Hiring Good Sales People – What’s the secret?

There is a very large quantity of CEOs, business owners and sales leaders that have all approached us with the same issue – “I just can’t find good sales people.  They all sound great in the interview process, but after I hire them I find that the best sale they ever made was getting the job from me in the first place.”  I often take a poll of CEOs when I get them together and ask what their success rate is in hiring good sales people that consistently hit quotas and stick around for three or more years.  The consensus is typically about 1 in 7.   Why does this have to be so hard?  Are there no good sales people out there anymore?  The strategy for hiring sales people usually goes something like this – “I try to find people in my industry because they will ramp up faster and they probably have a good list of contacts they can leverage.  And, they have to have a good track record in sales.”   That my friends is typically the formula for 1 in 7 success rate.

Let’s look at why the hiring process breaks down.  We’ll start with our assumptions about what we need.  Many people think that a sales person is a sales person.  If you are a good seller, you can sell anything.  That may be partially true.  Good sellers can adapt.  However, sales people are kind of like doctors.  If you had a heart problem, you probably wouldn’t go to your family physician to get it addressed.  You would go to a heart specialist.  If you had foot problems, you would go to a podiatrist.  Both are doctors, but their skills are specialized.   Sales people are kind of like that.  For example, “hunters” are good at opening doors, generating interest, getting to decision makers, etc., while “farmers” or Account Managers are great at developing the longer term relationships, spotting or introducing expansion opportunities and tending to issues as they pop up.  They are both sellers and both can be good, but have different skills.

You can go further in defining their skills.  Consider who they sell to.  Selling to large corporations requires skills to figure out how to navigate the larger company and even get to the right decision makers while selling to small companies is more straightforward.  Next, look at how they position their solutions.  Sellers who are used to selling the premium/higher cost solution have developed great skills around really building value in the sales process so they can justify the higher price while other sellers are more adept at selling less expensive solutions and showing why you don’t need all the bells and whistles.  Again, different skills sets are required.  Here are some areas to consider that each require different skills/traits:

  • Selling direct to the business/consumer vs. selling through a partner like a reseller or distributor
  • Inside seller that pounds the phone vs. outside seller that is good at face-to-face
  • Transactional selling (several widgets sold a month, 1-2 decision makers) vs. complex selling (a few sales per year, multiple decision makers each sale)
  • Follows up on leads vs. generates their own leads
  • Can work independently vs. good at leveraging support team
  • Technical expertise vs. ability to sell the concept
  • Leverages your brand and reputation vs. generates interest other ways (you have little brand recognition)
  • Manages a territory vs. Manages target accounts/prospects

This list could go on and on.   The point is that the skills are different for every one of these bullets.  Before you even start interviewing, carefully evaluate what skills YOU need for YOUR company.  There is some cross-section of these that is perfect for you.  Make sure all people who will interview candidates agree on these criteria. Then start looking for candidates.

Now let’s look at the interview process.  More often, companies will have multiple people interview a candidate – that’s good.  However, interviewers may have no idea what the other interviewers are asking or what criteria they are using to decide whether the candidate is a good fit or not – not good.  Develop a set of questions that zero in on the criteria that you created in the section above.  Then divide those questions among the interviewers.  Dig deep with each candidate until you determine whether they meet your defined criteria or not.   Then discuss how each candidate compared to your criteria.

The goal is to hire somebody that is a perfect seller for you.  That is to say that they are the right kind of specialist and possess the skills and traits that you need for the role.  If you follow this approach, your odds improve tremendously.  Don’t get caught in the trap of hiring the podiatrist to perform your heart surgery. You will most likely have a 1 in 7 chance of making it through.

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About Gary Braun

Gary is a founder and owner of Pivotal Advisors dedicated to improving sales force effectiveness by consulting with CEO’s and sales leaders on the critical elements required for superior performance. Gary is experienced in planning and implementing sales strategies in highly competitive technology markets. He works with sales leaders to identify key areas within sales team for improvement, instruction on the use of technology, and how it helps provide structure for teh sales leader to get the most out of his/her team and be more productive within the organization. As a sales leader, Gary's teams had continual growth in year over year's sales and led successful engagements with companies including Microsoft, Symantec, VMWare, Compuware, Sun Microsystems and Electronic Arts.

3 thoughts on “Hiring Good Sales People – What’s the secret?

  1. Often times, people equate good looks with high sales. Maybe complete the interview via phone and then meet the final candidates once you know who you may hire based on qualifications and phone skills.

  2. It is funny in this day and age, some people still make a connection like that. I’ve heard some CEOs and owners say things like “She will do well opening doors because she is cute.” Even if that were true (and it rarely is), that does not mean that the sales person has the right skills to do the job in a way that aligns with your company. I like the idea of the first interview being over the phone, but we use that as a screen to check for general fit with the company. Then we bring them in to dig under the covers.

    Thanks for the comment, JoAnn

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