THE TRAITS YOU SHOULD BE LOOKING FOR IN AN ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE
I have been very fortunate in my role as a Media Consult to have been exposed a large number of media salespeople. Over the years I’ve taken an interest in what characteristics truly define a good Account Executive. I’ve written this outline as a guideline to help Sales Managers use a sensible approach to hiring the right candidate for their team.
STEP ONE: ESTABLISH A THEORY OF THE IDEAL SALES CHARACTERISTICS
I’ve given extensive consideration to which characteristics truly represent a good radio salesperson. I’ve reviewed the various Account Executives I’ve worked with, and attempted to lock down the traits that are evident in the top performers. I think the five traits outlined are the core drivers of what makes a successful media salesperson.
THERE WERE FIVE TRAITS THAT CORRELATED MOST SIGNIFICANTLY WITH SALES SUCCESS:
Coachability: the ability to absorb and apply coaching. Coachability, I believe, is the most significant influencer of an account executive hiring decision. It takes nearly six months to build a level of understanding and belief before a radio salesperson truly starts to reach their potential. If an individual is not open to growth and learning they’ll struggle to grow past this barrier. As I think back to most of the rock stars I’ve worked with and trained, it’s their Coachability that was the behaviour trait that really stood out for me. Evaluating this characteristic should consume the majority of your interview.
Here is the three-step process I encourage you to employ to evaluate this characteristic.
Step 1: Set Up a Role-Playing Exercise That Models a Radio Buyer Context
After some rapport-building questions at the outset of the interview, I would verbally set up a role play with the candidate.
Sales Manager: “Sharon, let’s do a role play. I’m going to play the role of Business Owner of Advertising Business, let’s say a security business. The company has about 100 employees. The marketing budget is double what would be required to make the radio station work well for them - so money is not an issue. They have made a phone call to the station and you’ve been handed the call. Let’s assume they know what they want to achieve with their advertising. I appreciate you don’t know radio well yet and you will not know any of the facts - so please just make up the bits you don’t have the knowledge of, just yet. We will role-play your opening call with me. Your goal is to do some light discovery and set an appointment to discuss my needs further. Do you have any questions? If not, please begin when you are ready.”
Step 2: Evaluate the Candidate’s Ability to Self-Diagnose
Once the role play was complete, I would ask the candidate to self-assess. Sales Manager: “Great work, Sharon. How do you think you did?”
Sharon’s response to this question should offer you the first insight about her Coachability. You want to see how reflective and analytical the candidate was about her performance. If the candidate simply stated, “I did great,” that is a bad sign. You want to see the candidate reflect on and analyse her performance. To hear specifics about what she thought she did well and what she thought she could have improved.
Next, I would build on some of her observations.
Sales Manager: “Great reflection, Sharon. I agree with many of your points. You mentioned that you could have done a better job handling my question on audience size. If we could rewind to that section of the role play, what would you do differently?”
A candidate with a high degree of coachability is able to reflect, self-diagnose, and propose improvements to her weak areas. At this point, you should provide the candidate with the opportunity to demonstrate these abilities.
Step 3: Evaluate the Candidate’s Ability to Absorb and Apply Coaching
At this point, I would begin some proactive coaching to see how she would absorb and apply the feedback. Absorb and apply: these two actions represent the essence of strong coachability. Some people struggle to even absorb the coaching, perhaps because they are poor listeners or simply don’t recognise the importance of feedback. Others absorb the information but struggle to apply it, perhaps because they are less adaptable or less skilled at thinking on their feet. You want to hire candidates who can both absorb and apply coaching.
Sales Manager: “Okay, Sharon, in every interview we provide one area of positive feedback and one area of improvement.”
Both components of this statement are important. If you offer only opportunities for improvement, the candidate might think she is bombing the interview. You run the risk of her freezing up on you, preventing yourself from evaluating her true abilities. By leading with a bit of positive feedback, you strike a warmer tone. After hearing a bit of praise, the candidate is more likely to feel comfortable and behave normally.
Sales Manager: “I thought your opening rapport-building was great, Sharon. I liked how you broke the ice and created an immediate connection when you talked about your knowledge of the local community their security services cover. The area in which I would like to see improvement is the depth at which you seek to understand the prospect’s goal. Let me teach you how we deepen goal discovery in radio…”
I would then begin to coach the candidate. By this point, you would usually be up on the white board, coaching her and also closely observing the candidate during this process. Is she glassy-eyed or is she taking notes and asking good follow-up questions? After a few minutes, you would ask if the process made sense. I would request that she redo the role-play, this time attempting to apply some of the coaching you have just provided her. Now, most people really mess up the second pass. Their heads are spinning. They know the job is on the line. They are sitting with the Sales Manager. They’ve just received your feedback and must immediately apply it. In this situation, you are looking for effort, not perfection. Very few people will absolutely crush the second role-play attempt. Those who do so will most likely became absolute rock stars. But don’t expect perfection, rather look for effort. If you witness perfection, hire that candidate at all costs! You’ve just spent 10 minutes with a candidate and witnessed meaningful improvement over that short time. Imagine how much progress you could make in a day, a week, a month!
Coachability: the ability to absorb and apply coaching.
Curiosity: the ability to understand a potential customer’s context through effective questioning and listening. Forget the old school answers to what makes a great salesperson - terms like: “aggressive,” “convincing,” “great presenter,” “money-hungry.” I think the core personality attribute behind great radio salespeople is curiosity. It’s always the sales champions in every team I visit who approach me, catching with me with a real genuine curiosity as to what’s new in my world.
Great radio salespeople are naturally curious. They ask great questions, listen intently, and probe into points of interest. Great salespeople ask questions of potential customers in a manner that does not feel interrogative. Instead, potential customers feel like great salespeople are genuinely interested. After all, if the salespeople are truly great, they genuinely take interest in the responses of their prospects.
Great radio salespeople educate potential customers through the questions they ask. Their questions are thought-provoking and elicit introspection. “You know, nobody has ever asked me that before. Now that I think about it.…” Great radio salespeople quickly build trust in order to earn the right to ask personal questions and to receive honest answers in return. Great radio salespeople seek to understand customer goals, aspirations, fears, and struggles — all through tactical questioning.
Want to know how good you are at it? The next time you are at a wedding reception, a school networking event, or a party on a Friday night, approach a stranger and ask them questions. See how long you can question that individual without mentioning anything about yourself. If the individual walks away from the conversation feeling interrogated, you need more practice. If the individual walks away thinking, “Wow, that was a really smart and interesting guy,” you are on the right path as a sales champion.
So how can you test candidates for curiosity? There are many areas in the interview process, but let’s highlight two especially important opportunities. The first test of curiosity happens the moment you meet a candidate in the reception area. “Hello, Sharon. My name is ______. Thanks for coming in today.” Does the candidate start with a question? Does the candidate ask me about my day? Did the candidate research your background and does she take the opportunity to reference an observation from her findings? Based on your responses, does the candidate follow up with smart, open-ended questions to learn more? If all of these things are happening, then this interview has started really well for you (and for her).
The second test of curiosity occurs during the role play. What you are really looking for is their use of questions versus statements. Throw some crumbs for them, give them some teasers-of-information, and see if they inquisitively go looking for the remaining information. Does the candidate lead with great questions? Or does the candidate “show up and throw up,” as they say in sales? Does the candidate ask about the specific areas the prospect cares about? Or does the candidate bore the prospect with a drawn-out explanation.
Curiosity: the ability to understand a potential customer’s context through effective questioning and listening.
- PRIOR SUCCESS
Prior success is probably the easiest characteristic to evaluate, especially if the candidate is coming from a reasonably-sized sales force. It is the most objectively measurable of the “big five” traits. You are hunting for winners - winners win. Top performers always have a history of winning - because being the sales champion in a team does not happen by accident, it is the result of an inner competitiveness.
In my opinion a candidate who has experience in advertising sales should not be given priority - seldom does their previous advertising experience convert to good radio selling ability. I believe this is largely due to the diluted commission systems offered elsewhere. I would place far more emphasis on somebody who has worked in a similar commission-based selling role. Knowing they can operate in an environment where their remuneration is virtually entirely driven by their activity, is a better gauge of their suitability than previous advertising sales.
Regardless of the industry they have sold in and the remuneration system they were operating within, the key element you are seeking in their previous employment is: were they a winner? That is the information you should be hunting. For example:
Sales Manager: “I noticed you were an account executive at your last employer. How many account executives were there at the company?”
Sales Manager: “Where did you rank?”
Sales Manager: “Wow! Impressive. What metric is that rank based on? Bookings? Attainment?”
Sales Manager: “And the rank is based on the last quarter or all of last year?”
Candidate: “All of last year.”
Sales Manager: “Very good. And your references will verify that performance?”
Candidate: “Of course.”
Don’t employ an average performer - regardless of what excuse they offer. Average performers will find an excuse wherever they go. If the candidate falls outside the top 10% of his current sales team, they’d need to rank extremely high on the other key characteristics in order to earn a spot on your team.
Evaluating prior success becomes more challenging when the candidate does not come from a reasonably-sized sales organisation, or does not come from sales at all. In these cases, you should evaluate prior success through other activities in the candidate’s life. How did the candidate perform academically in school? What was her class rank? What were the candidate’s standardised test scores? Was the candidate a standout performer on a varsity sports team? Was she the captain of the team? Perhaps she contributed to a major championship? Was the candidate involved in student government or a leader of an extracurricular organisation? If the candidate is transitioning from a non-sales background, how did the candidate differentiate herself from her peers in her current/former role? What made her special?
A winner will bring that same passion and competitive drive to their role in sales.
Prior success: a history of top performance or remarkable achievement.
Intelligence: the ability to learn complex concepts quickly and communicate those concepts in an easy-to-understand manner. Not every sales team needs intelligent salespeople. However in radio sales you are dealing with large budgets and intelligent people - our account executives must feel confident in the presence of these people, and confidence in their intelligence is a big component of this. Our salespeople need to keep pace as the advertising industry continues to evolve. They need to understand new concepts and communicate to your clients exactly how those concepts impact their marketing strategies.
Test intelligence by effectively commencing radio sales training during the interview process. You should expose candidates to new information early in the interview process and observed their ability to absorb the information and communicate it back to you at a later stage in the process. You could send them the Hawker Media mini-classes as an example, prior to the second interview, and then ask them to summarise the key learnings from each video.
You are trying to understand two things here: first, how well did she understand the concepts to which she was exposed? Second, how well did she communicate those concepts back to you in a simple manner? You should always ask follow-up questions until you eventually stump the candidate. The deeper you’re able get on a topic before her responses suffer, the better it means she was performing.
Intelligence: the ability to learn complex concepts quickly and communicate those concepts in an easy-to-understand manner.
- WORK ETHIC
Work ethic: proactively pursuing the radio station’s mission with a high degree of energy and daily activity. Work ethic is probably one of the most difficult characteristics to evaluate. These are the three techniques you can use to gain insight into each candidate’s work ethic:
Observations during the interview process: A lot can be learned by simply observing a candidate’s mannerisms and behaviours during the interview process. This is especially true for assessing work ethic. How quickly did she return phone calls? How quickly did she turn around deliverables (such as her résumé, her assessments, or her feedback from the interview)? Did she push the pace of the interview process or were we pushing her? All of these observations provide insights into the candidate’s work ethic.
Reference checks: Conversations with former supervisors or peers represent opportunities to assess the candidate’s work ethic. Don’t ask, “Did the candidate work hard?” Instead, ask the following questions: “Here are four characteristics that could describe a candidate: coachability,
curiosity, intelligence, and work ethic. Could you please rank those characteristics from strongest to weakest for this candidate? Why did you rank these characteristics in the order you did?”
Behavioural questions: I often used behavioural questioning to explore the level of rigour with which the candidate approached her responsibilities — for example, “Please tell me about your typical work day or work week. What are some of your must-do activities?”
Work ethic: proactively pursuing the radio station’s mission with a high degree of energy and daily activity.
IN REVIEW: PLEASE DON’T SHORTCUT THE EMPLOYMENT PROCESS.
The old saying is employ slow - fire fast. Take your time with sourcing new salespeople. Never hire until you have conducted a minimum three interviews. Follow the processes outlined in this document - don’t accept the best of a bad bunch. The landscape of hiring is changing - to find the next generation of sales champions you’ll need to be proactive, and smarter with your employment process.