Can Malcom Gladwell Explain the Sales Hiring Problem?

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Wed, Jan 04, 2023 @ 09:01 AM Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We  Don't Know (Audible Audio Edition): Malcolm Gladwell, Malcolm Gladwell,  Hachette Audio: Audible Books & Originals

CEOs, Sales Leaders, Sales Managers and HR Directors are under water when it comes to sales selection.  They get it right about 50% of the time and that includes salespeople who stay but underperform.  After reading Malcom Gladwell's book, Talking to Strangers, I can finally explain why the success rate is so low.  

The book begins and ends with a traffic stop that escalates into a questionable arrest and subsequent jail suicide and uses its nearly 400 pages to make sense of what happens when people talk to and judge people they don't know, or strangers. 

While Gladwell used dozens of dramatic and real examples, the one that most closely correlates with today's topic is the study of NYC judges.  Around 550,000 cases were analyzed and the judges' bail decisions - whether to set bail and for how much - were compared with the decisions of a software program.  The judges released 400,000 of those people and the computer had to choose which 400,000 to release.  The computer had the exact same information as the judges had in their case files, specifically age and criminal record.  The only difference - and it was a big one - the judges had the advantage of being able to look the defendants in the eyes, talk with them and ask questions to make a more informed decision.  The criteria for this comparison test was whether the defendants that were allowed out on bail while awaiting trial committed another crime. The computer outperformed the judges by 25%.

Gladwell wrote, "Orchestras made much smarter recruiting decisions once they had prospective hires audition behind a screen.  Taking information away from the hiring committee made for better judgments.  But that was because the information gleaned from watching someone play is largely irrelevant.  If you're judging whether someone is a good violin player, viewing whether that person is big or small, handsome or homely, white or black isn't going to help.  In fact, it will probably only introduce biases that will make your job even harder."

I wrote about bias in sales hiring in these two articles:

Those two examples are nearly identical to what happens when salespeople are interviewed.  The hiring manager has the candidate's resume (rap sheet) but unlike a criminal record, resumes are not always grounded in fact.  While it's likely they worked for the companies listed and for the time frames given, claims about success are usually out of context or outright fiction.  During the interview, the hiring manager is consistently forming judgments based on their interactions with the candidate. 

I learned from the book that people are pretty good at identifying honest people who act honestly, but not honest people who act like liars.  Similarly, people are pretty accurate when identifying liars who act like liars but not liars who act honestly.  Experts like judges, the CIA, prosecutors, criminal justice experts, psychologists and other experts are right only half the time so it should come as no surprise that managers hiring salespeople experience similar results.

For the sales leaders who claim they trust their gut, this book and its many examples demonstrates that there is no such thing as accurate gut instinct.  Like a coin flip, you'll be right half the time.  So what can companies do to improve on these odds?  Assessments.

Consider these statistics from several sources:

--Companies that don't use assessments experience 18% attrition and their salespeople achieve quota at a rate of 49%. While typical, this is clearly the approach of the stubborn and misguided.

--Companies that use assessments experience 14% attrition (29% better) and their salespeople achieve quota at a rate of 61% (24% better). While better, it's like choosing a 20-year-old car over a bicycle to journey 100 miles.

--Companies that use Objective Management Group (OMG) sales candidate assessments experience 8% attrition (125% better) and 88% of those salespeople achieve quota (80% better). This is the approach that yields the best and most consistent results, like choosing a jet aircraft over a car to journey 3,000 miles.  More science from OMG users:  When clients go against the recommendation and hire sales candidates that were not recommended for the role, 75% of those new hires fail within 6 months.  When they pursue a candidate that was recommended for the role, 92% of those candidates rise to the top half of the sales team within 12 months.

If you hire salespeople, using your gut will yield results similar to that of judges making bail decisions.  If you use OMG, it will be like using the software that outperformed the judges by 25% - only better.

People don't outperform science.

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Topics: Dave Kurlan, hiring salespeople, Malcom Gladwell, sales hiring tools, sales assessments, talking to strangers

2021 Challenge:  Put a Little Beatles Into Your Selling!

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Mon, Jan 04, 2021 @ 16:01 PM


Although it's been more than 50 years since Paul McCartney announced the break up of The Beatles, I am fairly certain that regardless of your age and geographic location, you know who The Beatles were and have heard at least one of their songs, even if the one you listened to was recorded by another artist.  Most of you probably know dozens of Beatles tunes!

During the holiday break I was listening to the Beatles channel (18) on SiriusXM radio and it helped me to realize just how similar the Beatles are to selling!

Their songs were timeless. In the last decade alone, Beatles songs were covered by 186 artists!

Their song-writing system was repeatable as they focused on their titles, beats per minute (BPM), choruses, rhythms and rhymes.

They were memorable.  Everyone knows John, Paul, George and Ringo - in that order.  And most people knew the words to their favorite Beatles songs.

They were incredibly likable!

You only needed to hear a song once to love it, like, "She Loves You."

Their songs told stories, like, "In My Life."

Their songs had calls-to-action, like, "Get Back."

Their songs asked questions, like, "Do you want to know a secret?"

The only thing that would make the Beatles different today is technology.  The sound quality would be SO much better.  It wouldn't change their songs but the songs would sound better.  It wouldn't eliminate the work they did to write the songs but they would get the songs transcribed and notated more quickly.  They would still have to record their music but the recording would be digital which would make mixing much easier.

Isn't this all pretty much the same as sales?  Let's take a run-through.

People have been selling for centuries - it's timeless.

Only since the time of the Beatles have more formal selling approaches, systems and processes been developed.

The best sales processes are repeatable and deliver repeatable results.  See Baseline Selling.

The best salespeople are memorable.

The best salespeople are very likable.

The best salespeople are great story-tellers.

The best salespeople have calls-to-action.

The best salespeople ask great questions.

And that brings us to technology.  All that technology that the best salespeople use, like video, CRM, document signing, calendar applications, email, social selling, and more make salespeople more efficient.  The technology doesn't do the selling or make anyone a better salesperson, but it does replace the rolodex, index cards, printed agreements, paper calendars and literature.

As I completed writing this article I was overcome with a feeling of Deja Vu.  Sure enough, I have tackled the Beatles before!  I'm embarrassed to say that my search revealed that I wrote a very comprehensive article on how The Beatles taught us to sell as recently as August of 2019!  Back in 2010 I included The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones in an article about differentiation as a way to close big deals.

One thing that mediocre salespeople seem so unwilling to do is practice.  Malcom Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, wrote that The Beatles had performed for 10,000 hours prior to becoming an overnight sensation.  As a result, The Beatles gave one the sense that performing their songs was effortless.  Great salespeople have seemingly effortless yet consequential conversations with their prospects but that ease and comfort also come from more than 10,000 hours of practice as they attempt to fine tune and improve their performance.

A challenge for 2021?  Put a little Beatles into your selling!

Topics: Dave Kurlan, Baseline Selling, selling tips, Malcom Gladwell, the beatles

Sales Performance - Does it Correlate with First Impressions?

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Mon, Feb 07, 2011 @ 06:02 AM

Last week I interviewed 16 candidates for 4 positions for 3 clients.  The interviews took place either by phone, high definition video conference, in my office, or in our conference room.  We aren't recruiters but we do help clients with recruiting and selection when they lack the bandwidth to do it themselves or when their track record from doing it themselves isn't pretty.

Coincidentally, I also happened to be reading two chapters in Malcom Gladwell's book, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, on Talent and Interviews.  He wrote that people form opinions of others, including at interviews, in as little as the first 2 seconds, and everything that happens after that supports the opinion formed.  For example, if your first impression caused you to like a candidate, and later during the interview she pushed back, you might think, "Wow, she's bold!"  On the other hand, if your first impression caused you to dislike a candidate who later pushed back, you might think, "Wow, he's such a jerk!"

Hold that thought.

Let me talk about the first impressions and the follow up thoughts I had on 3 candidates.

I met candidate #1 in our reception area and my first impression was, "Oh boy, what awful hair!"  He was at least my age (55) and his eyebrows were very light brown, so the hair shouldn't have been jet black and it certainly shouldn't have been combed up (think 70's on a woman) so high.  I hadn't spoken with him in person yet and already I didn't like him for the position!  But I forced myself to recall the phone conversation I had with him the previous week where he scored off the charts.  Sure enough, he had a terrific demeanor, was clearly a superior salesperson and was a very likeable guy.  I was able to override my first impression.  BUT, how would my client, very particular about appearances, react to his bad hair and, even more importantly, how would their existing and potential customers react?  Would they be motivated to do what I had done and look beyond the hair?  Smart as I can be about such things, I don't leave thoughts like that to chance.  So I confronted him about his hair, learned that a college professor friend had advised him to color it for the interview, and he agreed to get it cut and let the black fade away.

I met candidate #2 an hour later and he was angry.  Real angry.  His car hit a pot hole just before pulling into the parking lot and cracked an axle - although he didn't know the actual diagnosis when he walked in the door.  And he was mad at me because he drove to the wrong office.  He was supposed to be interviewing with the client, not me. Fortunately, rare as it is, my client happened to be just 10 minutes down the road and offered to come to our office.  Guess how that interview went?  In this case the first 2 seconds could not be undone.

Candidate #3 was someone I interviewed by phone and liked for the position.  After I attempted to schedule the follow up interview with my client, he sent me two emails that scared the hell out of me.  They were nasty, aggressive, mean, accusitory, cuss-laden and immature.  They were bad enough so that I changed my mind and decided not to allow this candidate to meet my client.  I couldn't see that behavior coming from the phone interview but the assessment did say he would get emotionally involved, that he didn't have any need for approval, and that he didn't recover well from rejection. That combination is not usually problematic but when it's a lunatic all bets are off! The funny thing is that he was never rejected!  It turns out that I didn't receive one of the emails he sent so he assumed that I rejected him and BANG. 

Do we form those first impressions that Gladwell wrote about?  Yes, I would say we do.  Do they support the rest of what we see and hear from that point forward?  The three examples above demonstrate that it may not always be the case.  I would like to think that the Sales Leaders, CEO's, Presidents and Sales Development Experts I have trained to interview sales candidates would be able to remain objective and unemotional enough to modify the first impressions they get.  My experience tells me that most of the people who interview do in fact make and retain their first impressions, and that's why their track record is so hit or miss with the candidates they decide to hire.  On the job sales performance simply has no correlation with the good first impressions that sales candidates make in their job interviews.  And the bad first impressions?  In most cases we'll never know!

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Topics: Dave Kurlan, sales recruiting, sales management, sales candidates, What the Dog Saw, Malcom Gladwell, sales selection

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Best-Selling Author, Keynote Speaker and Sales Thought Leader,  Dave Kurlan's Understanding the Sales Force Blog earned awards for the Top Sales & Marketing Blog for eleven consecutive years and of the more than 2,000 articles Dave has published, many of the articles have also earned awards.

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