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Hiring Sales Team Superstars

Wards’s Dealer Business
September, 2004

by Dave Donelson

As Yogi Berra might have said, "You gotta be careful about who you interview because you might hire them."

That's the problem faced by managers across the country as they look for sales people who will contribute to the revenue line without destroying the bottom line of the dealership's income statement.  It's not an easy process.  Finding candidates, interviewing them, and making the hiring decision each present hard-to-solve problems.  For example, should you hire the applicant who interviews well?

"If the prospect is good at interviewing, it's like a sailor who gets good at bailing; it's probably not a good sign," according to Brian Wolfe, Sales Manager at Pace BMW in Mamaroneck, NY.  The professional interviewee, says Wolfe, has read every book and says what he or she knows the interviewer wants to hear.  That doesn't make the hiring decision any easier.

Finding Qualified Candidates

Help-wanted ads, according to many dealers, bring in both the professional interviewee and the car sales "pro" who has an arm-long list of previous jobs.  Wolfe says, "We've put ads in the papers, but what you get then are your professional car salespeople who've worked at every dealership under the sun, know who's sleeping with who, who's bad, who's good, and they've got an excuse for every possible thing.  They're not personally motivated.  They're not self-starters.  They're people who need to be managed."

"We've done everything from advertising to word-of-mouth and referrals, and I've found the most success we've had has been through referrals," says Augie Di Feo, President, Chrysler-Jeep of White Plains, NY.  Finding good candidates is tough.  "I think we as an industry don't draw the best available talent because there's that pre-conceived notion and stigma that this business has created over a number of years," Di Feo continues. "I think experienced people in the next ten or twelve years won't have the same baggage and will come better equipped for the proper way of doing business."

Brian Wolfe
Brian Wolfe, Pace BMW, Mamaroneck, NY

That's why both he and Wolfe, as well as Tim Lynch, General Manager of DeSimone Cadillac Company in Mount Laurel, NJ, don't hesitate to look at candidates without car sales experience.  Lynch says they don't have much turnover, but he recalls one instance when "I took one of my best customers who got caught up in a corporate downsizing and made him a salesperson and he did so well that we made him a manager."

Wolfe likes former independent small business owners and has hired several for his seven-person sales staff.  "For one reason or another, the business changed or they wanted to sell their business and get into something else where they didn't have to worry about meeting payroll and all of those things," he says. "They're motivated people. They're not clock watchers. You find that type of person and it resonates through their personality."

Qualities To Look For

"We believe that the personality fit is more important than anybody's credentials, the skill set, or the experience that they have," says Lynch.  "We present our vision, mission, and value statement and ask if they see themselves fitting into our culture. They have to feel comfortable with us, and we have to feel comfortable with them. We are in a people industry, so we look for nice people."

No hustlers need apply, says Lynch.  He wants someone who sells smarter, not harder, like one of his first hires, who he observed walked slower than anyone he had ever encountered.. "He said to me, 'I might walk slow, but I write fast.'  There's a guy who was thinking," Lynch says.  "He's the kind of guy who looks like he's not working hard, but he's methodical, he's constantly thinking, and he's one step ahead of everybody else."  Lynch continues, "I hired him and he's been one of my best hires ever. He's been here about eight years now."

Augie De Feo
Augie De Feo, Chrysler-Jeep of White Plains, NY

"I look for someone who can engage with the customer," Di Feo says.   He tells of one engaging young man who came in to interview. "He was putting on a show and he carried a bag of props with him. Inside the bag he had little trinkets that he would use to support whatever he was saying.  Like if the customer wanted a little money off on a deal, he'd reach in the bag and throw a handful of monopoly money on the table."  Di Feo goes on. "He'd say, 'I'm going to stretch to make this deal,' then he'd pull a rubber band out of his bag and stretch it. He was engaging.  He had a world of potential--a very creative mind--but he didn't have any discipline." 

Di Feo vets his applicants thoroughly.  "First, I get a background check," he says. "What they've done, where they've lived, what type of educational background they have.  I try to size up how many jobs they've had over X number of years."  He adds that someone else always interviews each candidate as well, and that he never hires someone on the first pass.  "I would never hire in a vacuum," he says.

Lynch says he goes even further with his applicants. "They talk to a team of people. Typically, we have them interview with three different people individually. Then we meet to discuss the person to see if we think they are a good fit.  Then we bring them back and review them as a panel."

Inside The Interview

"If you interview often, you get a taste for what's available," according to Wolfe, who interviews constantly even if he's not trying to fill a current position.  He spends as much time as it takes to get to know each candidate, although sometimes, he knows pretty quickly that the person on the other side of the desk isn't going to get hired.  "It's not hard to get a lot of information out of them, even bad information.  A lot of them will volunteer it easily because they don't think it's negative," Wolfe says.

"I had a person come in from an ad," Wolfe relates. "He was well-dressed, had been in the car business for awhile, and was able to tell me about all of my competitors, etc.  He must have worked for ten dealers and he was proud as he could be of the list of jobs he'd had.  I took the list and asked him why he left each one.  The answer each time was that the general manager was 'abusive' or 'hard to work for' or 'couldn't work for them.'  We were two minutes into the interview, and I said to myself, do I want to save him some time and turn him down now?"

The process takes time, he says, and that includes time for the applicant to follow up on the interview the same way you'd want him or her to follow up with a prospective buyer.  Wolfe tells the story of one young hire:  "He was a closer.  He was asking me closing questions.  He asked me, 'what do I have to do to be employed here?'  As much as I hate those kinds of cheesy lines, I knew what he was getting at and I liked it." Wolfe continues, "He followed up with me the next day. He probably left here to go to the post office to dispatch a letter.  I then received an email at my home address as well as at my office address, which he had to dig a little to find.  He was over the top in that respect."  Fewer than half of the applicants he sees use appropriate follow up, according to Wolfe.

In a way, hiring salespeople sounds as simple as following a formula. Find qualified applicants through referrals, conduct multiple in-depth interviews, check the references, observe the applicant's follow-up behavior.  Then sleep on it and make a decision.  But it's not easy to accomplish all these tasks when you don't have time to do them.  All too often, hiring the perfect salesperson just isn't possible because the position needs to be filled--yesterday.

"Sometimes it's like a baseball team; you have to field nine players," observes Di Feo. "They may not be the nine players that you want, but you have to put somebody in every position.  Having a poor player with a glove at second base is better than having a hole in your infield."