People frequently ask me about the advisability of testing sales people for pre-employment or succession planning. Don’t do it!
I discourage the practice for several reasons. First, the skill set of salespeople differs from that of others in the organization. Certainly, the battery of tests I use would determine if a given sales professional has some of the requisite personality traits for success: high achievement drive, a willingness to overcome obstacles, a competitive attitude, an ability to bounce back from disappointment and the talent for “reading” people and situations. But this list also describes people who would succeed at other jobs but fail miserably in sales.
When I assess top salespeople, I usually find that they don’t demonstrate the ease with numbers that those in accounting possess, evidence the ability to solve abstract problems as those in R&D do or show the patience for manufacturing procedures that those in operations have. But they can blow the doors off the sales goals better than anyone else in the leadership pipeline!
Pragmatic thinkers, these top salespeople have developed sophisticated tactical approaches that help them figure how to sell. They develop systems and protocols for getting their product into the hands of the customers, they foster key relationships and they stick to the stated goal. Never confused about conflicting priorities, teamwork or company politics, these sales virtuosos stay the course, always striving to beat their own best or some other benchmark.
Second, if you use cognitive and psychometric testing for salespeople and base your hiring and promotion decisions on the profile you have for others in the organization, you will make ill-advised decisions—possibly passing up people who could grow your sales while hiring people who would function well in other parts of the organization, but not necessarily in sales. In other words, don’t use the same criteria for hiring salespeople that you would for cost accountants.
Third, an intellectual understanding of sales doesn’t guarantee a practical application of this knowledge. I have tested highly productive salespeople who flunked the sales knowledge assessment and underperformers who aced it. No correlation seems to exist between scores on the test and actual ability to sell.
The one and only way to determine whether people can sell is to look at their track records. Not all sales skills transfer among industries, companies and products—but many do. When you hire from outside the company, look for a track record of success. When you evaluate those within your organization, ask yourself what they’ve done for you lately.