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Three Golden Rules of Sales Force Recruitment in the Life Sciences

August 2, 2013

Thou_shalt_not_2_160Is a part of your career success dependent upon your ability to attract and recruit the best salespeople?Perhaps you are in the position, as many of us are, in which your upward mobility hinges upon having promotable talent beneath you. This is a fact of life for all managers, of course. But it is only in the world of sales that anyone from an accounting clerk to the CEO can tell exactly how your team is doing simply by looking at the numbers. As a professional business manager, you are much more exposed than other department heads!

This makes the hiring process for salespeople somewhat unique. And as you know, if your company sells to the life sciences, that tightens your hiring specs considerably right there. For many other departments, managers can inadvertently hire what would later be considered "dead wood"—a mistake that could go undiscovered for years. Not so in the world of sales. You've got to be right-on with your hiring process or everyone will know of your mistake.

Life science product and service companies have a hiring process that is centered on the technical professional because so many of their staff members are scientists. These firms hire application specialists, tech support scientists, clinical study directors, clinical researchers and engineers in addition to staffing their field positions. Because of this, the sales recruitment process can revolve around attracting a different person entirely than most sales hires.

While many life science supplier salespeople in these industries indeed have a technical upbringing, their decision-making process bears little similarity to that of the scientist or the engineer. To recruit them in the same way that you would attract your company's technical staff would be courting disaster. The reason for this lies in the nature of the successful salesperson, and in the change of approach that this necessitates throughout the interplay of the recruitment process.

What makes sales recruitment so different

It is this decision-making process that makes sales recruitment so unique. Sit down with a successful salesperson over a beer or a cup of Java and ask her how she happened to make her last career decision. We do this all the time, and it is illuminating.

Scientists rely on an analytical process. When a company is recruiting a scientist, the hiring manager has to respect the candidate's need to get all the data—and then give him or her the thinking room they need to make an intelligent decision. Marketing people, particularly the strategic planners, will sometimes operate in much the same way. They want details, and they use their comfort with the analytical process to come up with a decision. But salespeople are often emotional decision makers, and this makes the recruitment process much more of a roller-coaster ride.

These special people trust their gut feelings. A good salesperson has a personal history of success that has come by tapping into some kind of inner reserve of intuition. And when approaching them in the recruitment process, you simply can't lay all the facts on the table and assume that they will analyze them and come to you as a result. You've got to know what the emotional handles are for their interest. In other words, you have to know a heck of a lot more about what makes them "tick" than you do in any other type of professional recruitment!

Scientific sales recruitment revolves around tapping into the emotional side of the successful salesperson.

How to determine the emotional decision "triggers"

Good questioning is your only tool here. In order to understand your salesperson, review the typical reasons why salespeople are receptive to the headhunter's call:

  • "I want to make more money" - Everyone wants to make more money. But there are a few people who seem to make this the overwhelming goal of any job change. Contrary to sales management lore, it isn't always the best salespeople who feel this way. We get very uncomfortable when in the first thirty seconds a contact asks us over the phone, "What does this job pay?" Obviously, earnings are very far up the ladder in any good salesperson's list of priorities, but when it emerges as #1, it is usually a sign of trouble later on in the process.
  • "I don't like my current boss." - This one can be a gold mine of information about what the salesperson needs to do his or her current job, and the amount of hand holding or freedom that this individual will require from a future supervisor. Answers to questions in this area will tell you a great deal about how easy or difficult this person will be to work with. It will also clue you in to the emotional decision factors that the candidate will be using to determine whether the new boss fits his or her working style.
  • "The timing is right - I've hit my year's numbers and the challenge is gone" - This is a glossy reason that sounds good but may have underlying issues behind it. Although every successful salesperson has this feeling at some point following a good year, this response is often a cover for some other reason entirely. Keep digging.
  • "I'm looking for an opportunity to move up into sales management" - This is also one of those responses that candidates sometimes throw out in order to sound like an attractive catch. Many of them don't realize it, but quite often employers are looking for people who can remain satisfied with a hands-on sales career. Obviously, if there are sales management opportunities available, use that as a lever to attract these candidates. If there aren't, than it is better to clarify this as opposed to filling the position again in 10 or 12 months.
  • "The travel is getting to me" - This is a fairly straightforward comment and one that is easy to satisfy if you truly offer a more compact territory. It can also indicate that there could be family issues working behind the scenes—not always issues that will go away when the travel time is reduced.
  • "The sale is not challenging enough - I would like to get into a more sophisticated technology" - Often a candidate who has a science degree and an interest in technology will get bored if their sales process simply has them opening up a catalog with the customer. This is a very common concern, and a great emotional "hook" for the company who is recruiting for a sales process that requires a more consultative, technology-oriented approach.
  • Other reasons to be open for the headhunter's call - If the company has been acquired, the commission program has been changed, or the field sales force has been downsized, you can bet that headhunter calls will be returned promptly. Although these reasons will certainly open the door for your recruitment effort, the decisions that will be made to accept an offer will in all likelihood still be made on a number of emotional factors.


The three golden rules

Golden Rule #1 - Honor your commitments
It may seem like common sense to state that honoring your commitments throughout the recruitment process will increase your chances in landing the best candidates. And yet, it is one of the most common mistakes made by hiring managers. During the recruitment process, candidates are ultra-conscious of each and every comment made to them. I am reminded of a recent situation in which we lost our prime candidate because 2 or 3 phone meetings with the prospective new boss had to be rescheduled.

Here are some examples of what I mean by keeping commitments:

  • "We'll be getting back to you in the next few days" is a common interview closure. When that period of time goes to 2 or 3 weeks, it is a serious issue of credibility that negatively influences the decision of the better candidate. It is so easy, particularly when using a headhunter as an outside resource, to keep in touch with all parties involved so that they know where the process stands. The best salespeople will be attracted to situations in which communication is direct and clear instead of vague. (Most good recruiters will object to calling candidates with erroneous information only to stall them.)
  • Don't give a verbal offer and then neglect important pieces of that offer in the formal letter. Despite the fact that decisions are made on emotions, handshake deals only lead to misinterpretations later. Give strong consideration to using a "letter of agreement" instead of a typical offer letter. Getting a verbal agreement and then firming it up with all the facts on paper ensures less waiting time for decisions—and can often stop the "offer letter as counter-offer bait" phenomenon.
  • Headhunting firms who state that they will never send the résumé to a client company without that candidate's knowledge risk losing the best candidates by breaking that pledge.
Golden Rule #2 - Develop a mutual respect

Developing a mutual respect with your candidates is critical. As stated earlier, the process of recruitment is a lot like a romance. Both parties should feel this mutual respect from day 1.

  • Don't use a "recruiter feeding frenzy" approach to filling your sales positions. Find one recruiter whom you trust—a headhunter who is tapped into your marketplace—and then give that person the ability to do the job without a host of other headhunters calling candidates about the same position. You'll find that one full effort is worth SO much more than 4 half-efforts, which is all you'll get out of a recruiter once they know that others have the same assignment. Fostering respect with the best candidates is far easier when they don't have 4 or 5 recruiter calls about the same position within the first week. (It is important for your external resource, the headhunter, to have the respect of the people you want to hire as well. They have to earn this, of course, but multiple calls from different sources to the same candidates will not empower them in the least.)
  • Foster respect by setting up specific appointment times for your phone interviews and keeping them. Then, agree to specific follow-up points after the initial discussion and keep those as well. Give your candidate a follow-up point of their own and see how they handle it; "Do a little homework and find out how we are perceived out in your territory, and give me a call to follow up. I'd be happy to keep the discussion going, and will be available next Tuesday at noon. Would that work for you?" Watch your clock on Tuesday and learn a great deal about how that salesperson feels about being professional.

Golden Rule #3 - Don't stop recruiting until the salesperson starts
There are too many open positions that get filled and then re-filled; too many "sure things" that don't end up coming to fruition. Your strategy needs to include more than a Plan A and a Plan B.

  • Because you are dealing with sales professionals, it will be very easy for candidates to sell you and your HR department on their interest level in the position. It's very common for companies to discover only at the last minute what the real interest level was.
  • When recruiting salespeople, try to keep 3 conversations going at different levels of interest, with 3 separate candidates. A single backup candidate is often too risky. This "rule of 3" has been proven over and over again in the recruitment industry, so much so that it has become ingrained into new recruiter training: "Three candidates equals a placement, anything less equals a headache." Is your outside resource or HR department providing this contingency plan?

It can sometimes be frustrating for those in the life sciences that people on the outside so often think of our business sector as one that operates just like any other. But if you sell life sciences products or services, and not office supplies, you'll know that this is not the case. There are differences, some subtle, and some not so subtle. And nowhere are those differences more important than in the practices that your company sets up to attract and recruit the best employees. If you're in the position of advancing your career by bringing in a great field sales force, recognize these differences and embrace them. After all, no one moves up the ladder until a promotable colleague waits ready to take their job!


Dave Jensen

Dave Jensen is Managing Director for the Life Sciences practice at Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search. For 28 years, Jensen has led search projects for scientific suppliers and service provider clients, helping them identify those impact players who can truly make a difference in their organization. Kincannon & Reed is a retained search firm with a unique team approach utilizing offices in many countries around the world.
SAMPS, Sales And Marketing Professionals in Scientific research, is the first and only organization dedicated to sales and marketing professionals within the life sciences.

The association’s goal is to serve its members who work in commercial roles for life science products and services companies and associated businesses, globally.
 
SAMPS was previously named ACP-LS. We feel that SAMPS more clearly describes the membership, and will form a better foundation from which to expand this membership globally. 
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