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A six pack of strategies for recruiting effective sales people

Posted by Simon Thiessen on 02-Jun-2014 12:51:00

recruiting_effective_sales_peopleAre you competing for the wrong people?

Finding good sales people today is tougher than ever – so why make it harder than it needs to be? The six strategies in this article will help you avoid some perfectly understandable but completely avoidable mistakes sales managers make when they are looking for that next top performer. 

The challenge is predicting which person in that pool of candidates is likely to deliver results - and sometimes the pool is more like a puddle (which is where the final tip will help).

Even though some candidates stand out from the crowd are they ones who will really succeed?

Stop recruiting candidates who are like your best sales people

This is an easy mistake to make – you look around the sales team and you see people whose performance is difficult to manage and others who consistently deliver. The obvious conclusion is that you need more of those consistent performers – and you are right. That still doesn't mean you should recruit people like your top performers.

That distinction isn't completely clear so let me explain – or, at least, ask: were your top sales people that good when you hired them or did they develop into top performers?

The distinction is critical – think of it like this. You either hired someone:

  • who you felt could succeed and then provided the coaching, training, support and leadership that helped them become a top performer
  • who had extensive sales experience and they just seamlessly became a top performer with no effort or input from you

I am going to assume that at least some of your people evolved into top performers after they were recruited. The lesson from that is stop trying to recruit people who are like your top performers are now; look for people who are like your top performers were when they first joined you.

Think back to when those people first joined your team - what were the ‘raw materials’ that made you believe they had the right stuff? Think especially about the ones who had little previous sales experience. What was it that made you believe they would succeed? Look for those attributes in new candidates

Value character over experience 


Lets be clear. Experience and success are not the same thing. We have all met the twenty year sales professional who, instead of having twenty years experience, actually has one year of experience twenty times over!

Recruiting effective sales people often means looking past experience and seeing character. In fact, experience in sales is often completely irrelevant to the ability of a person to succeed in the sales role you are trying to fill.

Frankly, some organisations have taught their sales people absolutely terrible habits – when you recruit that experienced person, are you actually recruiting another organisation’s bad training outcomes? We have all seen sales people that ‘do the rounds’ – going from sales job to sales job, always doing OK but never excelling. Why do they keep moving? Normally because they are looking for something easy, a sales position in which sales just roll in the door. Unless that is the case in your organisation, do you really want these people in your sales team?

We aren’t suggesting that you refuse to hire someone with experience – just don’t over rate it. We prefer to recruit people who have good character and then train them the skills they need – it is much better than the reverse.

If you want proof, think about this difference that we see when sales teams participate in our Sales Academy – I bet you see the same pattern in the workplace:

  • Some of the least experienced people are motivated, open and really keen to learn. They take lots of notes, ask great questions and can’t wait to get out there and try their new skills. They have lower competence but they know it and are determined to work on it
  • Some of the moderately experienced people are defensive, think they know it all and resist learning anything that takes them out of their comfort zone. They are looking forward to the training being over so that they can go out and do things the same way they have always done them – with the same outcomes. The have moderate competence but believe they are better than they are

Of course, our job as professional learning facilitators is to adapt to the needs  and get good learning outcomes for both groups. However, our job is clearly easier with the first group – and I bet your job as sales manager is easier with them as well.

Identify key character traits that create sales success

Study after study examining what makes sales people successful show that character traits are more important than skills. In a nutshell, a character trait like resilience is much more important than the skill to manage an objection or close a sale. On a purely practical level, with over 20 years of working with sales teams we have seen this to be overwhelmingly -and increasingly - true.

What would be easier for you as a sales manager?

  • Helping a person who knows good closing strategies to become  more resilient – not take rejection personally, not to get down when they lose a sale, etc
  • Teaching a person who is already resilient and just keeps on persevering some skills in closing a sale

Give me the second one every time - unless I am billing by the hour! Character traits can be learnt and modified – but they are more deeply ingrained and can take a significant and sustained effort to see a result. They also take a lot of motivation on behalf of the learner. Skills can be acquired much more quickly – especially by someone with the right character base.

recruiting_effective_sales_people_gridThink about the key traits and skills that you should look for in recruiting effective sales people for your team. A good approach is to create a grid like the one displayed and then use that to identify what you really need to look for in the interview. Be really rigorous in deciding what is essential and what is desirable. Weight the essential items much more heavily in your decisions.

Treat this list as a starter but think about the specific things that will help someone become a top performer in your organisation - and don't forget to add in some of the things you identified looking at your top performers in the first tip.

  • Resilience
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Good communicator – but think about what that really means? We would suggest ‘listens well’ and ‘asks good questions’
  • Honesty
  • Motivated
  • Self assured – which is not the same thing as over the top brash confidence
  • Ability to think on their feet
  • Builds rapport well

Make sure they model the key skills in the interview

One of the great things about interviewing a sales person is that you get a chance to preview some of their skills in the interview. Remember to structure your interviews as exactly that - a chance to view each other - and not as a one sided interrogation or a dump of information about your organisation.

In a well structured interview, here are some things that you could look for that 'simulate' the way they are likely to work with customers:

  • Have they researched the company, the industry, the job and even you? I want sales people who recognise the importance of research in the sales process
  • Do they deal with you using the standards that will be needed when dealing with your businesses customers. We had had an application for a sales position emailed to us. He used a lot of text message abbreviations. I could understand what he was saying but it raised a red flag - if he thought that was OK with a job application sent to a business person, would they think similar standards were OK with our customers, remembering we sell B2B.
  • Are they good at building rapport? Do you settle into a comfortable conversation and find that enjoy being with this person. They don't have to be the extroverted life of the party - but do you get a sense of liking and trusting them? 
  • Do they ask good questions - and do they settle for the immediate answers or do they probe? Are they prepared to get into the more sensitive areas?
  • Do they have respect for their own needs as well as yours? If they are uncomfortable asking you about things like opportunities for growth and promotion, will they be reluctant to find the right balance with a demanding customer?
  • Do they listen well?
Of course, as you observe each of these areas, make sure you consider whether this is a skill issue that you can work with or a character trait that may be harder to shift. 

Subscribe to blog Add some situational and self reflection questions to your interview list

Recruiting effective sales people is a lot like being a good sales person – so much of it comes down to asking great questions and probing

Situational and self reflections questions like these are central to recruiting effective sales people. Bear in mind that some of these include follow up questions which should only be asked once you have the initial answer

  • What do you know about our company and this role
  • Tell me about an achievement you are really proud of. Why?
  • Tell me about a time you missed a goal. What did you learn from that?
  • Tell me about a confronting interpersonal situation that you dealt with well
  • Tell me about a confronting interpersonal experience that you didn’t deal with well. What did you learn from that? (If they can’t answer this question, that raises a red flag over their self awareness and openness to learning)
  • What motivates you?
  • What do you find most discouraging? How do you deal with that?
  • Imagine you are just short of budget and have a proposal with a customer that would get you over the line. The customer starts the discussion by telling you that they have been speaking to a slightly cheaper competitor. How would you handle that?
  • If you missed budget for a few months in a row, how would you respond? What support would you be asking from me as your sales manager?
  • What do you think will help you succeed in this sales role?

These questions are much better at getting at character traits rather than over focusing on skills and experience.  

Get flexible

Based on our observations, sales has been one of the slowest areas to adapt to flexible work arrangements. This is both a problem and an opportunity. The pool of people who want more balance and flexibility in their lives is growing - and those people want to return to work in a role that is interesting and challenging.

Sales definitely throws up some issues with flexible work arrangements - managing a client list, dealing with some of the necessary outside hours work, commission and incentive arrangements, matching clients who are 'full time' with sales people who aren't, etc. However, if you are one of the sales managers who is creative enough to find solutions to these problems, you have a distinct advantage in recruiting effective sales people from an often untapped source.

Next steps

We will continue to publish great sales articles so, if you want keep up to date you could subscribe to receive blog updates or for our weekly newsletter, Train Reaction

This article covers just one of twelve tips included in a free resource we created to help every busy sales mananger - the Essential guide to staying sane for the busy Sales Manager which you can download here.

Another resource that will help you hold yourself to a high standard are these free and inspirational wall posters - constant reminders of quality leadership habits.

sales manager

photo credit: Michael of Scott via photopin cc

Topics: Sales, Sales Management