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Improving The Odds For Hiring Success

Businesses are using personality testing to check out their own hunches about salespeople.

If performing the following activities paid the same compensation and carried equal status, which would you choose: a) representing clients in court; b) performing as a concert pianist; c) commanding a ship; d) advising on electronics problems?

Among these statements, which best describes you: a) I don't need to be the focus of attention at parties; b) I have a better understanding of what politicians are up to than most of my associates do; c) I don't delay making decisions that are unpleasant?

Your answers, when evaluated along with the responses to more than 170 other questions, could say something about your potential as a salesperson, says Herbert Greenberg, president of Personality Dynamics Inc. (PDI), a Princeton, N.J., management consulting and testing company.

Although many people regard personality tests with distaste and skepticism, others report that they are a cost-effective way to make wiser hiring decisions. One example is L. "Fritz" Covillo, senior vice-president and general manager for United Foods Inc. in Denver. "People razzle-dazzle me in an interview," admits Covillo, who heads up a sales force of more than 50 people, "but how do I know if they have drive, if they can handle rejection, or if they can be self-disciplined enough to go out and sell in the boonies? Good vibes are okay, but how do I get inside a guy's head?"

Covillo began using personality testing more than five years ago. It has, he reports, not only helped confirm his hunches but has also challenged his first impressions about people.

To those who question testing's validity, Covillo argues that subjective feelings after interviews and reference checks are even less valid as predictors of sales success. "The interview is the greatest lying tool in the world," says Greenberg of PDI. "It's a sophisticated world. People know how to handle themselves; they know how to dress and what to say. They have resumes professionally prepared and give reference checks that are going to look good. Everything is beautifully designed to put up a very nice facade." Conversely, he notes, people with no track record in sales may present an unpolished appearance that belies their sales ability.

For more than 20 years, Herbert Greenberg and his wife, Jeanne, have studied salespeople to try to understand what makes them successful. During the 1960s they surveyed 18,000 salespeople in 14 different industries and found that success was not related to experience, sex, age, or education -- the criteria upon which many people base their hiring decisions. A recent study conducted by Xerox Learning Systems in Stamford, Conn., which analyzed more than 500 sales calls in more than 20 companies, also found that age, college education, sex, or years of experience had no correlation with success. Instead, a person's behavior during the sales call -- including how well he or she listened to the client, handled objections, and closed the interview -- was what determined success.

While the Greenbergs agree with Xerox's conclusion that sales skills can be learned, they argue that companies should start out with the best raw material possible. Their research has shown that certain basic characteristics -- which can be partly revealed, they say, through testing -- are found in nearly all successful salespeople. For example, most top performers display strong drive marked by an intense desire to persuade others, not so much because of money but because of a feeling that they have to make a sale These people also have "empathy" -- they listen well and can tailor an interview to suit a customer. Finally, the best performers are resilient, even when they repeatedly lose sales.

But the Greenbergs also emphasize that each sales job requires a different balance of strengths and that the most difficult part of the hiring process, understanding the job well enough to match the right person with it, always precedes recruiting. For example, Harvey Kimmel of Edward Don & Co. of New Jersey, a Mt. Laurel restaurant supply distributorship, points out that independence, aggressiveness, and the ability to take rejection are a lot more important to job success at his company than a college degree. "We're selling pots and pans out of 30-pound bags," explains Kimmel. "This isn't high tech."

PDI's test consists of 181 questions. "To a certain extent, we know people are going to put up a facade -- just as when they interview or when they prepare a resume," says Herbert Greenberg. "They're going to at least put their best foot forward. If we ask them, 'Do you want to be a salesperson or a forest ranger?' do you really think they're going to tell us they want to be a forest ranger? Or if they blush easily, are they going to admit it? We analyze the perfect person they tell us they are, and that gives us clues to the person they really are."

Companies that use PDI's test pay $125 to have the results evaluated. A PDI account executive calls the client with an evaluation within 24 hours of receiving the test. The call is followed by a written report. Once the fee is paid, PDI will review the results as often as the client wishes. For example, when Lumbermen's Underwriting Alliance in Boca Raton, Fla., considers promoting a salesperson to a management position, the company asks for a reevaluation of the test results in light of the new position. "We know we've got a chocolate cookie," says Bill Weston, assistant vice-president of Lumberman's. "But can we make angel food cake out of the same ingredients?"

"So often," says Herbert Greenberg, "companies take their best salesperson and 'reward' him by making him or her a manager. They've taken their best producer -- who's a doer not a delegater -- and ended up with a mediocre or worse manager. When he fails, he often takes a sales job with a competitor and beats their brains out." Reevaluations often result in PDI's recommending a better compensation or bonus package rather than a promotion.

Sometimes, however, recommendations encourage promotions and job shifts that go against the company's wishes. For example, an insurance company called PDI when it was wrestling with a junior accountant about a promotion. The accountant, who had been with the company more than 15 years, wanted to sell, and the company asked PDI to give him the test in hopes that it would convince the accountant that sales wasn't his forte.

"The test came in as one of the most classic sales patterns we've ever seen for life insurance," recalls Herbert Greenberg. "He had empathy, drive, and the ability to take rejection. In fact, we sat around laughing, wondering how this person could have been an accountant and sat still for two minutes without cutting his throat." PDI told the company the bad news: The junior accountant, they believed, should not continue as an accountant but should be transferred into sales. Reluctantly the company followed their advice, licensed the individual, and he became a top producer.

Personality tests are just one brand of testing available to businesses. Many of the large test publishers, such as Psychological Corp., a subsidiary of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, a publisher in New York City, distribute hundreds of tests.

One of the tests most popular among companies hiring for field sales positions is the Wesman Personnel Classification Test, a 28-minute test for verbal and numerical ability. Although Psychological Corp. will sell the self-scoring Wesman test directly to a businessperson at $9 for 25 copies, other tests, particularly personality tests, are often available only to psychologists or consultants who know how to interpret the results.

While most industrial psychologist believe that testing can be useful, they emphasize that it should be approached with healthy skepticism. "Testing should not be the instrument of decision," says Robert Guion, a professor at Bowling Green State University and author of Personnel Testing (McGraw-Hill, 1965). "It should be used as a flag that either agrees with or contradicts your impressions about a person." Testing works only when it is accompanied by thorough interviewing and reference checks. In fact, one advantage of testing may be that, if used correctly, it adds another dimension to and helps organize the selection process.

Before trying out any test on applicants, says Harvey Kimmel, try it on yourself and on current employees, and find out if what it measures really relates to success on the job. Kimmel, for example, tried PDI's test on 20 salespeople -- top performers who had been with the company as long as 25 years as well as on a couple of people Kimmel said he was planning to fire the next week. "Without knowing any background on the people," says Kimmel, "the test hit them right on the nose."

Like any aspect of the hiring process, testing is illegal if it discriminates against groups, such as women, blacks, or the handicapped -- unless it can be proven that certain skills being tested are related to job success. For example, an eye test might discriminate against the elderly, but the court might allow such discrimination if the company could prove that driving was essential to the job. Before using any test, a company should make sure that what the test measures is related to the job and that there is statistical evidence that the test is nondiscriminatory. Does a woman, for instance, stand the same chance as a man of passing the test?

Businesses interested in using tests can write for a guide published by the Division of Industrial-Organizational Psychology of the American Psychology Association called Principles for the Validation and Use of Personnel Selection ($4, Assessment & Development Associates, 12900 Lake Ave., Suite 824, Lakewood, OH 44107). For a list of about 50 tests that can be used to evaluate salespeople, write for Measures for the Selection and Evaluation of Salespersons ($3; ETS Test Collection, Educational Testing Service, Princeton, NJ 08541).

Last updated: Jun 1, 1983

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