Contractor's Corner: Part II: Hiring the million-dollar star - Mar 2018

By Dave Stafford

Last month I laid the groundwork for beginning the process of hiring a million-dollar sales star. I left off by encouraging employers to create three résumé piles-no way, possibly, absolutely-in order to narrow down the search. Now that the possibilities are narrowed, it’s time to interview the top candidates.

Schedule a phone interview with the viable candidates. Have two or three questions written down to ask them about their understanding of the position and at least a couple of questions about their résumé. The goal is to toss out the unqualified as quickly as possible and further reduce the list of candidates. A phone interview should last for no longer than ten minutes. If possible, record the conversation for later review, but be sure to get the candidate’s permission. This also helps ensure that there is a legal record of the conversation. Once the phone interviews are complete, take a deep breath and decide which candidates merit a personal interview. Note the reasons for rejection so you’ll remember if asked. If in doubt, call back for a follow-up phone interview.

Hopefully, you have enough great candidates but not too many for personal interviews. If you end up with an overwhelming number, it may be that you are not being discriminating enough. Conversely, if you end up with only one or two, it may be that you are being too specific and not allowing for human nature and creativity. As a side note, no matter how well I screen people, I can always count on about a 20% drop-out rate. With five interviews set, at least one person will show up late or not show up at all.

The initial interview should last no longer than 30 minutes. For an important sales position, the purpose is to see if what you saw in the résumé is consistent with the physical presentation of the individual. Here is your chance to bring the written word to life and ask questions about experience and goals to see if there might be a fit. This is not the time to sell them on your company as much as it is to ask them a prepared list of questions that cover the sales position itself and their interaction within the company: What is your understanding of the scope of this sales position? Tell me about your most recent key project and the specific challenges you faced. What would you do first in handling a phone call from an irate client? After finishing an important presentation to a prospective client, how would you ask for their business? If you were faced with losing a bid, what would you do first?

I would avoid letting the interview run long or deluding yourself into thinking, “This candidate looks really good, so maybe I can wrap this up in one interview and save some time.” Think about what you’ve seen and heard, make your notes, finish your other interviews and then review in the cold light of day. After all, this is still a process of winnowing away the stack of potential hires. Schedule follow-up interviews within 48 hours; you want to keep the continuity going and the interest there. Of course, you should let that great candidate know that he did well, and that you’re interested. If they look that good, it doesn’t hurt to sell them a bit on you and the company. Just remind them that this is the first interview. I have had cases where I thought the interview went well, but they were not interested. That happens.

The follow-up interview is where the rubber meets the road. Now, you want to zero in on your misgivings, ask those knotty questions, and start looking at them as though they are new employees. How does their personal attire and presentation match with their initial interview? What about quirks, mannerisms and personal or professional nuances that may not be consistent with what you are looking for in the company? Are those foibles fixable, and does the person seem likely to be trainable? I don’t care how qualified an individual may be or the glowing experience they present-if your gut churns when you’re in their presence or you have the urge to choke them, do not hire thinking you can change them. A wise psychologist once remarked in a presentation on hiring and firing, “No matter how good you think you are in teaching, training and molding employees, the absolute best you can hope for is sanding off the rough edges, that’s it. You will not be able to change their nature. What you see is what you’re going to get.”

At some point, either before or after a successful interview, you need to follow through with a complete legal application for the position, testing or other protocol requirements. Since a complete application and other items usually take at least an hour, I often scheduled this at another time for the successful candidate. Once you have the hiring protocol completed, then move quickly to assemble everything and take a look. Is the application readable? How do the credit and criminal checks look? Look at all the components together. Is there anything out of sync? Recheck the notes. Now, you and perhaps one or more trusted associates can discuss the interviewees. Are you all in agreement as to the best candidate? If not, where are the differences? Does it make sense to bring in the final three candidates and have select members of your team spend some time with them? That can be a valuable method, especially when faced with investing at least $100,000 in a new employee. One of you may pick up on some anomaly the others missed.

Once you’ve found the individual that you hope is your million-dollar star, you need to craft the offer and spell out the terms of an agreement. By this time, you should have a good idea of what it will take in base salary, performance compensation and fringe benefits to entice your selection to accept an offer. For most cases, a one-page offer identifying the person by name, the title of the position, desired start date and compensation package specifics would be sufficient. You must sign the offer and provide a space for the prospective candidate to sign as tangible acceptance of the offer.

One way to test the mettle of the prospect is to craft the offer and proffer an unsigned draft: “Bob, we really like what we see, so here’s an outline of what we feel would be a good offer. How about looking it over now and giving me some feedback, okay?”

Listen carefully to Bob’s comments and note where you might need to make adjustments to make the deal work. “Okay, so the base salary needs to be a bit higher and the start date a few days later; other than that, do we have a deal?” Probe for any other concerns or objections. Usually, most want to have an offer and then discuss it with family or “sleep on it” before making a firm decision. That’s fine and it underscores their interest and the importance they attach to the offer. If you are pushed to make it a formal, signed offer, then put a time limit on the candidate’s decision, and ask that they return with the offer in person and sign in your presence. If there is going to be a delay, then have them sign their acceptance and send it back to you via fax or email with the original to follow. This way you know you have a deal.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be completely clear on what you are offering and the terms of the agreement. Spell out the compensation and how commissions or bonuses will be calculated. I used to give specific examples, showing sales volume at various profit levels times percentage of commission earned and total earnings, including reimbursed expenses. The amount of paid vacation time and paid or unpaid leave and how it’s calculated or accrued should also be stated. A big one is the probationary period in which you both see if what you thought was a great idea is really working. That should be a minimum of 30 to 90 days. “At-will employment” states may dispense with the effect of a probationary period and not be required (check with your attorney). This may also coincide with the transition from base salary to some hybrid plan of salary, expenses and commissions or performance bonuses.

When your new employee, Bob, reports for work on his first day, be sure to outline required training and the learning objectives. How is his progress (or lack thereof) going to be measured? A written schedule of activities for at least the first week is best-meetings with HR and a general orientation into the company hierarchy with emphasis on all of the quirky systems that are so frustrating to someone new. If you are well organized, that will lower Bob’s stress level. One great idea might be to set up a “buddy system” a mentoring program with knowledgeable people who will answer questions.

You were the person who hired Bob, so visit with him for a few minutes that first week. This is not a review as much as giving Bob a chance to vent or ask a question or two. Get some feedback from your employees, especially those assigned to do the valuable mentoring: You should be able to identify any problems quickly and have a word with him if needed. It is particularly important to have a more formal review with Bob within 30 days. An effective method may be to pose a list of questions about his first month with the company, including training objectives. Get and give solid comments on how he’s doing. Now is the time to reset his focus on being productive.

For a period of months, continue keeping a close eye on their transition and process to ensure their success, utilizing the following techniques:
• Stay on track and do scheduled, periodic reviews. Show your new hire that you consider the review process important, and they will too.
• Adjust sales goals and targets, as well as compensation, if needed. If your hire is shaping up as the million-dollar star you’d hoped, then positive reinforcement is even more important.
• Consider how you can make changes to make your new hire even more successful.
• Reward your new hire for a job well done. Use every opportunity to motivate them.

I’ve also had the unpleasant experience of finding out that Bob is just not cutting it. Get some consensus, but if it’s not working, use the probationary period to call a halt. “Bob, I’ve gotten feedback from you as well as others in the team, and it just seems this position is not going to be a good fit for either of us. Therefore, I am terminating our agreement as of today.” Use this time to your advantage by conducting a modified exit interview. You may uncover some glaring mistakes in your hiring and mentoring process.

Sometimes there is relief; other times there are tears or angry outbursts. One manager opined, “If it ain’t working, well, that’s why we have a probationary period; you never know what you’re going to get until you get married.” There is a lot of truth in that. Give yourself credit for making the best choice possible based on the available information. Don’t beat yourself up. Learn from your mistakes, you’ve already paid for them.