The numbers speak for themselves when it comes to hiring sales professionals.
Turnover in sales positions is almost 30%, researchers found. Entire teams are cycled through – from hire to train to sell to quit – every four years.
It’s tough to find, recruit and keep good sales professionals. Half of sales leaders say they need to be better at hiring sales professionals, the CSO Insights study found.
This ultimate guide will help.
Who to Hire for Sales
Hiring sales professionals can’t be a random process. Sometimes you’ll find a diamond in the rough. But the most effective way to get quality hires is to know the kind of people you want selling your solutions.
It’s the first step in successful sales hiring. Here are two important elements for understanding who your ideal candidates are and creating profiles.
Characteristics is a set of personal and professional attributes and expectations that define your ideal hires. They aren’t the same as a job description.
Every organization has varying needs from its salespeople. But TalentBin Co-founder Peter Kazanjy came up with one of the best lists of characteristics we’ve seen. You want look for candidates who are:
Actually, most sales organizations cite this characteristic – aka “intellectual acumen” – vital for hiring. But Kazanjy defines it best: “figure shit out.” You want to find people who aren’t satisfied with getting the job done. They want to get the job done right – and will figure out how to do it.
Intelligence is not to be confused with intellectual acumen. It’s about a pattern of academic and professional achievement and progress. You want people who can master a subject, and a degree alone doesn’t necessarily signify that. Some people with degrees didn’t master anything but passing classes. Some without degrees excel because they pursue and love learning.
Plain and simple: Salespeople need a drive to win to be successful.
Sales is more art than science. You need people who can find solutions when a scientific approach doesn’t exist or work. That causes them to become resourceful.
Resourceful salespeople with intellectual acumen might be able to figure out how to get things done, but you also want them to be willing and interested in becoming better through coaching. You want people who can absorb and apply feedback.
Salespeople may work alone much of the time, but they’re still part of a team. For that to work, they should be positive and likable, which is often proven by a history of involvement in and leadership of group activities.
A sales career can beat down the thin-skinned. Look for people who’ve taken on roles, projects and jobs that require persistence to do well.
Individual talent is important for recruiting, but Kellogg Business School researchers found that being a team player plays a significant role in their success. You want to find top performers who get along with others, share information, accept feedback, offer help and support colleagues.
People who’ve applied all the above-mentioned attributes are destined to be great. But you still want to request details and look for a track record of sales or business success.
Here are some of the essentials for practically every position.
In his book, The Science of Selling, researcher and author Dave Hoffeld found proficiency in these six skills is linked to high performance levels. Salespeople need to be good at:
- Motivating themselves. Money is important to most salespeople, but you want to find people who are driven to sell and enjoy the journey by an internal motivation such as prestige, responsibility or personal success.
- Digging deeper. The best salespeople want to understand other people’s perspective. To see if candidates have it, find out how they gather sales intelligence and uncover prospects’ challenges and motivations.
- Paying attention and executing details. Salespeople need to be methodical about their processes and practices to make sales happen. You can screen for attention to detail by uncovering how they organize their lives and/or work – a calendar, to-do list, in their minds, by putting out fires. The more order, the more likely they’re good candidates.
- Standing above the rest. Consider if the candidate is a person others admire for being kind, honest and respectful.
- Learning. Find out how if they consider continual development and learning important components of work.
- Communicating. Consider the impression candidates give. Do they represent themselves well in verbal and non-verbal communication?
More applicable skills
Beyond those, you want to hire for proficiency in these skills:
- Rapport-building. Getting to know people, finding common interests and making a connection are skills that must be finessed for sales. Yes, some people are natural at it – and you’ll likely recognize that in interviews. For others, it’s important they can learn to build rapport beyond talking about the weather.
- Listening actively. You can uncover deep listening skills (or lack of them) in the interview process by sharing information about yourself, the job and/or the company and later ask candidates to recall it. Listening is pivotal to uncovering buyer needs, and salespeople must be able to do it.
- Working hard. You want to see and hear about experiences putting the time in to get the job done exceptionally when necessary.
- Storytelling. This is a skill that can be taught, but like rapport-building it’s helpful if candidates already have some background with it. Just ask candidates to talk about a time when they faced or helped a customer overcame a challenge. Listen for a succinct, sensible story.
- Technologically adept. Salespeople need to navigate many technology platforms, and in some cases, their own solutions.
- Industry-specific skills. You might need salespeople who can demonstrate how your products work, provide a service or do maintenance on products. Test for skills necessary to do those tasks, too. Half of sales leaders say they look for sales pros who have experience in their industry to ensure these skills.
How to Hire for Sales
No matter how you choose to hire – on your own, with referrals or through Human Resources, staffing agencies, headhunters, job boards, etc. – you’ll want to continually keep an eye out for good candidates. You can press harder when you have positions to fill. But keeping the pipeline full of potential candidates will help you stay ahead of an emergency hiring situation, which often leads to making a poor hire.
From there, you want to:
1. Build a job description
Job candidates need to understand as much about the job they’re applying for as possible. Then they’ll stay in the pool because it’s something they recognize as a great opportunity – or they get out because it’s not what they want to or can do.
Solid job descriptions (regardless of where you post them) include:
Lay it out there. It’s what people want to know because it’s not often negotiable.
A compelling description
This is a strong description of the company and the role. In a few sentences you can tell candidates what you do and what you need. For instance:
“To help the entire X industry grow and evolve, we need to communicate the power of emerging technology with enthusiasm, deep knowledge and savvy interpersonal skills. As an account executive, you’ll be the lead of our early stage pipeline activities, guiding customers to the successful relationship with ABC Company and building a foundation of sales expertise that will allow you to exceed quotas and advance your career.”
A description of their first days
You want to give an in-depth view of the first three months. For instance:
“What you’ll do:
- Train with veteran staffers and revered coaches to understand our industry, values, goals and unique selling strategies
- Connect and gain appointments with qualified prospects
- Use solution selling to close business deals
- Collaborate with marketing, sales and customer success colleagues to maintain a healthy pipeline
- Meet or exceed agreed-upon goals.”
A candidate description
Here’s where you help candidates decide if they’re right for the job. For instance:
“Ideal candidates have:
- 1-3 years selling experience in X industry
- a 4-year degree
- backbone. You’re ready and confident enough to talk with businesspeople who have more experience but don’t know all they need to about better solutions
- an adaptable and flexible personality. Ours is a chaotic, ever-changing industry and you must be able to adapt and overcome
- creative. We train you to know where to find the answers, but sometimes the answers don’t exist YET. You need to be a creative, curious problem-solver.”
Bonus skills aren’t necessary, but this can help you find candidates even more ideal. For example:
“Even better if you have:
- speech and debate experience
- background in finance
- interest in philosophy.”
Highlight the traditional benefits – such as competitive salary, medical benefits, retirement plan options and training opportunities.
Include what makes it special working for you company – such as a loaded break room, flexible schedules, regular company outings like rafting, sports and arts events and unique on-site entertainment opportunities.
You might want to use more than one of these screening options to get a good understanding of candidates who’ve sent all your required documents to be considered of the job:
This is especially important in sales, considering many customer relationships start on the phone. Screen for tone, rapport building, clarity, quick thinking and effective speaking.
Similarly, you can check for the same phone screening attributes in virtual screening, plus check that their body language and facial expressions match what they say.
A writing test will help you recognize candidates’ commitment to your hiring process and their abilities to communicate well through the writing. That’s vital today because salespeople so often write on social media, for proposals and through email and text with customers.
You can send a few prompts such as:
- “Explain bitcoin in a paragraph?” or
- “Document a deal that went terribly wrong.”
Mock presentation or demo
This is a more in-depth screen, and less important when hiring new salespeople. Once you give them a presentation or demo assignment, you’ll want to see they take most of these important steps:
Send a calendar invite that includes all details for the online meeting
Send an email ahead of time confirming the meeting
Do pre-call preparation to learn about your business
Start with discovery questions
Make problem and solution statements only after they’ve demonstrated they understand your discovery question answers
Use a consultative, not directive, approach
Check that you comprehend what they’ve shared
Build agreement through the presentation
Handle objections and/or hostility with respect and clarity
- Tactfully respond to questions about their competition, and
Ask for the sale
You’ll likely take top candidates through more than one interview. Some of the most effective are:
- One-on-one. Leaders who will be directly involved with the sales professional spend some time with candidates, perhaps in back-to-back, short meetings. Each can ask his or her set of questions. Then each can use a consistent rating system to help determine who moves on. Try a red, yellow, green rating. Or you might try this scale: strong candidate, candidate, unsure, pass on candidate, strong pass on candidate.
- Group. The people who will train, coach and interact most with the candidate sit down together to talk in-depth about his or her background and the position.
- Social. Meet for coffee or a beer with the candidate and your team to get a feel for cultural fit. Although it’s more causal, you still want to document the outcome – feedback and feelings on the meeting with a go/no-go call from each participant.
Questions to ask
During the more formal interviews, try these questions to reveal skill, knowledge and character:
- What would you do if …?
- Imagine you faced (a relevant crisis or dilemma). How would you react?
- Tell me about a time your prospect went dark. What did you do?
- What is your least favorite part of the selling process – and how do you handle it?
- When was your attitude not where you thought it should be – and how did you fix it?
- Tell me about a sales funnel you’re familiar with. What tactics did you use to successfully move prospects through it?
- What were competitive characteristics of the market you know and how did you navigate them?
- What’s helped you achieve a higher conversion rate?
- Tell me about a time you made a mistake and had to admit it. How did you handle that?
- Are you reading a work-related book? If so, can you tell me a little about it?
- Have you ever asked a prospect who chose not to buy why he or she went with someone else? If so, what did you learn?
- Can you talk about a dose of criticism you received from a boss and what you did with it?
- How would you solve the issue of insufficient number of leads?
- How do you make sure your customers are happy with the value you deliver?
- Can you evaluate data for insights – and if so, how do you do it?
- What’s something you’ve learned and acted on from the data you’ve received?
- Tell me about a time you were part of a team that was in turmoil. How did the group overcome it, and what was your role?
- Can you walk me through a time you had a measurable impact on the organization you worked for?
Questions to expect
On the flip side, be prepared to answer these kinds of questions in interviews. Good sales professionals – who you probably want on your team – will want to know:
- What is your sales process is like?
- What kind of initial training do you offer, and how much continual training is available?
- How are territories allocated?
- What are the biggest challenges in your market?
- What is the path to promotion?
- Which metrics do you rely on most to measure success?
- What is typical day like here?
- What distinguishes top performers from those who just barely meet quota?
- How do salary and commissions work?
A few keys to selecting candidates:
- Make the offer over the phone. Follow up with a written offer.
- Anticipate negotiation. Salespeople are natural negotiators – so consider it a good sign when one wants to negotiate your offer.
- Keep your pipeline open. If you do a solid job of recruiting, you’ll probably have more qualified candidates than you have positions to fill. For candidates who fall behind the top, let them know you were impressed and would like them on your team in the future. Stay in touch every few months and when you have an opening, ask them to personally apply. Or you might even offer them the position if it’s close enough to the last round of hiring.
Best Practices when Hiring for Sales
Here are three unique, proven hiring strategies that might work at your organization:
Set a different standard
TalentBin’s Kazanjy and his colleagues had to build a sales team quickly. Instead of relying on the major power providers in the recruiting world, which often whittle down candidates through algorithms and key phrase matches, they focused on getting new, eager grads out of high-caliber schools. They even showed preference to grads who’d proven grit and success on collegiate teams. They also looked for proactive junior staff members already working in their industry who would be ready for the next step.
It worked because this group was so new to everything, the salespeople were willing to go after almost any customer and not inhibited by maintaining existing customers. Similarly, they weren’t married to any one tool, idea or process. They were willing to try new approaches on the turn of a dime.
Use the ‘reversing’ technique
Candidates come into interviewing situations expecting some common questions, and will have a rehearsed response that tells you exactly what you want to hear. For instance, you ask about their prospecting skills, and they’ll tell you how much they love to do it and have honed their skills to be a top prospector.
For instance, you ask, “Where do you find clients?” Candidates might list marketing leads, events or online searches – or simply, “a lot of different places.” That opens you to ask something like, “Really? Can you tell me about the five most recent accounts and where they came from?”
Many sales leaders believe they can hire well on gut instinct. But research proves that’s not right: There’s only about a 25% correlation between interview predictions on success and actual success on the job.
Harvard Business School experts suggest using a performance assessment for hiring sales professionals – and use the results as one-third of the weight in deciding who gets hired. Try work simulations or internship opportunities to get a better assessment on candidates’ abilities and fit.
Pitfalls to Avoid when Hiring for Sales
For all the strategies and tactics that help make hiring for sales successful, there are pitfalls when hiring sales professionals. Avoid:
Choosing height over slope
Some candidates stand out on paper because they have all the credentials, experience and titles you think you want. You might get dazzled by all the shiny stars.
And when you do, you overlook what could be more important, especially in sales leadership positions: the rise.
According to Harvard Business School researchers, “slope” – that’s the potential to learn, grow, and adapt to a new situation – is often more important than “height”– sales pro’s experience and current title.
Making it too easy
Sometimes hiring managers eager to hire the ideal candidate in front of them offer the moon without asking much of that candidate.
But the best sales professionals like a challenge. They expect some rigor in the hiring process. If it’s too easy to get the pay raise and new job, they might see a company that’s desperate or doesn’t care enough about who they hire – and they’ll turn down the job.
Ignoring cultural fit
Cultural fit is a real thing. Too little of it, and people will clash and struggle to work in harmony. Too much of it, and you’ll build a team of “yes” people with little creativity.
If you ignore cultural fit in hiring for sales, you can end up with high turnover and failed teams. Check for some cultural alignment – work ethic, moral compass, success drivers – before hiring. On the other end, watch that you don’t hire all perfect cultural fits, or you’ll end up with sales clones.