Sales Selection, Assessment, and the Career Counselor

By Kent Noel

Career counselors working in business and industry offer a variety of services to our corporate clients. Included in these are organizational development, executive coaching, career transitions counseling, personal counseling, training, and selection. With regard to selection, often our main charge is to identify "best fit" individuals thereby, helping to minimize risks in a potentially new hire.

Salespeople represent a large and important segment of the workforce. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated the number of individuals in sales occupations at slightly over 13 million. This translates into roughly one out of every nine jobs in this country being sales related.

Assessment can be extremely helpful in identifying an individual's strengths and limitations and how these might potentially play out in a sales role. It is optimally effective, most fair, and less "cookie cutter" when several valid, reliable instruments are used in combination with interview impressions, reported work history, and references. It can provide valuable information regarding an individual's general personality traits, specific selling abilities, technical skills, problem solving style, and ability to learn new information. Essentially, use of assessment in salesperson selection can:

Greatly reduce the guesswork of interviewing.
By their nature, many people who gravitate toward a career in sales are often outgoing and tend to interview well. And yet, conversational skills alone reveal nothing as to a person's ability to achieve closure and get results. For example, individuals with a high Influence score on the DISC, but a low Dominance score may readily establish rapport, but could experience difficulty consistently wrapping things up and making a sale.

In many ways, the odds of selecting the right candidate based largely on interviewing are often no better than 50/50 or a coin flip. Additionally, the hiring manager has to guess if the applicant's references are trustworthy. Assessment can reduce amount of the selection process that is left to chance.

Significantly reduce turnover costs.
Finding, training, and keeping a qualified salesperson is typically a large investment both in terms of time and money. Barnett (1999) estimated the average turnover rate in the typical U.S. sales organization at 60%, but acknowledged that this figure is a rough estimate due to underreporting. Flammang (1999), in a National Automobile Dealers Association Special Report, noted an average turnover rate among its salespeople of 61%, which was considered to be "a major obstacle to enhancing professionalism." Mattson (1998) cited a study conducted by Mercer Inc. in which 45% of the 206 executives surveyed reported annual turnover costs exceeding $10,000 per person.

Conversely, sales assessment is a relatively inexpensive process. Sales screeners can be customized and given to a large number of applicants at a very low cost (often between $100 and $200 per person). Selecting the right candidate and keeping him/her can translate into significant dollars.

Reveal information regarding a sales candidate's personal characteristics and the subtleties of selling.
Assessment, if done correctly, not only provides an employer with general information, but can also get to the heart of what makes an effective salesperson. Information can be derived with regard to specific selling attributes such as the ability to establish rapport, willingness to initiate cold calling, sales closing, drive/persistence, ability to work independently, competitiveness, and a sense of teamwork. Good assessment will shed significant light on these subtleties rather than simply stating whether or not "John/Jane Doe can sell." 
Provide insight regarding the types of selling for which a person is best suited.
Specific sales assessment can provide a sales manager insight not only into if a person can sell, but under what conditions he/she would be most effective. For example, some individuals may be better suited for building a sales territory from scratch, while some may be more effective in taking over an established region. Others may perform optimally in house or at route sales. Still others may be better suited to a customer service role with upselling as a focus. In this way, assessment can reduce the risk of putting the least-effective person in a specific selling situation.

Provide an indicator as to a sales candidate's technical skills and ability to learn.
Different sales positions require different levels of sophistication with respect to understanding the technical aspects of products and services. Comprehensive assessment can provide specific, detailed information as to a candidate's technical know how by measuring his/her mechanical aptitude, spatial abilities, problem solving style, skills in absorbing/applying new information, ability to communicate technically, and other proficiencies. If technical expertise is required, a non-technical salesperson may not fully articulate a product's strengths and applications or may inadvertently promise more than the product can actually deliver.

As career counselors involved in sales selection, we can best serve our corporate clients by providing comprehensive assessment options (utilizing multiple data points) that significantly minimize hiring risks. Indirectly, those not selected benefit as well in that no one wants to be unhappy as the result of a poor fit. People need not and should not be set up for failure. Everyone ultimately wins when the process is done thoroughly and ethically.


Barnett, D. (1999). Leveraging high turnover. The Barnett Group.

Flammang, J.M. (1999). NADA economist outlines state of auto retailing. Tirekicking Today.

Mattson, B. (1998, April). Stemming the tide of turnover. Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2002). Occupational employment statistics-Sales and related occupations. U.S. Department of Labor.

Kent Noel, Ph.D., LPC, is a Consultant and Career Counselor with Carr and Associates, an Industrial Psychology firm in Overland Park, Kansas. He can be reached for questions or comments by phone at (913) 451-9220 or
Email: kent@carrassessment.com

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