…..six interviews for a nine person company

So, what’s with this? Our client is a nine person IT consulting firm. They do project consulting for a very niche market. The CEO, whom I’ve known for 15 years while he was working his way up through the ranks of project consulting at a couple of national firms, founded this company a few years ago and looked for a salesperson on their own for two months and never even interviewed one candidate.

Their technical consultants are really doing most of their selling now and they don’t really have a pure salesperson. They have a quasi-salesperson doing the job, but he has turned out to be nothing but an order taker. He emails and waits for RFP requests. It’s got everybody frustrated and that’s why they need a new salesperson.

When the CEO called to tell us what he was looking for, he made it very specific that he really wanted to find somebody from a competitor and someone who was very used to calling on and selling IT consulting services to the very narrow sector that they sell to. We recruited really hard… I mean really hard. But it turns out that everyone who sells into that particular vertical sells their projects a year or two in advance, and if they are any good at all they have a lot of money coming to them over the next few years. They have the attitude that, “I’ve already made that money and there’s no real good reason for me to leave what I’m doing. We talked to, or communicated with, 25 or 26 people like this and no one was even interested in speaking with our client.

Out of sheer luck, we came up with a candidate who had actually been selling software into the vertical that these people were selling consulting services into. He has a tremendous track record of success and knows many of the people our client was looking to sell to. He didn’t know as many as our client would have liked, but in that particular vertical, people know people who know people and getting into other organizations would not be hard, especially for this stellar candidate, who had proven he knew how to do that.

We started the interviewing process and although the candidate, being a good salesperson, “qualified” everyone he spoke to into agreeing that he had the ability to do what they wanted done, they still decided not to hire him. As a group, they came up with very nebulous reasons in the final analysis, like “He really didn’t know our solution and wasn’t able to articulate it…. We aren’t sure his approach was what we would want… and, we just didn’t get the right feeling.”

It turns out that no one in the whole interviewing process wanted to make a commitment. Whenever a company is looking to replace the present employee there is always a thought in the back of their mind that, “The devil they know might be better than the devil they don’t know.” So, most everyone was reluctant to say, “This is our person.” They decided that the buck would stop with the managing director of this particular department. It turns out that the managing director even admitted that he had never been in sales and really wasn’t quite sure what it took. It was going to be obvious to him and to others if they found someone with exactly the experience, i.e. from a competitor, they were looking for. And, since they had been already looking for so long (the sunk cost fallacy) they were going to hold off and find someone who everybody would agree on.

I don’t know whether to feel more sorry for the company or our candidate. Anyone objectively looking at the guy and what the company does based on his superb track record, would know, beyond a doubt that this guy would’ve been very successful.

The majority of the people that interviewed this fellow really had nothing to do with sales. The company simply felt they needed lots of people to agree. Nobody wanted to make a stand, including a person who admitted that they really didn’t know anything about “sales.” Even the CEO didn’t want to go against his subordinate’s ambivalence.

Here are the lessons:

  1. Whenever an employee is being “replaced,” a candidate better be aware that it’s going to be harder than it looks. People doing the interviewing and hiring may not know exactly what they need but they are always afraid of “the devil they don’t know.” So unless “Mr. or Ms. Perfect” hits them in the face, they’re going to have a tough time making a positive decision.
  2. The longer the interviewing and hiring process goes on, the harder it is for a company to hire someone. It’s easy to interview a lot of people. Interviewing does not take “making a commitment.” But hiring someone does. Dating a lot of people is easy to do, but marrying someone requires a commitment! After a long period of interviewing, people start thinking, “Well this last person we interviewed wasn’t any better than the first person we interviewed… or second, or third… and we didn’t hire them, so we probably shouldn’t hire this one.”
  3. The more people there are involved in the interviewing process, the less effective it is and the more likely no one is going to want to commit to hiring someone for fear that they’ll hear, “Well, he/she failed and you are the one that really wanted to hire them.”
  4. The more people who are involved in the interviewing process who really don’t have anything to do with the job itself, the less likely they are to know what they’re doing or know what they’re looking for. They have been interjected into the interviewing process because, “We don’t want to make a mistake” and “We think that the more people who are involved in the interviewing process, the less likely we are to make a mistake.”
  5. If people say “no” to a candidate no one will ever know whether they were right or not. If they make a commitment of, “Yes, we should hire him/her” and it doesn’t work out, they look foolish (or at least think they do). So, it’s simply easier and, more importantly, safer, to say “no.”

So, if you are a job seeker and you find yourself in a situation like this, be prepared for an uphill battle.


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