3 Key Qualities to Improve Odds of Hiring a Good Salesperson

19 Dec 22

Don't roll the dice when recruiting and hiring good salespeople, improve your odds of picking a winner by focusing on these three essential qualities.

What’s the economic outlook for next year? Rising interest rates? Inflation? Recession? Answer: No one knows for sure. However, one thing you can count on is that you will need to hire new salespeople next year, irrespective of national economic conditions.

Whether to replace underperformers, fill vacancies, or take advantage of new opportunities, sales managers must always be recruiting and hiring new sales talent.

Unfortunately, hiring a salesperson is a crapshoot. According to research, the turnover rate for new sales reps is almost 30% in the first year. So how can you improve the odds of hiring a sales star? Focus on these three qualities when hiring salespeople.

Criteria #1: Prior Sales Experience 

The go-to criterion for hiring new reps is prior sales experience. But according to Frank Cespedes, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, past sales experience is no guarantee of future performance. That’s because sales is the most context-specific activity in the value chain. For example, selling software is different from selling medical devices, selling to SMB customers is different from selling to the Enterprise, and selling in the US is different from selling in Europe. So, a rep’s previous sales experience may not be a good quality predictor of future success in a different sales environment.

Hiring based on experience can also mean focusing on competitors’ sales stars or outside the industry.  According to research by Boris Groysberg, a professor at the Harvard Business School, stardom is real in sales (e.g., top performers are up to six times more productive than bottom performers).  Unfortunately, outstanding sales performance is not easily portable.  Professor Groysberg’s research found that approximately 50% of sales success is based on factors such as a hot market, the product or brand, advantages in lead generation or other resources and capabilities, internal relationships, culture, and training– all of which are not transferable to the new sales organization. 

When considering a candidate’s experience, focus on situations where the candidate sold to a customer with a similar buying process to your customers.  If selling your solution involves a complex sales process, be wary of candidates whose sales experience is primarily highly transactional selling.  Conversely, avoid candidates with extensive complex sales experience if you have a transactional sale.  Also, don’t pay for past performance or the promise of bringing over relationships or contacts.

Criteria #2: Personal Qualities

It’s been said that some people are “born salespeople.”  Typically, when people say that they’re referring to the person’s individual qualities that positively impact their sales performance.  These qualities, such as determination or grit, competitiveness, teamwork, and resiliency, are also top hiring criteria.

Unfortunately, personal qualities are the hardest to hire for since they are not objectively identifiable.  Many sales managers fall into the trap of asking leading questions during the interview process.  If you ask, “we’re a team-oriented culture – are you a team player? “  Any candidate worth your time will respond with a resounding “Yes!”  But in that case, you have told the candidate what you want to hear and don’t know if they are, in fact, a team player.   

Using behavioral-based interview questions is one way to better identify critical success attributes and improve your hiring odds.  Here’s a behavior-based alternative for the team player example: “Describe a time you worked with a team to accomplish a challenging goal; what was your role?  What did you do to help the team be successful?  What was the result?  What would you have done differently?”

Here’s an example of “competitiveness,” another quality sales managers like for candidates.  “Tell me about a time when a key opportunity was in jeopardy.  What tasks did you do in competing for that deal?  What specific actions did you take to win?  What was the outcome?”

Notice the depth and specificity of these questions. They force the candidate to talk about their actions and behaviors that illustrate the personal qualities you are looking to hire for.

Criteria #3: Selling Skills   

Selling is all about behaviors.  To improve your odds of hiring great salespeople, look to include opportunities for candidates to demonstrate key selling behaviors.  An ideal way is to require candidates to conduct a mock sales call during the hiring process. 

Here are a few criteria to evaluate your candidates when they do their presentations:

  • How well did they establish rapport?  Did they try to build a relationship with you, or did they jump right into their presentation?
  • Did they conduct basic research before the presentation?
  • During the presentation, did they ask thoughtful questions to uncover important problems or concerns and explore the problem’s impact?
  • Did they explicitly connect the buyer’s need to the solution?
  • Did they listen or do all the talking?
  • Did they clarify objections before addressing them?
  • Did they ask for some commitment at the end of the presentation?

Improve the Odds of Picking a Winner  

Despite the economic conditions, your need to recruit and hire great salespeople is ongoing.  But even a sales organization with a rigorous hiring process is still rolling the dice when it hires reps. To improve your odds of picking a winner, be careful when considering a candidate’s past sales experience and focus on relevant sales experience (i.e., selling to customers with a similar buying process as your customers).  Use behavior-based interview questions to better identify key personal qualities that lead to sales success.  Finally, consider using mock sales calls to evaluate candidates selling skills during the hiring process

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