Luck is Not a Hiring Tool

Most sales managers figure they’re an excellent judge of character and can spot sales talent from a distance of 500 feet, if not farther.

I used to think that too. That’s why a lot of my earlier hires were done after a 15- to 30-minute interview and a brief assessment of what my stomach was telling me about the candidate. I simply didn’t have the time for lengthy interviews or testing procedures.

Poor Odds

As more and more of the people who were reporting to me were the ones I had hired, I began to realize that some of my better hiring decisions had been more a matter of luck than skill. Salespeople who I thought were going to be barnburners turned out to be nothing but warm coals while people who I felt I was taking a chance on were turning out to be real brush fires. I had to fire some of the great talent I had hired because in the end, they were duds.

I finally came to the conclusion that my hiring skills left something to be desired. It turned out that my chances of picking a winner were about 50/50. Instead of spending all that time going through the interview process, I could have just flipped a coin and gotten the same results.

The Folly of the Interview

I began to realize that while the interview is important, it has to be structured if it is going to be of any value and, like most sales managers, I don’t like structure. In fact, as Malcom Gladwell put it in a May 29, 2000 article in The New Yorker, structured interviewing doesn’t come naturally to most managers:

    “For most of us, hiring someone is essentially a romantic process, in which the job interview functions as a desexualized version of a date. We’re looking for someone with whom we have a certain chemistry, even if the coupling that results ends in tears and the pursuer and the pursued turn out to have nothing in common. We want the unlimited promise of a love affair. The structured interview, by contrast, seems to offer only the dry logic and practicality of an arranged marriage.”

Most of us simply ask questions intended to find people who will fit in with our perception of our workplace or culture. We’re subconsciously looking for someone who will be easy to work with which doesn’t help us predict how well the person can do the job.

Getting It Right

Research confirms the superiority of structured interviews over the standard “tell me about yourself” interviews that sales managers like to conduct. In a 1985 study and analysis of interviewers at a large US life insurance company, 19 sales position candidates were interviewed using two different methods – informal and structured. A year later, those who had been hired were evaluated according to the interview method. The results showed a validity coefficient of .61 for the structured candidates, and only .08 for those interviewed in a more informal method.

Developing Structured Interviews

So then, if conducting structured interviews is one of the keys to successful hiring, how do we go about structuring the interview? Here are some of the main guidelines and the order that they should be followed:

1. Start by writing a job description based on what an ideal salesperson must do to be successful in the position rather than on the traits that he or she must have to get the job.

Develop a set of six to eight performance standards you expect the new person to meet. Creating the standard isn’t a simple matter of sitting down and jotting down some notes. To develop truly effective performance standards, first examine your successful salespeople to find out exactly what it is they do that makes them successful.

2. Prioritize the standards and then design a set of standard interview questions that help you determine whether your candidates have been successful at those tasks in the past. Past performance is your best predictor of future performance.

There are two ways you can ask for this information. The first is to ask the candidate to talk about a time in her past when she’s excelled at one of the tasks on your list. For example: “What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in organizing your sales territory and how did you deal with them?”

Behavioural questions like this can be a problem, especially if there’s one “correct” answer that you’re looking for. Behavioural interviews are also risky because people don’t always behave the same way in different situations.

Because of this, some sales managers like to ask “situational” questions that test on-the-spot problem solving. For example: “We sometimes have situations where you come back to the office and find that several customers have called in and left messages. How would you decide who to call back first?”

Because theoretical questions like these don’t always give you a good sense of how the person actually behaves in real life, it’s best to use a balance of the two types of questions. Use behavioural questions to learn about a person’s experience in a related job, and situational questions based on real situations at work to see how the person would act if given the job.

3. Ask every candidate the same set of standard questions. Of course, you will have different follow-up questions for each person as you probe into their background or try to get them to expand on a particular answer. You can’t accurately and objectively compare candidates if you haven’t evaluated them in the same way.

4. Write down your first impression of a candidate after first meeting him, and then revisit that impression after the interview is over. This forces you to think about your first impression more objectively. Did you think the person seemed confident at first because of his strong handshake? Does he still seem like a confident person, given some of his responses to your interview questions?

Bottom Line

Remove luck from the hiring equation. There’s more to structured interviewing than these four guidelines and becoming good at conducting structured interviews takes time. But every step towards a more formal process, and away from unstructured judgment calls and using luck as a hiring tool, increases the soundness of your interviewing techniques and brings you closer to hiring a potential winner.