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Selecting that successful salesperson.

Selecting That Successful Salesperson


Selecting successful salespeople has been one of industry's greatest challenges. Millions of dollars have been spent on research to improve the recruitment and selection process, but still turnover in sales remains high and is a significant problem. While the selection process has been refined and improved in recent years, much of the research has been directed toward testing a specific method. The purpose of this article is to furnish the latest advancements in the identification and selection of salespeople and to provide insights toward selecting that successful salesperson.

Comparison of Selection Techniques

A comparison of the mean validity of coefficients of different measures that have been used to predict sales performance is presented in Table 1. The test scores for assessment centers, tests, and biographics (bio-data) indicate that they are the most effective techniques in the selection of salespeople. The most widely used technique, the interview, is rated as one of the least effective techniques. The strengths and weakness of these primary methods will be discussed followed by which techniques this author thinks should be implemented.

Personal Interviews

Studies investigating the use of interviews in personnel selection have generally had very disappointing results. Although the interview is the most widely used method in personnel selection, statistics have consistently concluded that interviews generally have insufficient reliability and validity for use in personnel selection[1,11]. In spite of this, a recent study reported that interviewers are simply unwilling to give up personal interviews as a selection technique, even when data overwhelmingly shows that there are more effective prediction devices[6].

The problem with the interview is that it is so misused and abused as a selection technique. It is used by everyone from the experienced who used it effectively to the very inexperienced individual who talks too much, does not listen, and asks the wrong questions. Additionally, research has shown that most interviewers usually make a decision in the first five minutes and then spend the rest of the interview searching for evidence to support their decision[14]. The continued use and popularity of the interview, however, has forced researchers to attempt to improve its effectiveness.

The patterned behavior description (BD) technique has produced some of the best results reported. The BD technique draws upon critical incidents from the interviewee's experience that might be predictive of future job behavior. Interviewers must ascertain how applicants reacted in specific situations described by critical incidents for the position the interviewees are seeking. Through tracking a set of interviewers, it was found that those who used the standard interview technique only predicted why people performed at different levels eight percent of the time. However, interviewers trained in BD techniques predicted job performance at a 48 percent rate[6].

Another technique being implemented to improve the interviewing process is the utilization of trained, certified interviewers. Jeffrey Daum, working with the J.C. Penney Company, developed a system to provide an in-depth job analysis, standardize selection methods, and trained interviewers. After two and one-half years, the certified interviewers exhibited 45 percent less turnover for new hires than non-certified interviewers[4].

Several suggestions that could possibly bolster the interview process include the use of an interview guide, interviewer training, familiarity with job requirements, evaluation of interpersonal skills during the interview, allowing the applicant plenty of time to talk to avoid rapid first impressions, and directing attention to the purpose of the interview whether it is to seek out certain attributes or to be used as a preliminary screening device[2]. Finally, a well constructed interview, either structured or unstructured, when used in conjunction with other techniques can be very effective.


Testing has had its problems in the United States. At its peak in the 1960s, 83 percent of the members of the National Society of Sales Training Executives (NSSTE) were using sales selection tests. By 1975, this number had fallen to 22 percent, primarily because of legal problems associated with civil rights legislation and equal opportunity hiring practices surrounding companies that were misusing or abusing selection techniques[5]. As employers have become more familiar with legislation and have developed better validity techniques, tests are now making a comeback. In fact, some argue that tests are the best indicator of future job performance.

Those tests that measure intellectual abilities seem to be the best predictors of sales performance, followed by measures of personality. To support this conclusion, recent research points to an upswing in the successful use of IQ tests as an employment screening device. While these tests have been cited as being unfair to minorities or to those who are not as proficient in the main language of a country, it has simply been a matter of amending the test for language differences, not removing it as a prediction device.

Another opinion in testing is reported by Personality Dynamics, Inc., a Princeton, New Jersey based firm that performs psychological testing for clients. This firm advises recruiters to put personality ahead of intelligence if hiring for a sales position. They feel the best new hires are those equipped with a strong ego and the ability to empathize with the customer[3]. In support of this point of view, a recent study of pharmaceutical salespeople disclosed that personality tests proved to be very beneficial in determining common personality traits of successful salespeople in that organization. That pharmaceutical company feels that personality tests could be used successfully in the selection process[13].


Biographical information (bio-data) has been shown to be useful as a predictor of several criteria for salespeople. Sales managers want something easy to administer, and one of the most appealing aspects of bio-data is the ease of gathering the data. Most companies have prospective employees fill out forms such as application blanks, and the cost to filling out one more document is minimal [11].

The use of bio-data in industry settings, however, raises issues of accuracy and falsification or distortion of responses. Some bio-data are objective in nature and may be verified. However, some items can be faked and candidates could score significantly higher answering items falsely than by answering honestly. The inclusion of a lie detection scale or instruction indicating the presence of one seems to somewhat offset the problems of falsification and may improve the accuracy of the results. In spite of these problems, many companies feel that bio-data is a feasible and cost effective method in the selection process for sales personnel[11].

Assessment Centers and Simulations

Assessment centers refer to a process of well defined procedures and assessment techniques such as situational exercises, leaderless group discussions, in-basket exercises, and various job simulations. These are used in employee evaluation for promotion and in the selection process. Assessment centers are gaining popularity and results are generally impressive. This approach to selection provides the ability to see what potential sales representatives can actually do rather than what they say they can do. It seeks to measure knowledge, skills, and abilities rather than to identify personality type.

One study that was very successful was conducted by this author in the insurance industry which is known for its high turnover (at least 33 percent per year of new agents). An assessment center approach was used utilizing exercises simulating various sales skills, such as time management, closing, handling objections, and assimilating material. These skills were measured through the use of in-basket and role playing exercises. The assessment center only took two hours, which is vastly different from the one to three day centers which is the norm. Through utilizing the scores in the center, the assessment was highly successful. Seventy-nine percent of those who would or would not survive in the industry for six months were correctly classified[10].

Generally, the main disadvantage in implementing assessment centers to a company is that these techniques are generally more expensive then other screening methods, even if they are conducted in-house because they require many people to operate and participate in the simulation. High level managers are usually trained to act as assessors and to observe and evaluate each participant. Even after the assessment is over, it may take managers one to three days to finish the evaluation process. Some assessment centers, like the one described above, have been streamlined to reduce the cost while still maintaining accuracy.

The assessment process is a complex process, which greatly varies between organization on numerous factors. Examples include the number of exercises, the number of dimensions, the extent of assessor training, the method of reaching consensus among assessors, the number of assessors used, and the time allowed for the exercises. This makes it very difficult to come to an overall conclusion for the effectiveness of assessment centers[12].

However at present, reported results show assessment centers as having a high success rate in predicting those who will be successful in sales and those who will not. This author believes that the success of the assessment centers depends upon how well the simulations are developed and specifically customized for a particular company and industry.

Variety in Sales

One of the major problems in discussing the hiring of sales personnel is the wide range of sales positions. The personality characteristics required to be successful vary dramatically with the type of selling positions. One end of the spectrum of sales jobs is represented by the life insurance salesperson whose survival depends upon prospecting and cold canvasing, which requires great personal energy, enthusiasm, and drive. At the other end of the spectrum is the order taker who services accounts and requires a pleasant, friendly personality. In some selling situations, the negotiations period to complete a sale can last up to two years, which requires great patience and perseverance on the part of the salesperson. Missionary and detail salespeople never make a sale. Merchandising salespeople need to be detail conscious rather than sales oriented. A method of screening prospective sales people needs to be flexible enough to adjust for the requirements of different types of sales positions. This is a key point concerning the selection process[9].

Additionally, one primary problem with selecting an effective salesperson, with or without the aid of testing devices, is that while companies can often point to their best hires, they cannot tell you why those people have worked out so well. They are unable to pinpoint characteristics that they have identified as necessary for a good salesperson, so they have no assurance of making a good hire tomorrow. What an organization needs to do is to identify their best and worst performers and test these people first. Then a profile can be developed that points out the personality characteristics and mental aptitude of persons who are successful within their company's sales environment. Only then can selection techniques be consistent predictors for organizations[8].

At the same time a company is developing a profile, another battery of tests needs to be given that measures several mental aptitudes and personality traits and then matches the scores from the tests to the characteristics needed for a particular job within a specific firm. For example, for a sales representative who sells highly complex products, the scores on mental alertness should be much higher than for a sales representative that sells simple products or services. Similarly, telephone salespeople generally have a lower energy level (therefore, they do not mind sitting behind a desk all day) than outside salespeople, who have to have the energy necessary to make sales calls. Tests must be adjusted to the jobs for which they are measuring attributes[7].

Why There Is no Easy Answer

Most of the time, sales managers want quick solutions to the difficult problem of selecting the right sales people for the right job. Seeking the quick solution to the sales hiring process is why companies will try only using the personal interview, or use tests that provide less than desireable results.

Because there is such diversity in the types of sales jobs, the personality characteristics required to be successful in these positions vary dramatically. Therefore, there is no one particular method of screening prospective sales representatives that will be effective for all sales jobs, and no one technique is overwhelmingly superior to any other. In fact, if one specific technique was superior, companies would quickly adopt it.

The review of the different methods of personnel selection in this article illustrates that each technique has certain strengths and weaknesses. This author feels that when these techniques are used together, a synergistic effect will occur, and better results can be achieved. For example, a good, professionally developed, structured interview can fit nicely within the selection process and when used in conjunction with other techniques can be very effective.

The First Step to Improving -- Job Analysis

The first step in improving the salesperson selection process is conducting a formal "job analysis" that is in compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions Uniform Guidelines on employee selection procedures. This is much more involved than simply reviewing the job description. A job analysis is designed to rank order the specified job elements and analyze the frequency with which salespeople perform the job elements, and can give excellent descriptions of precisely what sales personnel do. These reports constitute some of the most accurate job descriptions available.

Before hiring can begin, the various elements of the job are divided into those that are learned after hiring and those that are learned before hiring, and the elements of the jobs are rated as to their respective importance. The elements learned before hiring, or entry requirements, are set up as criteria for selection, and the importance rating provides a ranking to be used in selection of applicants based on their suitability for a job. Selection of new salespeople can be enhanced using the proper job analysis information to determine the most promissing applicants for a job. Part of the job analysis can be testing those who are successful within the organization and those who are not to develop profiles.

Include Simulations in Your Selection Process

It is recommenced that an array of techniques be used in the sales selection process. One test or exercise or interview does not demonstrate the abilities of an individual. A number of techniques should be used. A strong recommendations is to use some type of simulation in the process. Most all personnel selection techniques can be easily incorporated into an assessment center.

The assessment center discussed earlier only lasted two hours. However if testing, interviewing, and other techniques are going to be used, at least half a day will be needed. One company used a two step approach to hiring, where first they interviewed and tested applicants to screen them before bringing the best ones in for three hours of a modified assessment center. The assessment center consisted of two parts in which the screened prospects were given a case study in which they prepared a report and gave an oral presentation to a panel of company managers. Then they were brought together and participated in a "leaderless group discussion" in which they were to defend budget cuts from their respective departments at a utility firm. This gave the sales managers a chance to see how prospective sales people would perform under pressure situations as well as measuring analytical skills and oral and persuasive skills. Simulations, either in role playing or in case study situations, provide meaningful insights to prospective salespeople.


It is felt that no one selection technique can stand alone, and that a combination of methods used together, adapted for a specific company that are matched with that company's needs, will provide the optimum selection process for salespeople. Companies need to study their own unique situations and develop their individual combination of techniques that when used together will yield the best results. Sales management must wake up to the fact that there is not a quick, easy, cheap solution to the sales selection process. [Tabular Data Omitted]


[1]Avery, Richard D. "Unfair Discrimination in the Employment Interview: Legal and Psychological Aspects." Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 86, 1979, pp. 736-765. [2]----- and James E. Campion. "The Employment Interview: A Summary and Review of Recent Research." Personnel Psychology, Vol. 35, 1982, pp. 281-323. [3]Brag, Arthur. "Interviews That Rate a 10." Sales and Marketing Management, August 17, 1981, pp. 58-60. [4]Daum, Jeffrey W. "Interviewer Training: The Key to an Innovative Selection Process That Works." Training, Vol. 20, 1983, pp. 57-59. [5]Kern, Richard. "IQ Tests for Salesmen Make a Comeback." Sales and Marketing Management, April 1988, pp. 43-46. [6]Orpen, Christopher. "Patterned Behavior Description Interviews Versus Unstructured Interviews: A Comparative Validity Study." Journal Of Applied Psychology, Vol. 70, No. 4, 1985, pp. 774-776. [7]Plotkin, Harris M. "Taking the Guesswork Out of Hiring Successful Salespeople." Business Marketing, December 1986, pp. 72-73. [8]-----. "What Makes a Successful Salesperson?" Training and Development Journal, September 1987, pp. 54-56. [9]Randall, E. James, Ernest F. Cooke, and Richard J. Jefferies. "Can Assessment Centers Be Used to Improve the Salesperson Selection Process?" Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Vol. II, Fall/Winter 1981-82, pp. 52-55. [10]-----, Ernest F. Cooke, and Lois Smith. "A Successful Application of the Assessment Center Concept to the Salesperson Selection Process." Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Vol. V, Winter 1985, pp. 52-61. [11]Reilly, Richard R. and Georgia T. Chao. "Validity and Fairness of Some Alternative Employee Selection Procedures." Personnel Psychology, Vol. 55, 1982, pp. 12-37. [13]Sager, Jeffrey K. and Gerald R. Ferris. "Personality and Sales Force Selection in the Pharmaceutical Industry." Industrial Marketing Management, Vol. 15, 1986, pp. 319-324. [14]Sharer, Bill. "Ten Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring a Sales Staff." Marketing News, May 23, 1986.

E. James Randall is Associate Professor of Marketing at Georgia Southern College in Statesboro, Georgia.
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Author:Randall, E. James
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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