Maximizing the Performance of Your Sales Force: Using Behavioral Science to Improve Selection & Productivity


One of the most effective ways for reducing turnover and enhancing productivity in an organization is by hiring for “fit”. Numerous studies have shown that selecting employees with the right skills and traits impacts performance and retention. Effective selection practices can have a real bottom-line impact in an organization.We have witnessed increases in sales of up to 150% and retention of up to 40% for clients as a result of better hiring. Actual cost savings can be in the millions depending on size of the workforce and severity of turnover. The key is to do a good job of identifying the ideal assessment(s), profiles and methodology for your organization, and making a commitment to doing it right the first time. Of paramount importance is ensuring that your process is validated to the requirements of the job, so that it can empirically predict performance, is in compliance with federal regulations, and is legally defensible. All of these goals can be achieved. Using the steps below can help reduce turnover, increase sales productivity, and select ideal candidates that best represent the company to the community.

Steps for Effective Selection

Job Analysis: A thorough understanding of the job is critical to ensure that the right knowledge, skills, abilities and traits are screened during the selection process. Minimum qualifications can also be determined. A job analysis process should be in full compliance with the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures and ensures a selection process that is job related and consequently defensible. Assessment Choice: Once an understanding of the job is attained by identifying competencies (e.g., knowledge, skills, and abilities), the key job-related attributes candidates need can be identified. These may include cognitive ability, physical ability, personality traits, biographical data, values, integrity, situational judgment and specific skills. Commonly assessed attributes for sales positions include personality, cognitive ability, integrity, and sales-specific aptitude. Methods for assessing these attributes should also be considered next, and could include web-based or paper-and-pencil assessments, structured interviews, assessment centers, and simulations. Validation: Validation is the process of studying the relationship between your assessments and the job to ensure that it is related to the content of the job and actually predicts the criteria most important to you (i.e., retention and productivity). Content validity is established by linking the content of the assessments to the work performed in the job. Subject matter experts from your organization should be used to link the job to the assessments and determine any gaps. Criterion related validity is established by linking performance on each test to performance on the job. This is accomplished by having a sample of job incumbents complete the tests, and then studying their test performance juxtaposed against actual job performance, as determined from supervisor ratings and any available objective performance data. Process Strategy: Once the right assessments are identified, a strategy is needed to screen applicants. Ideally, a “hiring funnel” strategy should be utilized, where successive levels of screening are used to narrow down the list of candidates to a final few for the interview stage. One should consider using less costly selection assessments (e.g., personality, integrity) for the larger applicant pool and save more costly assessments (e.g., structured behavioral interview) for the final few candidates. Training: Training in the process is essential to ensuring all aspects of the process are understood, including administration and scoring. Interview training is highly recommended to ensure structured, consistent and objective interview processes. Follow-up: Once a system is in use, a follow-up study should be conducted at 6 months and 1 year after implementation to ensure the process is working properly and to make any necessary adjustments. Developing good selection processes that are effective and defensible is not simple, but the aforementioned steps are essential. They result in a selection system composed of a series of steps and tools that are job related, defensible, and empirically linked to higher performance and greater retention.


In addition to improving the selection of sales people, one might also consider conducting a more detailed study to identify high-ROI sales activities. A sales audit can identify what practices from your existing sales force differentiate the high performers from the rest of the company’s sales force. This information can then be leveraged to maximize the performance of your entire sales force. Because it is based on what your top-performers are doing now, conducting a productivity audit should create great “buy-in” from existing staff. Past research has shown that it not only raises the overall performance of a company’s sales force, but it actually improves the performance of your top performers! This is because it facilitates learning among peers and the sharing of best practices. The basic structure of a productivity audit is to identify key differentiators between high-performing sellers and average-performing sellers. It should include a detailed observational analysis of sellers across all performance levels and unearth discrepancies between core sales representatives and high performers. Once key attributes of high performers are identified, tools should be developed (e.g., self-assessment forms) as well as systems (e.g., training workshops, new hiring practices) to export critical high-performance skills to the core, thereby shifting the entire “performance curve” of the sales force.

Steps for an Effective Sales Productivity Audit

Observation: Work with a select group of “sales effectiveness experts” (e.g., sales managers, high performing sales representatives, etc.) in your organization. Train experts on observation skills and criteria, and then select a sample of high and low performers to observe for a full work day. Analysis: Gather qualitative and quantitative data from observations and analyze for patterns .Quantitative analysis might include time in internal meetings, time on administrative activities, usage of CRM software, etc. Qualitative analysis would include key competencies and abilities that differentiate high performers from low performers. Activities: As a result of the analysis, key activities are identified. This might include training workshops, new hiring standards, and tools that will help facilitate development and the replication of the behaviors exhibited by top performers. Follow-up: Follow-up activities should be included to monitor progress and the impact of the activities previously mentioned.   by Randall Lucius, Ph.D. VP of Human Performance Turknett Leadership Group