How to Hire a Great Salesperson

July 7, 2014

Sales is the most important function within every corporation, for-profit and non-profit alike. If sales don't take place, money doesn't come in, and if money doesn't come in, people don't get paid and companies go bankrupt.

Given the obvious importance of the sales function, you'd think that companies would spend vast amounts of effort on recruiting great salespeople. However, many companies tend to be less scrupulous about hiring salespeople than in hiring, say, engineers or marketers.

This is mostly because many companies start with the notion that "great salespeople can sell anything to anyone." Therefore, all sales jobs are more or less similar and all that's needed to fill such jobs are "people who can sell."

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Selling parts assemblies to equipment manufacturers over the telephone is not at all the same as selling complex solutions face-to-face to high-tech firms. While both are "selling," very different skills are involved.

Different sales mediums also require different skill sets. Selling face-to-face is different from selling over the telephone which is in turn different from selling using webinars and web conferencing.

In other words, "great salespeople can sell anything to anyone" is a myth. The truth is that "great salespeople are well-adapted to the environment in which they're selling." The recruiter and hiring manager must find specific individuals with specific skills rather generic "people who can sell."

Here's a 5 step process:

STEP #1: Research internally and externally what it takes to be a great sales person at your company

You can't possibly hire a great salesperson if you don't understand what it takes to be "great" in your company. Therefore, your first step is always research, which takes place in two stages:

  1. Internal. Assuming you already have a sales team, observe and interview your best sales reps to determine the specific skills and personal characteristics that have led to sales success in the immediate past. If you lack a sales team, try to interview salespeople who have been successful inside firms similar to your own.
  2. External. Interview your existing customers and potential customers to determine how they want salespeople to sell to them. You may discover that your current sales team is lacking in some way, especially if your industry is going through rapid change. In this case, you'll need to look for candidates who have different skills than the ones you currently employ, even if those salespeople seem currently successful.

STEP #2: Write a performance-based job description vs. characteristics-based one

In the previous step, you determined the characteristics and behaviors required to be successful in a sales job in your firm. At this point, you may be tempted to write a job description like this:

  • "The successful candidate will be a high-energy, self-motivated individual with a strong dedication to customer service."

Those personality characteristics may well indeed be extremely important to the job. However, it's not particularly useful to emphasize them in the job description because anyone who's considering a job in sales can probably convince themselves that they have those characteristics.

Because characteristics are subjective, you're better off assessing them during the interview than using them to filter out resumes. Instead, a sales job description should describe the specific skills required to be successful. For example:

  • "This job requires having in-depth technical conversations with CEOs and IT directors in order to build customized solutions."
  • "This job requires telephone cold calling, generating at least 10 sales leads a day."

The more substantive and specific you can make the job description, the more likely it will winnow out candidates who can't or won't do the job, leaving you interviewing only those who can and will.

STEP #3: Recruit from local business schools and companies that are similar but not competitors

Needless to say, you'll be posting the job description on your website and on various job websites. There are also two other places where you should actively recruit: 1) local business schools and 2) companies similar to yours but in a different industry.

Let's start with business schools. While not every business school offers sales courses, much less an MBA in Sales, such programs are becoming more common, according to Howard Stevens, co-founder of the Sales Education Foundation. "Graduates who've had sales training have an extremely high success rate compared to other kinds of sales new hires," he says.

Another source of good candidates is within companies that are similar to your own but in a different industry. There are two criteria to consider:

  1. Size. Selling for a huge enterprise, regardless of industry, requires the ability to work internal politics to secure resources for your customers. Selling for a startup, by contrast, usually means the salespeople must do almost everything themselves.
  2. Market position. Every industry tends to have a price leader (has the lowest price), a brand leader (has the best reputation) and a value leader (builds customized solutions), according to Mary Delaney, CEO at Luceo Solutions, LLC and former Chief Sales Officer at

For example, if you're recruiting for a 50-person aerospace firm that does custom work for the military, you'd be better off recruiting from medium-sized computer system integrator than from, say, IBM. By contrast, if you're recruiting for Raytheon, a candidate from IBM would probably be an excellent fit.

At this point, you may be asking, why not just recruit from a competitor, preferably one with a pre-existing stable of clients? Bad idea. Consider: that candidate was being paid by your competitor to build up that client base. What does it say about the ethics of that candidate if he or she is willing to share those client contacts with you?

More important, somebody who's sold for your competition has been telling those customers that their product is the best. If he switches over to you, the customers will think the candidate was either lying to them then or lying to them now.

STEP #4. Don't use a standard set of interview questions

Now that you've got candidates who have (or think they have) the skills necessary to be successful in sales inside your firm, you use the interview to assess whether they've got the characteristics (i.e. personality traits) to be successful.

Unfortunately, standard interview questions aren't likely to reveal whether the candidate has the right personal characteristics, for two reasons.

First, because salespeople or would-be salespeople are generally business-savvy, they'll have prepared and memorized solid answers to the common question. To be certain, this may also be true of candidates for other positions, but personality is less important in, say Engineering than in Sales.

Because of this, it's essential with sales candidates to delve deeper in order to discover whether those characteristics are truly present.

For example, if a sales job includes a lot of cold calling, a salesperson will need to be resilient enough to face of frequent rejection. A question like "what's your greatest failure?" isn't likely to reveal whether the candidate is truly resilient.

Instead, you'll need to ask questions about the candidates life that reveal early disappointments that the candidate has successfully overcome, according to Gerhard Gschwandtner, publisher of Selling Power magazine. "Resilience emerges as the result of life experience," he explains. "Probe for defining moments in their life where they encountered disappointments but still managed to move forward."

Similarly, many sales jobs also require self-motivation. Simply asking "what's your greatest achievement" may reveal something about motivation, but what's revealed will likely be too general and fail to get to the root of the candidate's motivations.

Delaney recommends asking sales candidate to write down two achievements from grade school, two from high school, two during college, and two post-college, with at least one of the two business-related. "Ask which of those achievements makes them the most proud and why," she says. "At the end of the interview, you’ll know more about their character than if you spent hours going over the usual territory."

STEP #5: Decide quickly

Great salespeople (and those with potential to become great) are always in high demand. If you locate a candidate who possesses both the required skills and whose character traits match those required for the job, make an offer.

If you wait to interview more candidates or for your hiring bureaucracy to catch up, you'll likely discover that that your great salesperson has already been snatched up by some other firm.

Author bio: Geoffrey James is an award-winning columnist for and the author of Business Without The Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need To Know.

Job description tricks