Avoid Mistakes & Find Gold in a Candidate Assessment

Ed Marsh | Feb 9, 2024

Tl;dr - B2B companies can improve sales by upgrading their talent identification, hiring, and training. Candidate assessments are an important tool in that process, but it takes care and attention to select the right tool and optimize its use. When done well, it can support diversity initiatives and improve business results.

Candidate Assessment

a sales candidate assessment should accurately predict which reps will actually sellWhat is a candidate assessment? It's some test or evaluation that is used to gauge someone's capacity for success before hiring.

There are many types of candidate assessments for many types of jobs. Examples include a practical welding skills test, mathematical proficiency test, or personality test.

In my work, I focus on improving board function, marketing effectiveness, and sales performance. So, when I refer to candidate assessments, I do so in those contexts. And the biggest category by far is candidate assessments for recruiting and hiring salespeople.

One aspect of boosting sales force productivity is recruiting and hiring better sales talent. That complements using similar assessment tools to conduct a deep dive (think MRI) of the existing sales team to understand root causes of underperformance, align people with the sales roles to which their skills most closely match, and improve coaching and training.

Let's look at five common and costly mistakes that I see companies make when using sales candidate assessments and five benefits they often fail to realize fully.

A Note on Diversity

Discussions of diversity often focus on implicit bias. Examples include an affinity for alumni of the hiring manager's alma mater or a hesitance to consider candidates with unusual names.

Before we dig into how candidate assessments should be selected and used, let's acknowledge an important topic.

If companies could consistently select the best sales candidates based solely on individuals' actual ability to sell, that should naturally enhance diversity. Candidate assessments can help. But here's the key.

An assessment must be the first step in the process. It can't be used after a resume has been screened. Every applicant must complete an assessment to be considered, and then the predictively valid findings must be used to determine the next steps.

Five Common Mistakes Companies Make When Using Candidate Assessments

Like everything in business and life, there are multiple levels of understanding and execution in using candidate assessments. It takes work to select and use them optimally. Often, they're sold as an easy button, and often by folks who don't fully understand the details. That leads to common errors. These include:

  1. Assuming the tool provides insight or accuracy without actually knowing - Palm and tarot card readers claim to predict coming events. Their skill isn't in prediction but in presenting predictions using language that seems confident and authoritative, and that resonates in a way that causes people to perceive accuracy. Of course it's not predictive. And that's true of many of the candidate assessment options on the market. Results are delivered in graphics and language that will mirror what someone wants to hear, but they're assumed to be accurate and predictive. Mistake #1 is to assume predictive accuracy. A scientifically sound assessment will be independently validated and will be able to provide a "Technical Manual" that documents this independently validated predictive accuracy. Make that a criterion in your selection.
  2. Using a tool that doesn't comply with EEOC regulations or using a compliant tool in a non-compliant way - EEOC regs require that any pre-hiring assessment comply with several guidelines. These include that it be predictive of success in the job, properly validated for the purpose that it's used, job related, and that managers using the test must be knowledgeable of the process. Further, it must be used for everyone. But these are often violated. Many companies use tests that don't meet those criteria, and then only for finalist candidates. They create significant exposure for their companies.
  3. Interpreting results improperly - It doesn't matter how predictive an assessment is if the hiring manager doesn't know how to read the results, or allows bias to interfere in interpretation of the results. This requires training and coaching. There is often also subtlety and nuance involved. An effective assessment will provide an "answer" (hire or not), an executive summary, and a detailed analysis that aids in interpreting results.
  4. Using a tool designed for a different purpose - Intelligence is often required to excel at consultative sales, but an IQ test can't predict if someone will sell. It's critical that a sales skills assessment actually predict sales success based on sales specific attributes. Therefore assessment selection must focus on the critical factors and outcomes - not marketing language.
  5. Failing to configure the tool properly - Selling multi-million dollar enterprise solutions to the F1000 C-suite over years-long sales cycles is very different than office supplies to a three-person lawyer's office, or replacement windows to new homeowners. The candidate assessment must have built-in "switches" to adjust to the specifics of your market, product, buyers, sell cycles, transaction size, etc.

It doesn't matter how accurate a candidate assessment is in the abstract if it's not designed for the purpose, not properly configured, used improperly, or is incorrectly interpreted.

Avoiding these five common mistakes is important to realize the value of a sales candidate assessment.

Five Overlooked Benefits to Fully Unlock the Value of Candidate Testing

Outright mistakes aren't the only concern. Often, companies that use candidate assessments correctly may still miss deeper potential benefits. For example:

  1. Improving the efficiency of recruiting and hiring - The process is expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating. In many industrial companies, executives do most of the recruiting work. And they don't have time. So they tolerate underperformance to avoid the hassle; they turn to expensive recruiters whose goals aren't fully aligned; and try to get it done quickly rather than perfectly. A predictively accurate candidate assessment can significantly boost efficiency. When every candidate is assessed at the start of the process, executives can spend time only on candidates who will sell. A recruiting process will further improve efficiency. 
  2. Focusing the interview - Traditional unstructured interviews are only 18% predictive of sales success.  A candidate assessment provides a roadmap to improve interview effectiveness by guiding focus areas and questions.
  3. Optimizing onboarding - Onboarding must be about more than admin steps and product training. It should be a carefully structured 90-day process to launch a sales rep toward success and help them adapt culturally. Every rep will have different strategic, tactical, and personal strengths and weaknesses. Effective onboarding incorporates those insights into the plan, helping managers and leaders adapt to each individual's situation.
  4. Matching candidates to the best role and improving coaching - Within the same company, one salesperson may fail at new business development but excel at account management, inside sales, or customer service. And, of course, the opposite may also be true. A candidate assessment should help identify the sales role in which someone will excel. Further, in the context of that role, the assessment should provide a roadmap for optimized coaching and training to accelerate success and satisfaction.
  5. Assessing internal candidates too - An assessment isn't only for outside candidates. You've got a good sense of an internal candidate's cultural fit, but promoting a sales rep to sales manager, or an application engineer to field sales are fraught decisions. In many cases, companies lose twice when they take someone out of a role in which they excel and then occupy a seat with an underperforming person. 

As long as you're using a candidate assessment, don't overlook these opportunities to unlock additional value.

Sales Channel Value

Companies that sell through sales channels can create mutual value by sponsoring and guiding their channel partners' use of candidate assessments for sales testing.

It's in everyone's best interest to improve the sales performance of channel partners.

It's also an important negative signal too. If a channel partner resists the offer and support of predictive sales assessment tests, then it's a likely signal that they're not a good fit against the IPP (ideal partner profile.) Alternatively, if they embrace it, that could be more meaningful than some other arbitrary attributes.

Process and Rigor in Revenue Growth

Here's the underlying theme of this discussion of candidate assessments.

It's time that we start to bring science, data, rigor, process engineering, and continuous improvement to the front-end functions of a business: marketing and sales.

Companies have done this for decades in their operations and production but generally fail to adopt an analogous mindset and best practices for revenue growth.

Candidate assessments are an important and effective tool in their own right, but they're also representative of the opportunity industrial manufacturers have to improve the rate and predictability of revenue growth.