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The Business Pretenders

Identifying the Pretenders during the interview process

There are many covers of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”, but my favourite is the UB40/Chrissie Hynde version. Through Hynde’s performance, I was introduced to her band, The Pretenders, a name I have never quite understood. They are the furthest thing from pretenders: they were massively successful in the 80s, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, and still command passionate crowds whenever and wherever they choose to tour. The Pretenders of the music world are quite different from the pretenders of the business world.

Most salespeople are quite good at playing pretend, especially during an interview. Some pretenders are not as talented as others, so it does not take a skilled interviewer to spot them. Others are much better at hiding their true colours, but there are ways to root them out. After interviewing hundreds of salespeople over the last couple of years, I have developed a few methods to determine whether someone is a legitimate salesperson or just another pretender.

“Don’t Get Me Wrong”

Before we dive in, I need to mention three things about my firm so you know our position on the market. First, when we advertise a sales position on behalf of a client, we usually receive 200-300 applications. Such results stem from our image, job posting methodology, and recruitment strategy that we have honed over the last few years. This market position allows us to be extremely picky throughout the selection process.

Second, we have had the luxury of seeing many successful and unsuccessful salespeople across business development projects. For example, when we initiate a complex business development project with a new client, we often check the sales team to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thus, after almost two decades of projects, we have learned a thing or two about which people deliver results, and which people deliver empty promises.

Third, I do not have to rely solely on my evaluation and intuition because we use psychological assessments during our recruitment. When creating a job advertisement, we create a personality profile based on the company and the expectations of the position at hand. Thus, we craft the job profiles to attract and dissuade certain personality types. For example, people-centred types might be scared off by descriptions of a high degree of autonomy, whereas more dominant types might be attracted to it. Next, when selecting candidates for interviews, we use a CV analysis tool, which helps predict the candidate’s primary personality type, as well as a thorough review of work history. Finally, we use a full psychometric assessment at the latter stages to ensure compatibility.

In summary, we have a thorough recruitment methodology that makes it far easier for us to select the best candidates for each client. Still, exposing pretenders often requires advanced techniques.

PRETENDER #1: THE COMPANY MAN

Theme Song by The Pretenders: “Back on the Chain Gang”
Lyrics: Yes we’re back on the chain gang

This type of pretender likes to look better by manipulating statistics and piggybacking on the results of others. After all, a “chain gang” is a group of convicts chained together while working outside the prison. The most common example of this type of manipulation is when someone emphasises their company’s size or market share in an attempt to sound impressive. They will, without fail, mention a company’s revenue, not their profit. Someone who works for Air France-KLM, for example, will emphasise their company’s $31 billion revenue or the fact that they are the second-largest airline in Europe, but will inevitably fail to mention the company’s declining, relatively weak profits. But this entire discussion is irrelevant! What is important is how much that particular person influenced their company. And, the larger the company, the less impact the person likely had on the company’s bottom line. It can certainly still happen, but when a person has such a massive impact, they are probably looking for a huge step up career-wise, not a lateral move.

The more talented Company Men and Women are not so easy to spot. Instead of focusing on company-level success, they will make it seem much more personal. For example, they will focus on their team or division’s success, often backing it up with concrete numbers. But be careful! Most multinational employees learn to use “we” and “us”; it’s drilled into them. So just because someone speaks in collective terms does not mean they are taking credit for others; most of the time, they are just following protocol. The Company Man, in contrast, likes to exaggerate their personal effect on group performance.

Exposing the Company Man

The Company Man loves to manipulate statistics to make themselves look better. To get to the bottom of this issue, you need to get them to break down their numbers.
OK, so you increased revenue in your department by 22%. How much of that increase came from new clients? How much from existing clients?

Ask questions that have no wiggle room.
Were you personally responsible for the entire 22% increase? Were they all your clients?
Next, move to methodology.
How did you personally recruit these clients? Were these entirely cold connections, or did they have an existing relationship with your company?

Please note that there is nothing wrong with any of the behaviour described above. In fact, a good salesperson should leverage their employer’s existing clients and network to bring in more sales and revenue. But whether someone is a Company Man comes down to how much they are portraying the results of others as their own. In my experience, if a salesperson cannot effortlessly and effectively describe their past achievements and how they personally accomplished them, then they are not representing their own results. If this is the case, you can be confident that you have found a Company Man.

R.D. Smith

PRETENDER #2: THE FAKE POLYGLOT

Theme Song by The Pretenders: “My City Was Gone”
Lyrics: I went back to Ohio / But my city was gone

This type of pretender lies or exaggerates about their language skills. The Fake Polyglot is more common in the United States than it is in Europe. This is because there are few Americans available to validate language skills, and Common European Framework for Languages (the A-1 to C-2 scale) is not used in the United States. Moreover, graduating from university — even with a language specialisation — most often requires nothing more than completing a few language courses. Thus, there are no objective, systemic examinations, so the standards are far lower than in Europe. Truly, I have encountered many Americans with “conversational” Spanish on their CVs who could barely order food in a Mexican restaurant.

In Europe, it is far less common to inflate language skills because the standards are objective, high, and it is much easier to get caught in a lie. That said, I have seen it happen far too many times. I once had someone explain to me, quite poorly, that he spoke English because he taught tennis ten years ago at a summer camp in the US. Had the interview been in his native language, he probably would have gotten away with it.

Exposing the Fake Polyglot

Always test language skills for any language on their CV. While the language itself might be irrelevant for the job at hand, the candidate’s trustworthiness is always critical. Thus, if they lie about their language skills, they might be stretching the truth about other aspects of their CV. I recently conducted an interview in which a Polish candidate claimed full negotiation skills in both English and German on his CV. He was quite comfortable in English throughout the interview, so there was no issue there. At this point, I set a trap for him. I told him that I do not speak German (I do not), so I asked him how his German skills compare to his English skills. His response? “Oh, they are pretty similar. I just got back from Austria”. So, I turned to my co-interviewer, who speaks negotiation-level German, who started asking questions in German. The candidate struggled to answer, “what do you do in your free time?”. Even I could see that he could speak only elementary German. He did not need to lie about German, especially not in person, but because he chose to double-down on his CV lie, his chances for a call-back evaporated.

I do not discriminate based on language skills, but I do discriminate based on lies. That very same colleague who asked the question in German is the perfect counterexample. When he first interviewed with us, he had C1 English and C2 German listed on his CV. After I asked a few questions in English, he answered honestly, “I have the official certification, but I really need to work on my English because I have not been using it. But I can sell in German”. So, my colleague took over the interview in German. Since then, I have personally seen him handle German-speaking clients with ease and success. Which person would you rather hire?

Be careful! Just because someone struggles during an interview does not mean they are a Fake Polyglot, as different personality types have varying abilities to display their language skills during an interview. Individuals tend to have far better oral communication skills than Experts. When speaking a foreign language, they are not afraid to make mistakes, so they can power through the tough, early stages of language development and end up having far more opportunities to practice complex conversations. Their problem is that their language skills will plateau after a while, and if you look at their CV, you will likely find many written errors that belie their oral communication skills. From an Individual employee, you can expect hastily written, sloppy emails. But during an interview, they will outperform an Expert with the same language skills.

Experts are typically better writers. Their logical construction of sentences, paragraphs, and entire documents means that their written communication is far more professional. Nevertheless, when learning a language, the Expert’s need to speak intelligently often holds them back from speaking at all. With fewer chances to practice, their oral communication skills lag behind. For written communications with clients in a foreign language, the Expert is usually preferable to an Individual of the same language skill level. Thus, finding the right person for the job depends heavily on the job’s requirements.

PRETENDER #3: THE FAKE HUNTER

Theme Song by The Pretenders: “Middle of the Road”
Lyrics: I’m standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me

Most interviewees have grown wise to the fact that hunters are more desirable on the overall job market than farmers. That’s a shame, because not every company is looking for a hunter-type person, so people come into interviews with big chips on their shoulders. Nevertheless, when a person with an established farmer pedigree winds up in a hunter-focussed interview, they generally separate themselves into two categories: Honest Farmers and Fake Hunters. Honest farmers approach the situation appropriately, often by discussing the hunter-like features and skillsets they have learned during their careers, thus demonstrating how they would be comfortable in a hunter role. If I encounter an Honest Farmer with a proven skillset, I usually respond honestly: “Your skillset does not match what we envision for this position, but would you like me to submit your CV and name for a more farmer-focused position with another client?” Almost all of them respond with a sigh of relief since they can finally take off their hunter masks.

Fake Hunters, on the other hand, tend to misrepresent their pasts and futures. They do merely try to put their work in the best possible light; this type embraces the “fake it till you make it” motto. There is nothing wrong with working your way into your position as long as your employer knows it. But Fake Hunters always take a few steps too far by lying to their potential employers.

Exposing the Fake Hunter

The Fake Hunter does not have any confidence in their hunting skills, so the truth will come out during the salary negotiation process. To root out the Fake Hunter, you need to ask questions about their ideal compensation package. Importantly, focus on structure. A Real Hunter will always prefer a lower base salary and higher/uncapped commission structure. My firm’s best salespeople spend the least amount of time at the office. That is because they are out there doing actual sales work, and that requires getting out and about at meetings, conferences, and events; they loathe the 9-5 grind, as it impedes them from achieving results. And because they want these results sooner rather than later, they are always eager to hit the ground running.

Fake Hunters, conversely, want safety and stability, and they will make all sorts of excuses about why they need it. They have to get to know the product. They will need time to build up their network. Thus, they will ask for a high base salary, and the commission structure will be an afterthought. Do not buy into this. The more of a “typical employee” feeling you get from this candidate, the more likely it is that they are a Fake Hunter. And be extra careful! When Fake Hunters get to the later stages of their career, they desperately seek managerial roles. They are “finally ready to make the transition”, but that is because they incorrectly believe they will not have to produce as many personal results.

Depending on the location of the job, Fake Hunters can be revealed during a discussion of the employment structure. In Hungary, the KATA system allows for salespeople to work as contractors and avoid all the trappings of the typical employee life, so it is becoming increasingly common for salespeople to be KATA contractors. Importantly, they get to keep more of their earnings, so their results have a much more direct impact on their income, and they do not have to spend as much time in the office. Real Hunters absolutely want this arrangement! Fake Hunters, in contrast, always want the typical employee structure. Again, they will try to make compelling justifications as to why they prefer it this way, but in the end, it is all about not having to produce real results.

PRETENDER #4: MRS CONNECTIONS

Theme Song by The Pretenders: “Brass in Pocket”
Lyrics: I’m special, so special / I gotta have some of your attention, give it to me

This is the easiest pretender to spot because they reveal themselves! In fact, Mrs Connections will bring up her network throughout the interview when given the slightest opening. Moreover, her husband, Mr Connections, also knows everybody in whatever industry you are interviewing. Convenient and impressive, no?

The problem is that people who have real connections do not talk about them during interviews. If they really had this level of contacts, they would not be going through the typical interview process; they would skip the line. If they do talk about their connections, they do it quite subtly. For example, I know several people who attended Harvard. Every last one of them avoids mentioning the Harvard name if they can help it. If someone asks them, “Where did you go to school?”, they might respond with, “I went to school in Boston”. They want to avoid appearing as arrogant or entitled, and they also just want to avoid a conversation they have had a thousand times before.

My strategy for handling Mr and Mrs Connections is to grin and bear it. Just let them describe their massive LinkedIn network and take it all with a huge grain of salt. That said, these people might very well have some connections. The problem, however, is that they are usually overstating the value and depth of these connections. So, they might be able to get their foot in the door, but it may not even be the right door. People with real connections tend to keep it to themselves until after they are hired. That is because they do not want their employer pressuring them about their friends, family members, and contacts for business purposes.

“I’ll Stand By You”

Honesty is the best policy. If a candidate is honest throughout the interview process, even if they are by no means a good fit for the job, we always treat them with the utmost respect. Honest people are never pretenders, but they are sometimes dreamers. There is nothing wrong with wanting a better job and a better life. So, while I do my best to avoid pretenders, I also try my best to help honest people. Sometimes that’s as simple as constructive criticism during the interview, and other times it means arranging an interview for a more appropriate position. Either way, we do our best to stand by the good ones.