Don’t Hire Stupid Salespeople

Don’t Hire Stupid Salespeople

Do Smarter Salespeople Perform Better?

Of course they do. In every market and every industry. High IQ salespeople perform better than their average (and below) IQ peers.

Brain size matters. This sounds obvious to some people. And horribly offensive to others. Several decades ago it was quite common to administer IQ tests to prospective sales candidates, because there was a general acknowledgement that smarter salespeople tend to perform better.

IQ 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.

While there are now hundreds and hundreds of different personality and “style” assessments, the 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *