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A Bad Date: Are You Hiring Me, or My Rolodex?

By Warren Zenna, Founder & Principal, Zenna Consulting Group

Warren Zenna, Founder & Principal, Zenna Consulting Group

A close friend and seasoned sales rep who was looking for a new gig seemed flustered and distracted during a coffee meeting last week. I asked him, ‘what’s on your mind?’ He shared a story: “I’m on an interview this morning with a prospective new firm and the hiring manager—who was in fact the CEO—asks me within the first 10 minutes of the interview: ‘So, how’s your rolodex?’ You have no idea how much this pissed me off.” I can relate. It’s a lot like how a woman must feel on a first date if a guy asks as soon as they sit down ‘so, after dinner are we going back to your place or mine?’ In keeping with this provocative analogy—there’s nothing inherently wrong with that guy’s intentions—we all know they are pretty common. The issue was really more in his approach. Sure, he may have wanted a specific outcome, but he would have likely been more successful if he had waited until after dessert to bring it up!

The same applies in the Sales Rep Hiring process. Follow me here. I swear this will make sense.

In the case of the date scenario above, the guy clearly wasn’t looking for a wife. And in the case of my friend’s frustrating interview, my hunch (I’m likely 100 percent correct) is that the CEO wasn’t looking for a long term Sales Person either. He was looking for a pot of new warm meetings. Not a good approach.

First—for the purposes of this inquiry let’s call this The Rolodex Hire—I firmly believe that hiring a salesperson simply on the merits of their Rolodex can be a sign of a very shortsighted organization—or a sign that the person hiring has never been a salesperson either— or they have little respect for the underlying value of the sales process. Here’s why: The hiring company is basically communicating that they are only interested in buying your relationships, which for most top sellers are the fruit of literally decades of time, keeping promises, building trust and value, not to mention money, invested in airplane travel, hotel stays, drinks, dinners, golf outings, baseball seats and the like. More important is the investment of one’s integrity, ones’ word, solving problems, fixing screw ups and creating meaning from madness-the things that the best sales people know is their real job anyway. A sales rep’s rolodex is the precious cumulative fruit of their sweat and labor. Asking a sales person to simply bring all of that over to ‘my company’ for some salary and a commission is a big ask—and can be easily perceived as an arrogant and out-of-touch requirement. ‘Why would I just bring all of my 20 years of hard-earned reputation over to your firm for a salary and a bonus? Is that a truly equitable value exchange? I think not. Make me a partner. Give some real equity. I worked for years establishing this network. Tie the success to me in some meaningful way. Make an equitable commitment to ME in exchange. Have something super valuable and useful for me to sell. ‘The Rolodex hire makes sense but it demands respect. Anyone who is in sales understands the value of the network. And knows that it is hard-earned and should be respected and not just exploited. Also, there is another shortsighted component to this: Once any rep’s Rolodex has been exhausted, it’s over. If a rep has a solid list of contacts— trusted buyers with a solid proven foundation, there are still many mitigating factors that go into a sale independent of the relationship—timing and budget—as well as organizational and technical conditions notwithstanding. So, a Rolodex is not a guarantee. But it’s a great start for sure. The hardest part of any sale is building trust – and a built in trust network is worth its weight in gold. I can totally understand a company’s desire to hire someone that has a built in network of trusted buyers. But the key is to be upfront that what you are really looking for is fresh meetings and not a long term relationship builder. That sets the table more honestly and also provides for a better targeting parameter for your HR department.

But, here’s my second and more salient point: What I think most companies NEED (not want) are Relationship BUILDERS. What companies really should hire - aside from a rep’s established buyer base is an ability to continually build a buyer base—not just exhaust the one that they have. The best reps come equipped with an established trust network and an ability to build one in real time. And I’ve seen time and again, that the ability to establish, grow, and extend networks of trust is an attribute that is far more advantageous for a company to look for than simply the size of a reps existing network.

"I firmly believe that hiring a salesperson simply on the merits of their Rolodex can be a sign of a very shortsighted organization"

So, for Sales Reps: When interviewing, look for these signals: When the hiring manager(s) ask a lot of questions about your rolodex or network, beware. This is a one-night stand situation. So, navigate accordingly. If they want to ‘buy’ your relationships, make sure they know the value of your relationships and determine:

1) Is their product or service worth an extension of credit from your rolodex?
2) Will this product or service maintain / sustain your current reputation among your trusted rolodex network?
3) What is that worth? (That’s how you negotiate your rate)

For Hiring Managers: Do you need a slew of new meetings immediately or a long term sales rep who builds a book of business over time? Make sure you know before you meet with candidates.

And wait until the check comes before you ask about their network.

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