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Entrepreneurial Hiring: Think Salesmanship

Andy Sack

If you, a small-company owner, have recently had trouble hiring qualified job candidates, you're in good company. Last spring, Abuzz, the software concern I co-founded, was doubling its staff of ten. We were looking for highly skilled people--the kind who can easily command the large company paychecks that we could never hope to offer. We had openings for an office manager, a controller, an executive vice president of sales, and seven software developers.

So it wasn't too surprising when a candidate we had been recruiting for months wouldn't take the executive sales job we'd offered. What was unusual, however, was our response. We could have said, "OK, see you around." Instead, as president and CEO, I placed a telephone call, and told the candidate, "You gave the wrong answer."

Over breakfast the next morning (at my invitation), I agreed to be flexible about the issue that was holding him back. He wanted to start at a later date than Abuzz had targeted. When he finally changed his mind and said he would take the job, I had a gift basket wired immediately, welcoming him to the company.

Such techniques are part and parcel of an approach Abuzz uses to entice the best people to our team. In short, when we think about hiring, we think "salesmanship." We've proven that this approach goes a long way toward leveling the playing field for entrepreneurs trying to secure top talent in an aggressive buyers' market. In this article, I'll describe what I believe are the necessary steps for making salesmanship work.

Recruiting Talent, Thinking Sales

When hiring becomes "salesmanship," component analogies fall neatly into place. The applicant pool becomes the "target market." The job becomes the "product" we're selling. And the candidate becomes our "customer."

The "customer" is at the center of this approach: he or she will be your toughest "sale" ever. Yet viewed from the perspective of the recruit as "customer," job candidates are already cast in a different light. You'll likely treat them with more care and respect than might otherwise have been the case.

With this revised attitude--an attitude that leads to personal calls, individual accommodations, and welcoming gift baskets--providing the backdrop, small companies should then maximize their job offers. While small companies generally can't outbid major corporations on salaries, they can--indeed, they must--create the most value out of benefits, responsibilities, and culture. Here's how:

Benefits

Most small, young companies can't match such pricey tangible benefits as health and life insurance that large, established companies can offer. At Abuzz, for example, we don't offer a dental plan. We can, however, compensate by granting equity. From his or her first day on the job, every Abuzz employee owns a stake in the business. That's a major draw.

Beyond tangible benefits, small companies can and should provide benefits that don't cost a lot of money. At Abuzz, for instance, we strive to maintain a "family-friendly" environment. Our employees have individual freedom to structure the 35-hour work week, and they may elect to work at home for part of the time. They may also request unpaid leaves of absence.

Responsibilities

At entrepreneurial companies with lean staffs and tight budgets, employees are likely to acquire new skills and assume wide-ranging responsibility early in their careers. Use this advantage for all it's worth. Job responsibility is what talented people want most of all, but they don't necessarily tell that to their employers. Opportunities to learn and advance give your company a distinct edge.

Culture

Taken together such factors comprise an intangible called "entrepreneurial culture," a small company's most valuable asset. Make the most of people's desire to work for a company that is close-knit, exciting, and fun. What's crucial is to "package" your culture, and that brings us back to hiring as salesmanship. You want to make sure job candidates get a good glimpse of your culture and that they can easily perceive its value.

Closing Your Toughest "Customer"

Because job candidates are your toughest customers, closing these sales is as much an art as a game plan. You'll succeed if you know what counts, and here's what counts:

  • First Impressions Count. When you invite candidates for an interview, start by creating an outstanding first impression on the telephone. Offer to reimburse prospects for all travel and meal costs. That's a small price to make people feel welcome, wanted, and at ease. When they arrive at your company, greet them and let them know you're expecting them. Take the extra effort to show them to a comfortable room where they can sit and read prior to the meeting.
  • Interviewing Skills Count. Often pressed for time, many small-business owners take a laissez faire approach to interviewing. Salesmanship, however, calls for using the interviews as much to sell candidates on the company as to determine whether they fit the job you're filling. I think it's a good idea to provide candidates with two pieces of paper, an agenda of their day and a list of the questions they'll be asked. That tactic puts people at ease, and it demonstrates that the company is organized.
  • Social Skills Count. Allow candidates to meet with more than one person. Not only does this make good social sense, but you also want prospects to meet as many of your people as possible, even at this early stage. A person who doesn't "click" with one person might do very well with another.
  • Courtesy and Flattery Count. The wag who said, "Flattery gets you everywhere," wasn't far from the mark. Once you decide you want to hire a candidate and you make an offer, it's useful to send a small flower basket or gift box. You're indicating to candidates that you realize they have choices and you'd like them to choose your company. It might also be a good idea to have the CEO call the candidate personally to discuss the offer. The two of them could address last-minute problems or potential glitches, and the CEO's interest would make the candidate feel especially welcome.
  • Good Beginnings Count. Once you've made your sale, it's just the beginning of the real sale. The final step in putting your prospect--now your employee--at ease is to treat the person's first day as one would treat the first day at school. For an incoming employee, the day might be filled with anxiety. Take an active role: provide an agenda, introduce the newcomer to all co-workers, treat him or her to lunch, light the candles on a welcome-to-our-company cake, and celebrate...as much for yourself as your new employee.

. . . . .

I'm happy to report that since last spring, employment at Abuzz has grown to 22 employees. During our search for new hires, we found that it was easy to collect resumes but hard to find people who could both do the job and fit our culture. At times, it was tempting to hire the first warm body that walked through the door, regardless of qualifications.

But we didn't have to do that. We met our hiring goal in what I consider an incredibly brief span of six weeks. We succeeded because of our philosophy: hiring, and especially hiring in this job market, needs to be treated like salesmanship.

Your relationships with prospects and new hires are like relationships with customers. Ideally, they should be long and profitable for both parties. Taking steps to "sell" candidates on your company helps close the most important sales your company ever makes, and you get each new employee relationship off to a good start.

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