Pre-Employment Sales Aptitude Testing

Excerpts From an Article By Betsy Wiesendanger
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Whether you are concerned about selling skills or personality, pre-screening job candidates can do wonders for the hiring process. This article discusses what types of tests are available and how you can make the best use of them.

OVERVIEW

"Less art, more matter" is what Queen Gertrude demanded in Shakespeare's Hamlet, and it's what pre-employment testing can offer a busy sales manager. Examining resumes, conducting interviews, and checking references are valid and time-honored ways to size up applicants for sales jobs. But wouldn't it be great if recruitment and screening could somehow be less art, more science? Pre-employment testing is one way to put some discipline into a highly subjective process. There are many reasons to test. A few of the most important ones for sales managers:

  • To make sure job applicants have the sales skills and personality necessary to do the job.
  • To uncover red flags that need to be probed in an interview.
  • To match new hires with compatible managers.
  • To establish benchmarks against which to gauge future progress.

Granted, testing is not a divining rod that will predict who will succeed or fail in a position. It should be used only in combination with other recruitment tools. But testing can make the hiring process more productive by preventing costly mistakes and identifying people who will be your organization's top performers.

TYPES OF TESTS

There are dozens of tests on the market today, and they measure literally hundreds of attributes, from basic personality traits, such as honesty and aggressiveness, to specific sales skills, such as prospecting and upselling. Major types of tests include:

General cognitive ability (also known as intelligence tests or mental ability tests). These measure a job candidate's aptitude or ability to quickly acquire job knowledge and perform job-related tasks.

Personality and motivation tests measure an individual's pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving. These tests are often used to assess a candidate's level of drive and motivation.

Pre-employment integrity tests are designed to identify job applicants who are likely to steal, lie, or use illicit substances. 

Management tests predict a person's potential for success as a supervisor, middle manager, or senior executive.

Job skills tests. In sales, these measure such things as the ability to qualify, negotiate, upsell, and close.

STATISTICS

The rising importance of testing is evident in the following statistics from the American Management Association:

  • 7 out of 10 companies engage in some sort of job skill testing. Of these, 62 percent require that job applicants be tested, and 41 percent test their current employees.
  • 46 percent of companies use some form of psychological testing. Of these, 39 percent test job applicants and 31 percent test current employees.
  • 41 percent of companies test job applicants in basic literacy and/or math skills. More than one-third of job applicants tested lacked sufficient skills for the positions they sought.

CRITICAL ISSUES

Validity. Does the test measure what it says it measures? This is especially critical with skills tests. A test vendor can demonstrate this by administering the test to a large group of people and showing that the people who do best on the test also do best on the job.

Confidentiality. Procedures must be in place for using and storing tests and answers so that only people with a legitimate right to know or use the information have access to it. Procedures must be updated to keep pace with developments in electronic testing.

Legality. Tests must comply with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. In general, a test will comply if the testing company can show that the test meets two criteria: it is job-related and it does not adversely impact a specific group of people. Taking the test must also pose no undue hardship to people with disabilities.

Use as a hiring tool. "No test result should ever be the sole determinant for hiring and firing," says Bert Zinkand, president at Employee Selection and Development, Inc., a Bradenton, FL, testing firm. Results should be considered within the context of other input from interviews, reference checks, and background checks. When giving a personality assessment test, Zinkand suggests telling test-takers: "There are no right or wrong answers. This is a questionnaire to show us how to work together should we decide to hire you."

Technology. Electronic tests are becoming the norm. They typically take two forms. In one, the vendor sends a disk, which is loaded onto the company's desktop or intranet. With the other, the test is sent via the Internet, and a password gives the test-taker access. Both ways make processing and tabulating easier and cheaper than dealing with test booklets and answer sheets.

GETTING STARTED

Pinpoint why you want to test job candidates. Are you trying to determine how much training they'll need once they're on the job? A sales skill test may be most appropriate. Do your salespeople handle money? An integrity test can help weed out dishonest candidates. Are you experiencing high turnover attributable to personality conflicts? Or are you trying to locate candidates who, as Zinkand puts it, "have the fire, the drive, the will to succeed"? Personality testing can help.

Choose the appropriate test. An industrial psychologist, human resources (HR) specialist, or an outside vendor may help here. Selecting an inappropriate test can have dire consequences. Example: Rent-A-Center, a retailer, recently settled a class action lawsuit brought by workers who felt questions in a psychological test went too far. Some of the 502 true-false questions included "I believe there is a God" and "I have never indulged in unusual sex practices."

HIRING A TESTING FIRM

Some companies develop their own tests, but most use tests developed by outside vendors to ensure that the tests are legal and that they measure what they claim to measure. When shopping for a vendor, consider the following:

  • Ask for a legal opinion letter. What you want is a document from a labor attorney testifying that the test does not run afoul of EEOC and ADA regulations.
  • Make sure the vendor does a job analysis of the position you're testing. This should include examining your company's job descriptions, observing workers, and interviewing them. The idea is to ensure test appropriateness. "Sometimes we're approached by employers who want to use our sales skills test for their call center folks," says William Shepherd, an industrial psychologist with Personnel Decisions International, a human resource consulting firm in Minneapolis. "But when we do a job analysis, we find that they spend very little of their time cold calling and upselling. It's more incoming calls and handling problems, and a test of customer service skills would be more appropriate."
  • Ask if the vendor has a database of scores for salespeople in your industry against which you can match results.
  • Check price. Tests can range from $30 to $250 per person.
  • Ask about follow-up service. Does the vendor simply hand you a score tabulation, or are you offered in-depth interpretation and suggested interview questions for further probing?

HOW TO TEST AND WHEN

Tests can be of the pencil-and-paper variety, personal interviews with a psychologist or other expert, or through a password-protected Web site. The major determinant will be cost. Written and online tests are less expensive to administer; you may want to give them to all job applicants and use the results to determine who should advance to the next step in the hiring process. Personal interview tests are generally reserved for a handful of finalists for a job opening.

In part, the type of test will be determined by the recruitment/employment process. Tests can be administered at various points: during the initial application period (to weed out undesirable candidates), during the interview process (to identify highly desirable candidates and to gain more information about them), upon hire (to determine what additional training will be needed), and throughout an employees tenure (to gauge progress in developing skills).

INTERPRETING TEST RESULTS

Some criteria, such as cutoff scores, are easy to interpret: you simply interview applicants who scored, say, higher than 70 percent on the test. Personality tests, however, are more nuanced. If a candidate scores only a 6 out of 9 for aggressiveness on a personality test, does that mean he or she is not a viable candidate? Not necessarily. On checking, you might find that your top-producing salespeople also scored in the 6 range or that your customers look to salespeople to act in a consultative role. Does the fact that the candidate scored poorly on upselling skills mean she won't succeed? Not if you give her additional training. 

Your test vendor or another expert can render crucial advice in interpreting test results. Scores can be skewed, too, when an individual gives conflicting answers or blatantly false ones. Ask your vendor for information on a test's "confidence factor" or "margin of error." That will tell you how reliable the results are likely to be.

CASE HISTORIES

Builders 1st Choice. Marsha Harper is director of recruitment for this Columbia, MD, company, which sells new homes on behalf of developers. The company employs 250 people, and most work in sales. Previously, to assess a candidate's sales skills, Harper checked references and verified resume information, but with turnover at 50 percent annually, she sought a more verifiable way to screen candidates. She turned to personality testing. 

First, Harper had the test vendor give an exam to her best salespeople. Using a scale from 1 to 9, the test rated each employee's personality on 20 traits, including organized/unorganized, decisive/indecisive, and analytical/intuitive. Some of the results surprised Harper. Her top salespeople rated only 6-7 in persuasiveness, for example, but higher in compassion. 

"So what we were looking for in terms of the predominant personality trait was a supporter, which is not a trait you normally associate with salespeople," Harper says. Still, the findings made sense when viewed in the context of the company's customer base: new home-buyers, who are often nervous and will react badly to an aggressive salesperson. "They don't want someone pushing things down their throat," she says. "They want someone who can be a real consultant to them." 

Harper has cut employee turnover from 50 percent to just 14 percent by identifying supportive salespeople who will do well in the job. Testing has also spotlighted areas that might cause problems once the person is hired. "If we know someone is a 9 on the extroverted scale, we make them aware of that and help them pull back," she says. "We don't expect them to be perfect in all areas, but we expect them to adapt." 

Iris Technologies. Mitch Simmons, vice president of operations for this maker of communications software, uses sales skills testing to help him screen candidates. "We look for absolute magic in our company," he says. "It's not uncommon for me to interview 200 people before I hire someone. Testing helps me get through those 199 others very quickly." 

Simmons starts the hiring process by interviewing candidates by phone from company headquarters in Greensburg, PA, evaluating their conversational and investigative skills. That leaves a number of questions unanswered, however. "What's virtually impossible to tell initially," he says, "is their technical sales ability. I look to pre-employment testing to help me do that."

If a candidate scores poorly in a specific skill but seems adept in most others, Simmons will probe the problem area in an interview. For example, if a candidate received a low score on negotiating price, Simmons might ask the person how he would respond if a customer said he could get the product for $8 less from another vendor. The best response, says Simmons, would be something like "Have you looked at our company's history of after-sale service?" If the best the candidate can do is, "Hey, eight dollars isn't a lot of money," he probably doesn't have the skills to negotiate on price.

Beside screening out undesirable candidates, sales skills testing has helped Simmons find salespeople with the potential to become top performers. Case in point: One applicant had a background in mergers and acquisitions (M&A), first in the funeral home industry and then in vacation home properties. She had no technology experience, but Simmons was still intrigued.

"I really wanted to know if her base skills in M&A were appropriate. I felt they were, but I needed confirmation," he says. The candidate received a high overall score on the sales skills test and since joining Iris has done "phenomenally well," says Simmons, adding that "without the test as confirmation, I probably would not have hired her."

RELATED SMN ARTICLES

For information related to pre-employment testing, see #9010, Training Core Overview, and #9012, Sales Training Strategies.

 


Betsy Wiesendanger is a Cortlandt Manor, NY, freelance writer who regularly covers sales and marketing topics. Her work has appeared in Working Woman and Fast Company. She is also a commentator for WNYC-FM, the country's largest public radio station.

Copyright © 2001 Selling Communications, Inc.

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