Customer strategies are based on corporate strategies, which are influenced by present and future product portfolios, competitive market position, market share, operating costs, cost of capital, risk capacity, risk tolerance, economic and regulatory forecasts, and industry maturity and growth rate – to name a few. Does Company X spend too much on customer acquisition and too little on retention? Devoid of context, it’s impossible to judge. The most useful clue is whether Company X achieved its quarterly revenue target. If so, they possibly had the right proportion of acquisition and retention. When you have next quarter’s achievement percentage, ask me again. There might be a different answer.

Even without industry standards, I took a swing at generalizations:

Acquisition-intensive companies tend to be

  • New business ventures
  • Companies that are pivoting their business model
  • Operating in young or emerging industries
  • Selling capital goods with low potential for add-on sales
  • Expanding into new markets
  • Services companies that recognize a large portion of revenue at the time of contract signing

Retention-intensive companies tend to be

  • Software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies
  • Offering other subscription-based products or services
  • Providing a low-cost entry product or service that can be readily expanded
  • Selling a product or service with high potential for ongoing consumption
  • Dedicated to supporting a key client or small number of clients
  • Expanding into new markets or developing products targeted toward their legacy accounts

Most companies are in between, confounding our ability to compliment – or assail – their approaches. Blue Apron, for example, must be equally rabid about acquiring new customers and preserving those they’ve signed. It’s a conundrum: for troubled Blue Apron, client retention depends on gaining economies of scale. And how do you achieve economies of scale? By acquiring new clients! Acquisition and retention, therefore, exist in a mutually supportive relationship. I know – it’s complicated. But it’s hardly rare.

Flawed accounting? For most companies, acquiring customers consumes a sizable chunk of the marketing budget. In B2B, buying lead times can drag on for months or years, and conversion rates (ratio of prospects who become customers) can be frustratingly low.  “Depending on which study you believe, and what industry you’re in, acquiring a new customer is anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one,” wrote Amy Gallo in Harvard Business Review (The Value of Keeping the Right Customers, May 2014). In fact, every executive I spoke with for this article shared that their company’s customer acquisition costs consistently exceed retention costs.

But “cost analysis regarding retention requires sophistication, and results vary widely between companies,” CFO-turned-novelist Pat Kelly told me. “There are many [retention] cost drivers,” and not all of them are aggregated into overall retention costs. For example, much of what companies spend on software development and logistics operations are crucial for customer retention, but most companies don’t categorize them as retention costs. On the other hand, marketing, sales, and lead generation are easier to parse. Many companies know their cost/lead down to the penny. Little wonder that spending on acquisition appears so lopsided. “It’s worth the effort to get better at tracking retention costs, but companies will never get to the right answer,” Kelly said, adding “it’s more important to be directionally accurate.” That’s solid advice. We can endlessly debate the accuracy of acquisition-retention multipliers, but acquisition almost always costs more than retention. Still, for most companies, whatever benefit precision provides doesn’t change the fundamental fact that you still can’t retain a customer that you haven’t first acquired.

Recommendations:

  1. Balance is key. Companies that get heavily invested in a single component of customer strategy risk harming stakeholders. Comcast abused a customer that they clearly couldn’t afford to relinquish. Solar energy companies inflated acquisition numbers to appear more attractive to investors. And American Express Foreign Exchange offered impossibly low rates to prospects, only to raise them without proper disclosure.
  2. Never use cost considerations as the dominant rationale for favoring retention. Acquisition, retention, growth, win-back, and divestment strategies must first align with the strategies of the organization.
  3. When defining your customer strategy, consider the right measurements. These should include minimum churn rate, expected churn rate, industry growth rate, enterprise revenue growth target, actual revenue-per-account, forecast revenue-per-account, economic forecasts, and foreign exchange rates (for international companies).
  4. Know the right customer for your company, and if that’s too difficult, at least know the wrong one. “Think about the customers you want to serve up front and focus on acquiring the right customers. The goal is to bring in and keep customers who you can provide value to and who are valuable to you,” said Jill Avery of Harvard Business School.

“If you do a good job, your customers will refer new customers, and that’s vital for every organization,” another CFO, Stan Krejci, shared with me today. But he cautioned executives not to see retention as isolated policies, processes and procedures. “Retention is a performance issue,” he said. A company’s obligation to its customers is to consistently fulfill its promises and to provide ongoing reciprocal value. A company that can do those things won’t likely resort to staffing customer call centers with Retention Specialists, and contriving technological and contractual handcuffs to reduce churn.

Acquisition, retention, growth, win-back, divestment. The elements of customer strategy are inter-dependent. “Retention feeds acquisition, and acquisition feeds retention.” Krejci said. “It’s circular.”

Sears: Bankruptcy through Management by Magazine

Sears, the company that gave the world Kenmore appliances, Craftsman tools, Sears houses, and catalog retailing “limped into bankruptcy” on October 15, according to The Wall Street Journal (Sears, Once Retail Colossus, Enters Painful New Era).  As one who grew up near two Sears anchor stores, this is astonishing. Never mind that for years, “the handwriting was on the wall.” It wasn’t always that way. Sears was the first major retail chain to build parking lots for cars and to offer store hours on Sundays. Talk about innovation!

The bankruptcy will affect nearly 70,000 Sears employees, and threatens the financial security of 100,000 Sears pensioners. “Employees are our greatest asset!” – until they’re not. In 1925, when Sears opened its first store in Chicago, the “limped into bankruptcy” part of their story was unimaginable. I wonder how Amazon’s epitaph will read, and when.

Over the next year, there will be copious Sears-related analysis. Stern-faced investment analysts will appear on TV. Wizened B-School faculty will lecture classes about the company’s missteps. And armchair quarterbacks like me will proffer reasons for the company’s demise, and post them online.

“In the end, Sears just didn’t . . .”  Almost any crucial corporate outcome or result you’d care to include at the end of that sentence will ring true. Management flew an already-troubled company into the ground in every sense of the word.  “It’s an American tragedy and it need not have happened, said Arthur Martinez, Sears CEO from 1995 to 2000. Amen.

As I read about the various Hail Mary’s Sears tried to save itself, I detected a strong aroma of Management by Magazine in the C-Suite. I saw how Sears executives flung themselves onto the life-ring of The Next Great Management Fix, and along the way, how they strangled the company beyond hope of resuscitation.  “Sears said in court papers if faces ‘catastrophic consequences’ if it can’t repair its unraveling supply chain. Some 200 vendors have stopped shipping goods to its stores in the past two weeks, and it faces potential liens if it can’t pay logistics companies owed millions of dollars over the coming weeks,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Sears CEO Eddie Lampert resigned his position on October 15th. Here’s what he tried along the way. Below each, I’ve included counterpoints that by now, I’m sure Lampert wishes he read:

1. Cut costs, increase profits!

Analysis: the right strategy, done the wrong way.

“[CEO] Eddie [Lampert] inherited a difficult situation, but he made the operating performance worse,” said Steven Dennis, a former Sears executive who left the company in 2003. “He cut costs in places that hurt the company and didn’t reinvest in the stores.” Mr. Lampert’s strategy included cutting advertising spending. Predictably, goods wouldn’t sell, former executives told The Wall Street Journal. He also limited merchandise purchases to the point where stores routinely had empty shelves and outdated products.

Counterpoint: A Better Way to Cut Costs.

 

2. Create transformational change!

Analysis: the right strategy, done the wrong way.

“We chose transformational rather than traditional change,” Lampert said. “Some efforts gained traction while others did not, and there were external factors that have severely hurt the company.”

Counterpoint: Transformational and Incremental Change: A False Dichotomy?

 

3. Diversify, or die!

Analysis: the wrong strategy.

“Industry executives say Sears planted the seeds of its demise nearly 40 years ago when it diversified from socks into stocks with the 1981 purchases of the Dean Witter Reynolds brokerage firm and real estate firm Coldwell Banker,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “That was their first mistake,” said Allen Questrom, a retired retail executive who ran JC Penney. “They took their eye off the ball.”

Counterpoint: To Diversify or Not to Diversify

 

4.  Fail fast!  “Mr. Lampert would green-light a project, then quickly shut it down if returns didn’t materialize. That applied to investments other executives saw as necessary, such as store upgrades: Some stores had holes in the floors, broken fixtures and burnt-out lights.”

Analysis: the wrong strategy.

Counter-point: Why Fail Fast, Fail Often May Be the Stupidest Business Mantra of All Time. 

 

Lampert ran Sears via teleconference from his home in Florida. He visited the company’s Illinois headquarters “once or twice a year” according to former Sears executives. For those who believe senior executives lead by demonstrating their commitment to the company, it’s hard to miss Lampert’s message: “we’re toast.”

Hiring Sales Talent? Seek These Three Essential Skills

As a strategist, I look for performance gaps. They are often concealed within operating statistics, and can require sleuthing to flush out.  For me, an adrenaline rush comes from finding a subtle gem and elevating it to the conference room white board. “Strategic priorities for this quarter . . .” By now, you can tell that I don’t attract large crowds at parties.

I like big gaps because sometimes, they can be fixed cheaply, offering a satisfying bang for the buck. “Your problem, Carolyn, is right here, hiding in plain sight.” My clients return a hearty thank you, consistently followed by “we can address this without changing the budget!” Indeed.

Competency misalignments crop up regularly. To achieve revenue targets, sales organizations need one set of skills, but when the specifications get to Human Resources, things have already gotten lost in translation. Odd scenarios unfold. Even when job seekers have excellent sales skills, the company passes them up because the candidate didn’t satisfy HR’s check boxes.  Or, the candidate presents strong sales competencies, but the interviewer doesn’t know how to recognize them. Without dazzling a hiring manager, could a sales candidate be the next Billy Mays ? Or more commonly today, could sales talent knock at a company’s door without tripping a resume algorithm’s cold, hard decision boxes? Absa-tively. It happens every day.

Here’s an example from a posting I found today for a software sales representative. (I purposely omitted the company’s name):

1) Minimum 5+ years of successful software sales experience
2) Experience in consultative selling
3) Experience in lead role of a team-selling environment
4) Ability to uncover and identify new business opportunities
5) Excellent communication, organizational and interpersonal skills

To assist a candidate’s self-selection for applying, this company gives five low-level requirements. Millions of people have experience doing things. I have experience golfing, but I’m not a good golfer. That doesn’t stop me from checking the Experience box. Does successful mean the candidate achieved quota every year, or just sold something a handful of times? Only Ability to uncover and identify new business opportunities affords the interviewer an opportunity to ask for meaningful demonstrations of skill, along with assessing how the candidate approaches these two challenges. And none of these items are concerned with past client outcomes. That’s pretty typical. It’s all about revenue, and not whether there was a satisfied buyer who paid for the product or service.

And executives wonder why their customers are perpetually dissatisfied with their buying experiences, and express disdain over their interactions with salespeople.

Toiling over sales hiring specifications is a fool’s errand, with little value other than keeping HR staff busy writing requirements. Excellent communication, organizational, and interpersonal skills are table stakes for any sales candidate. For anyone lacking these skills, who would have the temerity to apply?

My proposal is to dump all the picayune sales rep “must have’s”, and focus on discovering three self-reinforcing skills in sales candidates:

  1. Gain rapport and trust. B2B, B2C, high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech – every salesperson must be able to establish rapport with a prospect and gain trust, or nothing else can happen.
  2. Qualify opportunities. A salesperson able to qualify opportunities throughout the buying process has a much stronger chance of making quota than one who doesn’t. What about a person who has marginal qualification skills, but makes goal anyway? I attribute that to a quota that was to low to begin with – or to luck.
  3. Guide buying transactions through completion – and beyond. In an earlier time, I’d say solid closer. Now, I grumble at that expression, because as a customer, I don’t like being closed. A salesperson can only be effective when he or she knows how to guide prospects to outcomes that are mutually beneficial for buyer and seller. Long term, the sale doesn’t matter if the buyer doesn’t benefit.

That’s it: three must have’s. The rest – years of experience, industry knowledge, team selling, consultative selling, what have you – is simply icing on the cake. These skills depend in part on innate abilities, and they require constant attention to hone and perfect. Include them in every hiring requisition. And challenge job candidates to back up their claims of competency with past examples, and to provide explanations about how they have developed these skills. This will help you find right talent. The rest can be taught on the job.