The Failed Sales Hire Problem and Solutions to Fix It

Written by
Lucas Price
September 25, 2023
8 min

Failed sales hires have always been an expensive problem, but it’s only gotten more severe in recent times. According to Winning by Design’s latest research report on sales underperformance, only 4% of sellers are top performers now. That number used to be 20%.

Perhaps even more startling is that two out of every three sales representatives are failing to hit 80% of their quota on a regular basis. Only 32% of sellers are hitting at least 80% of their quota regularly. The number of lowest performers is only growing, increasing from 10 to 28%.

In other words, for most companies, 68% of sales reps aren’t bringing in the results they need to operate at a normal level. This stark reality presents a significant risk for organizations, and the only way to get ahead of it is to address the root of the problem: poor sales hires.

The Cost of a Failed Sales Hire Adds Up

How much does a failed sales hire really cost?

Let’s play out this hypothetical scenario. You’ve gone through the hiring process, made an offer to a candidate, and they’ve accepted. It turns out this hire was a low performer. Now eight weeks have gone by, and you’ve realized you made a mistake. You want to go to Human Resources (HR) and explain the problem. HR asks you what documentation you have in place.


HR tells you to wait until performance reviews come up next month and then put the hire on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Next thing you know, it’s been six months since the hire’s start date. Due to ramp-up time and underperformance, the hire has only sold around 10% of their annual quota.

Now you’re dealing with an open seat. So, you start the hiring process over again. You identify a candidate, make an offer, and then hire, train, and ramp them up. Ten months later, you have a high performer in the seat. At this point, you’ve lost approximately 70% of the annual quota of the topline, which affects commissions, your company, investment prospects, and more.

That’s a measurable impact, and if you are not careful the mistakes will compound. You could be in a hurry to fill the seat and lower hiring standards in an effort to save the plan. Remember, if you have a million-dollar quota, you’re looking at a $700,000 decision. It is worth giving the hiring decision its proper weight.  

Think of it this way. What if you waited two more weeks to hire and found someone 10% better than the current candidate? Sure, you might feel like you’re two weeks behind. In actuality, hiring someone 10% better will make up these two weeks by ramping up faster, learning more about your customers and the market, and sharing that knowledge with your team.

That might seem like a small difference, but it compounds over time, especially when you reach a little bit higher every time you make a sales hire.

Timing matters, but not as much as finding the best candidate for your sales role. Make sure you’re always recruiting. That way, you’ll know who you can put through the hiring process that will increase the average selling skill of the team when a seat opens. You may also consider only hiring someone who has a relevant and important sales skill that is better than anyone else on the team.

Common Missteps that Lead to Hiring the Wrong Sales Candidates

Why do companies fail to hire the right sales candidates? We discussed timing or the pressure to fill an empty seat as quickly as possible. There are some other common missteps as well, such as overlooking the context of past candidate performance. Relying on surface-level interview questions can cause this problem. Candidates who are good storytellers have their time to shine and may be able to spin information about past experiences in a way that doesn’t give the full picture.

Other errors to be aware of include:

  • Placing too much emphasis on industry experience
  • Having poorly developed or underdeveloped hiring processes and practices
  • Lack of visibility into which traits lead to sales success at your company
  • Lacking an understanding of how the new hire will affect company culture

Do These Things to Hire the Right Sales Candidate

So, how do you avoid ending up with a failed sales hire? First things first: take a look at who owns your hiring process.

Own the sales hiring process

If it’s anyone other than sales, you’ll need to rectify that. Sure, it’s important to have a strong talent acquisition (TA) team, but it isn’t enough.

Your TA team is there for process facilitation and candidate generation. They’re not there to put candidates through the traditional interview process. Why? There are a few reasons:

  • Sales skills don’t always translate well to the traditional interview process.
  • Sales leaders have more at stake than the TA department. (In many cases, their job is on the line.)
  • Sales leaders have the first-hand experience necessary to craft an effective candidate evaluation process.
  • Sales leaders have more insights into the skills their team members currently possess and which they lack.

So, if you want a sales hiring process that generates high-quality candidates equipped to do the job, you need to own it from the start.

Use structured interviews

Next, make sure you’re using a structured interviewing process. By that, we mean using interviews designed to assess competencies and skills related to the role you’re hiring for. You’ll evaluate candidates based on the same criteria through a standardized set of questions.

The reason structured interviews are so vital for hiring the right sales candidates is that they have a high predictive validity. Research shows that in comparison to unstructured interviews, structured interviews are twice as effective at predicting which candidates will be successful.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you of the power of structured interviews for hiring sales candidates, there are even more benefits:

  • High-performing candidates prefer them and are more likely to accept offers from companies that use them.
  • They help to increase the objectivity and impartiality of the interviews, reducing bias.
  • These interviews help to communicate that your organization is fair, inclusive, and organized.
  • They save time during the interview preparation and evaluation process.
  • They set expectations for the candidate and aid in the preparation process.
  • Structured interviews make it easier to give specific feedback to candidates.

One key aspect of structured interviews: use them as part of a four-interview process. There’s no reason to go beyond four interviews, as each additional interview only has a 1% chance of changing your hiring decision. Stick to four to keep things contained, save time, and get your new hire in the door faster.

Focus on competency interviews with behavioral questions

So, now that you own the hiring process and have structured interviews, how do you determine if a candidate is actually qualified for a role? This is where competency interviews come in. These interviews are based on the required competencies necessary for the open sales role.

Through targeted behavioral questions, interviewers can assess whether candidates possess a given competency such as achievement, resourcefulness, emotional intelligence, etc. The difference between behavioral and situational questions is that behavioral questions focus on specific past performances instead of hypothetical performances. The answers to behavioral questions shed light on the candidate’s competencies, capabilities, experience, and pattern of behavior.

Make sure your screening interviews fit sales candidates

As you lean on screening interviews to narrow down your candidate pool, take a moment to ensure they’re tailored to sales candidates. This is another instance where sales owning the hiring process matters. As a sales leader, you understand the capabilities and skills needed for the role, so make sure you’re screening for those on the front end. That way, you’ll be able to pinpoint who actually possesses them earlier in the hiring process and avoid passing on candidates who lack them onto the next stage.

Some required capabilities to assess during the screening interview process include:

  • Communication skills
  • Knowledge about key sales concepts
  • How to perform key activities associated with the role you’re hiring for
  • Experience (Go beyond the resume.)
  • Interest in and compatibility with the role

Evaluate candidates with an interview scorecard

Of course, choosing the right sales hire means you’ll need to be able to evaluate candidates effectively. Oftentimes, interviewers get caught up in evaluating individual answers. The problem here is that you want to evaluate whether a candidate possesses the competencies required for a role, not how well they can tell a story.

Evaluating individual answers also distracts interviewers from listening to the candidate. They miss out on key information, and the candidate may feel ignored or judged. So, instead, use an interview scorecard to evaluate those critical competencies for the role.

Stay Consistent to Attract Top Performers

In today’s sales environment, where only a fraction of the sales team performs at a successful level, the cost of a failed sales hire is staggering. Instead of rushing to fill vacancies, organizations must prioritize structured, consistent, and reliable hiring processes. By tailoring these processes to the competencies required to perform these roles successfully, organizations can rest assured they’re hiring candidates who are truly up to the challenge.

Spot A-players early by building a systematic interview process today.

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