Can Science Help You to Find Good Sales Staff?

Ever since I studied Psychology (and Philosophy) at university I have loathed and distrusted the scientific study of human behaviour. My course stretched all the way from animal behaviour to social psychology.

The behaviour of animals (at least some basic antics of rats and pigeons) can be fairly accurately observed and described, sometimes even usefully predicted, but it wasn’t remotely interesting. Social psychology, on the other hand, amounted, in my opinion, to nothing more than common sense written down. Human behaviour, to my mind, is more expertly and interestingly covered in literature (which someone once described as simply ‘gossip written down’).

My favourite philosophers, of the Wittgenstein school, taught that ordinary linguistic descriptions of human behaviour and the scientific approach are mutually incompatible, and I still believe that.


So I have an immediate distrust of ‘objective’ ways of arriving at judgements about people. And for that reason, for many years, I resisted ‘objective’ ways of discovering if someone is, say, a good salesman, or a good administrator, or a good consultant. In other words, I hated aptitude tests. True, I have sometimes relied on ‘lQ’ tests to determine if someone might make a good programmer. These are narrow logical tests and I would hesitate to say they measure ‘intelligence’. They measure IQ, and IQ, a narrow but important skill, is useful for a programmer.

In the early days of the company, I often had to find programmers and consultants, and, relying on personal judgement and IQ tests, I wasn’t so bad at it. I was a programmer myself, after all. But finding a good salesman was hard. And it’s hard anywhere and everywhere. Sales skills are broad and complex. You interview, you take up references, you choose and then very often they fail. You feel a fool, especially when everyone else tells you their failure was obvious from the start.

Frustrated by failure, I was finally persuaded, in South Africa, by someone who runs a company very much like LLP, to use aptitude tests to find good sales staff. And so I tried. In fact I tried the tests produced by the very same company they recommended. They are global and charge surprisingly high rates for their methods and services, so lots of people must believe in them.

Their tests, as far as I can see, come at the issue from all sorts of angles. No ‘logical’ questions such as in the IQ tests, but rather, questions about personal preferences and attitudes. Fifty questions and you’ve pinned your man or woman down – salesperson or not.

So I tried the method on the next set of candidates who presented themselves as ‘sales people’. And, surprisingly, I found the results encouraging. Those who were obviously unsuited did poorly, and of those who looked promising, some did well and some did not. The tests seemed to find out which of these apparently promising candidates was really suitable.

So, I nearly signed up for the service, accepting that it would be expensive (but less expensive than failing salespeople).

And then I thought, hang on a moment, why don’t I try the test on the salespeople and general managers we already have? I know which of these is exceptional and which are merely good, or not good at all, at sales. So I did. Our best salesman scored poorly, our mediocre salespeople scored well.

Aptitude tests are hopeless when it comes to something important. There is no ‘science’ you can substitute for good judgement. Employing a salesperson is almost as difficult as choosing a spouse, but you get a little better at it as you gain in experience. Don’t be fooled by scientific nonsense.


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