Sales Skills Assessment Testing Online

Find out whether applicants are right for the job before you hire them.
Excerpts From an Article By Barbara Marquand for Office.com

John Ambrose, president of Potomac Environmental and Power Technologies Inc., in Beltsville, Md., couldn't help but be impressed with the personable young man applying for a sales engineering position last year at his company. The engineering graduate placed in the top 10 percent of his class at an Ivy League university, expressed himself well in interviews and had even played college football as Ambrose, a former Baltimore Colts player, did years ago.

But within 45 days, Ambrose and his new hire realized their match was not made in heaven. "He was actually afraid to call on his customer base," Ambrose says. Although the young man had the engineering knowledge, he didn't have the aggressive, outgoing personality to work in sales. Ambrose, who employs 12, lost an employee but gained a valuable lesson. Now he has all his job finalists take personality tests to make sure they have the traits to be successful at his company.

Tests of personality, attitude and skills are valuable hiring tools, and thanks to the Internet, they are now more convenient than ever to use. Web-based testing services let job candidates take exams from anywhere with an Internet connection. Small-business owners don't have to provide special facilities for test taking or spend time administering and grading tests. It's all done online.

Online employment testing, versus the traditional paper-and-pencil assessments and software programs, is rising in popularity. Employee Selection and Development, for instance, began offering online testing three years ago in addition to the software testing packages it sells. In the last 12 months, the number of tests done online jumped 200 percent, says Albert Zinkand, president. He predicts testing firms in the next few years will either offer their services online or die.

No Papers, No Grading

With Web-based testing services, employers register and get passwords online. Applicants use the passwords to log on to the testing service sites and take the exams on the Internet. The testing service grades the tests and sends reports to the employers by e-mail.

"It's really not that expensive, and it's paperless," says Laura Faller, human resource director of TeleCommute Solutions in Atlanta, a start-up of 80 employees that helps companies set up telecommuting capability for their workers. Faller has been using eTest and Qwiztek for about six months. eTest assesses personality and attitudes, and Qwiztek assesses technical skills for information-technology positions. "It allows applicants to take the tests at home, and the results are shot back to me. I don't have a stack of tests to grade. It saves me time," she says.

Faller also doesn't have to administer tests and watch the clock. The score reports from Qwiztek tell how much time it took test-takers to complete the exams. "If somebody gets a 90 but it took him four hours, I know this guy used his textbooks," Faller says.

Ambrose, an Employee Selection client, has been testing employees the traditional way, but he's anxious to go online for the convenience. He says that may save him money, too, because he can have out-of-state candidates take the tests from home.

Cheaper Than Firing

Small businesses may shy away from testing to keep hiring costs down. But testing is cheap compared to the costs of employee turnover. "The average cost of a hiring mistake today is $17,000 to $20,000," says Zinkand. "And this doesn’t include the wear and tear on management, or the cost of lost productivity due to poor employee morale caused by high turnover."

Personality tests are helpful because they give employers insight into what innate strengths and weaknesses a candidate will bring to the job. No personality type is inherently good or bad, but personalities can clash with job duties. eTest and Employee Selection provide personality profiles based on the candidates scores and suggest interview questions to probe potential problem-areas.

As a former executive with Ford Motor Co., Zinkand witnessed firsthand the damage that can be done when employees are placed in jobs that clash with their personalities. In the 1980s, Ford sought to broaden rising stars by transferring them to different divisions. A crackerjack sales division manager, for instance, would be transferred to manage the accounting division. The idea was to give that manager a taste for how other parts of the company worked. But good sales-managers don't necessarily make good accounting-managers. In some cases, rather than broadening those employees, the transfers made them miserable. Some became management problems or quit to work at competitors, Zinkand says.

Ambrose's company is the exclusive marketing and sales representative in for more than 20 manufacturers in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry in Virginia, West Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. His employees have to understand the equipment and aggressively market and sell it to meet manufacturers' sales targets.

"These guys have to be aggressive. They have to be sharp," Ambrose says. "You can't be a wallflower." Sometimes it's hard to gauge in an interview whether a candidate has the personality to work aggressively in sales, Ambrose says. "He might be a wonderful person. He could turn out to be president of a corporation. But he may not be a sales and marketing person."

To determine the kind of personality traits you want for a position, Zinkand recommends testing the best and worst performers in that area. "That way you have a picture of what you want and what you don't what," he says.

Making Matches

Jerald Taylor, president of Taylor-Hunt Electric in Salt Lake City, which employs about 300, uses Employee Selection's personality assessments for everyone he hires. "We don't use it as a primary tool. We interview and check the person's background and talk to former employers. Then as a final determination, we decide if we want to go forward. It gives me more questions to ask."

For his foreman positions, Taylor looks for candidates with Type A Personalities — assertive, driven and confident. He looks for organized, detail-oriented types for his estimators, and supportive personalities for front office staff. Taylor says the test results can also point to potential clashes between employees and can help determine the source of conflict when trouble arises. He's used the data to determine how to group employees at job sites when workers aren't getting along, for instance.

Skills tests, meanwhile, can help determine whether candidates have the knowledge they claim. It's no secret that some applicants exaggerate their experience. Background investigation experts estimate that at least 30 percent of resumes contain some degree of untruth. Even college degrees don't guarantee that candidates have basic skills.

Faller's company uses technical skills tests not just to help gauge whether to hire candidates but also at what level to hire them. Positions on its help desk, for instance, require varying levels of expertise, so a candidate who scores 70 out of 100 is placed at lower level than a candidate who scores a 90.

Although testing can provide valuable information, it doesn't replace other essential hiring tools — interviews and background and reference checks. "It's not a magic wand," Taylor says. He recalls how one candidate's personality assessment indicated he would be an ideal foreman. But, fortunately before making the hire, the company learned he also had a major drug problem.

"No result of any one test should ever be used to hire or fire somebody," Zinkand says. "It's one part of the process."

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