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Hiring sales talent in Asia

The basics of hiring sales talent in Asia are similar to other regions. Language and culture however, could hinder you in identifying the right candidates for your organization. Unfamiliarity with the region or simply the wish or requirement to hire someone from the same industry could limit your options. So how to make sure you hire the best possible candidate?

Whether developed countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong or up and coming countries like China, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, finding the right sales or marketing talent that fits your company or team is a challenge. This is obvious for western hiring managers with no or little Asia experience, but Asian managers that hire someone in another country can face similar issues. Especially in high-tech industries.

Increasing your chances on a good hire

A significant part of new hires under perform or do not fit the profile once they are in the job. Increasing the chance on getting the right talent is not rocket science, but a matter of effort and attention:
  1. Prepare yourself. Independent of whether this is your first interview or if you are a seasoned executive that has hired hundreds of people, if you are not prepared your chance of making the wrong decision increases dramatically. More about this below.
  2. Consider in-house candidates first. The drawback of in-house candidates is that you and others know them much better than outside candidates, including their weaknesses, legacy and worst, the ‘image’ they have in the company. They are therefore often at a disadvantage compared to outside candidates. Try to objectively look at them and measure them with the same stick as outside candidates. As you know them better, the chance of making a hiring mistake is lower.
  3. Take sufficient time. Under pressure of time, the hiring manager may believe that he is forced into taking the ‘least worst candidate’ rather than continue his search for the best candidate. This may be aggravated by the fact that not sufficient candidates applied. A bad hire is more costly than no hire, so take your time.
  4. Trust your guts. If a candidate does not feel right, the initial reaction might be the culture, language or your unfamiliarity with it. Trust your guts in this case.
  5. Don’t hire because of 'potential'. If a candidate shows a lot of potential but has no achievements to back it up, do not hire him unless you were looking for a junior person.
  6. Look for talent in adjacent industries. In tight knit industries like semiconductor where everyone seems to know each other and companies generally hold on to their people, finding talent might be more difficult. Adjacent industries might be a good source of new talent, possibly giving your company an edge.
Whatever you do, the key for any hire is preparation. In your mind and preferable on paper, you have to have a very clear picture of the ideal candidate and the qualifying and disqualifying characteristics of that profile. Have a prepared and reviewed list of questions that helps you to match candidates against your mental profile. To better compare candidates with one and another, make sure that a minimum set of questions is asked to each applicant.

Interview time is costly.

The time and energy spend is at the expense of your day-to-day tasks. You have to make sure therefore that you get the most out of the interviews. In 2 or 3 sessions you, and several other people with you, have to judge who is the most suitable from those that applied, and if this is ‘the talent’ that you ultimately want. To make better use of your interview time avoid the following questions:
  • Aiming to acquire competitive information
  • For which you already know the answer e.g. from the resume 
  • That generate a simple yes or no or that are standard 
Exceptions might be, if the candidate tells you something that is conflicting with other information.

It is advisable to not to sidetrack the interview in an attempt to acquire competitive or market information. Questions like ‘what is your company doing’, ‘what are your products’ and ‘who are your customers’, might give you some insight in the experience or knowledge of the candidate. It is in general a bad measure for real suitability of the candidate for the job.

What to focus on

To better judge the fit and find real talent, prioritize your questions so they cover his:
  1. Curiosity
  2. Attitude
  3. Results / Achievements
  4. Experience
  5. Education / Knowledge 
  6. Relationships 
This priority list may look odd as sales people are often hired because of their (perceived) relationships. The logic here is that someone with the right (positive) attitude and drive should be able to acquire the knowledge needed to do the job. His experience is a good measure for suitability. The real proof however, is in his achievements.

That leaves relationships in the last spot. Whilst it is a factor for those who want to have quick access to a certain customer base, it might not be the best talent or hire after all. Sales people that do not have these relationships might be at an initial disadvantage. True talent though is likely to build new relationships in no time.

Behavioral questions

A simple interviewing tactic that works for most hiring managers is an informative question like ‘what was your latest project or design-win’ followed by a behavioral question like ‘how did you approach it’ or ‘what role did you play’ etcetera. Pay attention, listen careful and keep the dialogue going with follow up questions on what the candidate did at that moment, why he did it that way and how did he handle the situation.

Keep in mind though that ultimately you want to assess the candidate’s match with your mental profile. For example if conflict handling is in the profile, the moment that the candidate mentions a conflict situation, you converge with follow up questions like ‘how did you deal with this’. Alternatively, you may want to steer the dialogue with a question like ‘think of a conflict situation in your work, what was it, with whom and how did you handle it’

Standard questions like ‘why would we hire you’, ‘what is your strength’, ‘what is your weakness’ are in most cases prepared by the candidates and may not give you too much information besides canned responses like ‘I am impatient’. Do some efforts to change the questions to take the candidate off guard to get a more honest reply e.g. ‘think of someone that you would never put up as a reference, how would he describe you?’

Situational questions like ‘in case of this, what would you do’ are not the preferred interviewing technique and should be reserved only for those candidates that have no experience e.g. fresh graduates.

Signs that the candidate is ‘not that talented’

During the interview, be aware of the following warning signals, which should trigger you to ask more questions or get a second option:
  • More emphasis on relationships than on achievements 
  • Unclear what role he played in his achievements
  • Vague responses or yes/no response
To add to the first point, Asian sales people like to over-emphasize their business relationships with key people or top executives of (potential) customers. Try to put this in the right context and a double check if this is a ‘transferable relationship’ for the good of your business. The existing relationship might not be as valuable due to bad past performance of the sales person or his company, or the relationships may not play a role in the decision making regarding your products. 

Final words

Independent of the nationality or culture, there are a few pre-qualifying criteria that a candidate must meet at all times:
  • The candidate has to look (very) representable. 
  • The candidate must come prepared. 
  • Meet the minimum education requirements. 
  • Have good grasp of the ‘company’ language. 
The last item may wipe out many potential and potentially good talents. You have to keep in mind however, that effective communication is a necessity to be efficient and to be able to ‘unleash’ that talent in your organization.

Last but not least: make use of the probation time and take action if needed. People do not like to make mistakes and it can take a while for the hiring manager to admit or even realize he made one. Probation times are exactly for that. As a hiring manager, you still fire or if possible re-assign the person. Whilst that may seem as admitting that you made a mistake, your boss will likely appreciate that you take action.

© 2011 EnFeat