7 Lessons Learned about Sales Personality Fit & Cognitive Skills

We don't struggle with the job market, we define it.

7 Lessons Learned about Sales Personality Fit & Cognitive Skills

Sharon is Randy’s manager. Randy is a nice young man. He’s a good father, devoted husband, and hard-working employee.

Randy is completing his second year with the company. Sharon really likes Randy and wrote off his first lackluster year to inexperience.

But Randy was only half-way to reaching his quota with only one month to go before the end of the fiscal year. Sharon began to question if Randy was cut out for this job or if she was doing something wrong as his manager. .His second year performance would be only slightly improved over his first and now Randy’s poor performance had been noticed by senior management.

Sharon  challenged us to find what differentiated her stars from his bottom performers.

Sharon’s boss and owner of the company, Jeff, was skeptical to say the least that a “personality test” could really predict a successful sales performer in his industry and his organization. Jeff, like many other managers, believed that his industry, selling residential mortgages, was unique and that selling loans – and a lot of them – only required a combination of experience, intelligence, and good work ethic.

Unfortunately, six of Jeff’s seasoned loan officers, including three with over twenty years of experience, ranked in the bottom half of loans closed during 2002, a historical year for new loans and re- financings. Ironically, five of the top performers had worked as a mortgage loan originator five years or less and two of his top ten had only two years experience. Experience definitely contributed to success but relying on it as a predictive tool for new hires was a 50-50 proposition at best. With the competition for loans being what it is and busy-ness not allowing for long training periods, Jeff’s interest was piqued about finding a better way to identify individuals who could sell and originate loans for his company.

We used a test called Prevue. What we did find in our study of loan officers may surprise you. It did the hiring managers and senior executives.

The top performing loan officers were not the superstars having top cognitive skills. In fact, on a scale from 1 to 10 only one top performer scored above 7 in any of the three abilities sections. The majority had average skills (4 through 7) while several even scored in the lower 50 percentile when compared to the general population.

Not unexpected, several of the low performers scored in the 1 to 3 range indicating that they either did not have the ability to keep pace or they just would require more time to learn the business. Low scores however do not always disqualify an employee if the business culture is willing to be patient and train and coach these individuals.

But what effect did personality have? Prior to our assessment, managers in both organizations described the traits of success as high in competitiveness, assertiveness, conscientiousness, as well as outgoing and people-oriented.

What we discovered was that success came in a wide variety of personality factors, with one exception. The only consistently significant differentiator between the top performers and poor performers was in a scale called stability.

Stability determines how an individual copes with stress, criticism, and unforeseen events. Of course, the first reaction was “we want people who don’t get stressed out and flip out at customers.” In other words, we want to know if they will go “postal on us.”

Surprisingly, only one top performer scored in the highest ranges of the stability scale, while five of the bottom performers did! The bottom performers were so cool, calm and collected that they lacked urgency. They accepted events as they unfolded and were seldom bothered when things went wrong. They shrugged off criticism with comments like ” we’ll give it our best” but had little fire in their belly.

I am certainly not advocating that employers should hire employees who are easily excitable, irritable, sensitive individuals with a temper. What we did discover though was that the most successful loan officers, or a mortgage company’s sales force, did take criticism seriously. They did worry within reason when a deal went south. They may leave the workplace at 5 PM but seldom left work completely. Unlike Randy, they recognized opportunities whether they were attending a Chamber Mixer or their child’s school play.

By defining the level of cognitive skills required to do the job and a single personality trait that separated the rest from the best, a profile for screening candidates was developed that would have identified between 50 and 70 percent of the low performers before they were hired.

At the cost to hire and train top sales people running a minimum of one-and-one-half times first year annual salaries, each of these organizations could have saved valuable managerial time, captured more opportunities and saved between $300,000 and $500,000 in salaries and benefits spent on high-risk employees.

Our clients learned eight valuable lessons:

1. Top performing employees come with a variety of skills and personality traits. By expanding the range of traits and skills through job analysis and benchmarking, our client expanded the pool of potentially successful candidates and employees and zeroed in on two key knock-out factors.

2. The most striking difference between being a star and a poor performer was a sense of complacency. Experience and abilities were trumped by high stability (composure). Over one-half of the employees who missed expectations were frankly being okay not being okay and lacked the urgency to change. Several preferred to be judged by their intentions while the organization measured results. These poor performers believed tomorrow is always another day.

3. Of the one-third of those employees not meeting expectations, other factors affecting performance included lack of experience, job dissatisfaction, career mismatches, and manager employee mis-matches. By re-assigning several of these employees to different managers, branches, or jobs, at least half of these employees would remain with the organization and had the potential to become productive employees.

4. Before we started the process, we were told that these positions required smart and intelligent people. What these managers learned was hiring individuals with more skills than they needed to do the job decreased training time. What they didn’t realize was that it also increased the likelihood for boredom and disenchantment with the job, resulting in turnover. It is now clear that hiring individuals with enough of the right skills is more important than hiring employees who have “excess capacity” just in case you need the skills. Organizations that hire individuals with higher general abilities than the job requires need to have rapid growth opportunities or these employees leave for bigger challenges.

5. Our clients initially feared that personality tests would unnecessarily screen out qualified candidates. They discovered just the opposite. Based on the newly developed top performer profile and looking back at their screening criteria, they recognized that they had unintentionally and mistakenly bypassed and overlooked several good prospective employees. As an added benefit, by looking for people with more average abilities and personalities, the size of the qualified labor pool just expanded.

6. Most sales and management jobs only require average abilities with the right personality match. Hiring the best and the brightest is not as important as hiring individuals with the right abilities and a good personality match.

7. Instead of looking for superstars many jobs just require the skills of the average Joe and Mary. That’s good news for hiring managers. As one manager told us, “we now know that we don’t need to be recruiting MBAs on college campuses but setting up a kiosk in the mall.”

Ira S. Wolfe is founder of Success Performance Solutions. He is the developer of CriteriaOne™, the Whole Person Approach to matching, managing and motivating employees.

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