By Lisa Bergson
I was feeling a bit leery as i began my search for two sales managers to cover Europe and Asia, perhaps because I've made more bad hires in sales than in any other department. Not surprising, considering that most salespeople know how to sell themselves. So to avoid getting snowed, I've developed a rigorous approach. Maybe too rigorous. In March, I placed ads in The Wall Street Journal and on Monster.com, asking for "a proven producer familiar with gas analysis and process controls in the semiconductor, natural gas, or petrochemical markets." In our field, technical aptitude is as important as personality.
I received 237 résumés, including one from a hostess at a Chinese restaurant and several from people fleeing other industries, such as banking and retail. I once tried -- unsuccessfully -- to train a software sales pro to sell our equipment. Now, career changers go in the circular file.
So do sloppy cover letters. "I posses [sic] excellent communications skills," writes one applicant. Another writes, "My availability is for hire is immediate." Why some people don't proofread is beyond me. I've lowered my standards for most positions, but I still think salespeople should be competent written communicators.
At first, I also ruled out long-distance candidates and job-hoppers. But as the months wore on, location began to matter less. And the résumés convinced me that plenty of otherwise stable folks caught the startup bug or got slammed by mergers and shutdowns in the '90s. I've stopped holding it against them.
I telephoned a dozen candidates. It's surprising how many answered the phone gruffly. Some male candidates didn't seem to understand that I run the company, even after I introduced myself as president. I wonder how they would respond to peers or subordinates.
Next, I asked each of the applicants to take the McQuaig Word Survey, a multiple-choice temperament profile. If it shows that someone is not outgoing or motivated, that's a red flag. One likable candidate seemed to lack drive and the ability to act independently. Others were accustomed to lots of resources and staff support. A candidate whose McQuaig matched our criteria perfectly balked at filing trip reports and using our call management system. "I don't want rigid rules," he said. But our system tracks calls and transactions to help with follow-up. If he wasn't going to document, he had better have a damn good memory. I decided to redo our McQuaig requirements.
In person, I started with standard questions such as, "What are the first three things you would do if you got our job?" I want to hear, "learn the product line," or, "get to know the reps." Instead, one applicant asked which accounts might be kept by the previous manager. Honest, but not what I'm looking for.
Some of my senior staffers joined me for the second round of interviews. One person who had given cogent answers earlier repeated them verbatim and couldn't depart from his script. Three candidates remained, and I requested six professional references from each. I always verify education, too. Years ago, I had a candidate invent not just his degree, but a school.
I unearthed no deal-breakers. But hiring still comes down to the ineffable -- chemistry. I gently tell the candidates I will continue my search. I still haven't found Mr. or Ms. Right -- and Europe and Asia are waiting.
Lisa Bergson is president and CEO of both MEECO Inc., a 35-person manufacturer of trace analytical equipment, and its spin-off, Tiger Optics LLC.