Insights from
Jackson Solutions

Keys to Hiring Great Sales Talent

by Karen Jackson  | 6 Comments

Small business owners frequently lament about their difficulty in hiring great sales talent. It’s not easy to do, in part because a sales person is likeable, easy to be with, and their interview is probably their best sales job. Most small business CEO’s don’t have sales roots themselves, making it harder to know what they’re looking for and how to probe.

Yet it’s essential to solve this problem, for building a successful sales engine begins with hiring the right talent. Yes, you’ll have to coach and train, provide good counsel, and dust them off when they’ve hit a bad patch – all the responsibility of a good sales manager. But without the right players, revenue growth is a sisyphean task.

Here are some insights that make it easier to know what you’re looking for and what to avoid.  Of all the positions I’ve hired for over the years, the sales role is the one I think you most want to “exclude” for. By that I mean, if any of these key traits are missing, keep looking.

  • Great sales people are relationship developers. Sales is the transference of trust, and trust is earned by developing relationships.  Great sales people work on relationship development from the get-go, beginning with lots of recognizance about a prospect. They interact graciously with everyone they meet, understanding that influencers are as important as decision makers. They listen attentively and ask questions based on that listening. Probe for this. Ask them how they landed a large account, the plan and tactics utilized, who was involved, what constituencies played a role. If their answer is entirely “me” or “I” focused, your warning bell should sound. Further, if your candidate has done little or no research about your company, is rude to the receptionist, and waxes on endlessly about themselves  – move on.
  • Great sales people are curious. They research, ask questions, make connections, and are highly creative in uncovering opportunities.  Great sales people are always learning, tuning skills, asking for assistance, looking for fresh ideas to be successful. Interview for this trait. If it’s not evident – pass. The ones who don’t demonstrate this curiosty are simply order takers.
  • Great sales people are unafraid of metrics. Great sales people embrace accountability, after all, meeting targets is a direct measure of their success. They’re competitive, find measurements a positive challenge, and bask in the recognition – prestige and monetary – of being the one who exceeded quota. Dig for this. Find out how they’ve been measured before. Lay out the metrics you will manage by; what data are they comfortable reporting on? Not just deals done, but phone calls, customer touches, in-person appointments. If they’re uncomfortable with this scrutiny – be concerned.
  • Great sales people love commission structured comp plans. As noted above, great sales people are competitive, and one of their success indicators is money. I’m not suggesting it’s the only measurement, but it’s an important one. Just like a good waitress who would never pool tips – for she knows she’s a better performer than her peers – a good salesperson demands to be rewarded for individual productivity. If your candidate wants a high salary and no risk, or says something like “money’s not important to me” – keep looking.
  • Great sales people have a high performance track record. Unlike the stock market, past performance is an indicator of future success. Irrespective of their experience level – and there may be very good reasons why you want to hire a junior rep – the candidate should be able to demonstrate significant accomplishments in their background, accomplishments beyond “average.”  If it’s unclear how they stood-out from the crowd – pass.
  • Great sales people wear well. Sales personalities tend to have large egos, but they know the line between persistence and obnoxiousness with prospects, and how to get what they want internally without throwing their weight around. Cross-function interviews are key, conducted by individuals from the various departments that interface with sales. A sales person that brings in tons of revenue but doesn’t play well with customer service, operations, finance, etc., will be toxic for your organization. If those departments say thumbs down  – don’t make the hire. It’s also important to conduct interviews over time vs. all in one day. Wearing well, and its opposite, proves out over time. Hire slow / fire fast is a popular adage for good reason.
  • Great sales people think on their feet. Don’t interview with a bunch of stock questions. Ask them open-ended questions that reveal their personality, values, expectations. Use situational questions as well, e.g., identify a particular sales or service situation they might face, and ask them how they’d approach it. If they don’t engage, seem flat, or worse, act stunned – move on.  That said, I’m not a believer in the “sell me this pen” approach.  It’s phony and creates a panic. Situational discussions are far more revealing of one’s skills.
  • Great sales people love their work. Average sales people just do it for a living; great sales people love sales. They love the customer relationships, thrill of the close, stroke of the ego, prestige within their company, ability to influence their paycheck. Probe for this. Ask the simple question, “What do you love about your job?” You’ll be astounded how many how many sales people have no compelling reasons except that it can be lucrative. If their reasons aren’t numerous and authentic  – don’t call them in for round 2.
  • Great sales people are not already sales managers. Never say never, but it’s the rare sales manager that successfully reverts to carrying an individual quota. They gave it up once, and it’s highly unlikely their desire for the position outweighs their need for a job. If you ask why they’d accept a sales position again, you’ll often hear, “I loved selling; I’m happy to do it again; it’s no problem for me,” and various fond memories of the job. But after they’ve arrived, their activity levels will be low and they’ll be desperate for when you’ll allow them to hire someone else that they can manage. Unless you’re in a start up situation, and there is an exlplicit agreement around short term revenue goals that will in turn fund his/her ability to bring in a team, I would shy away from a sales manager interested in a quota carrying sales position.
  • Great sales people are social media savvy.  This is particularly true in the B2B world. If your candidate is not active on LinkedIn and using it to network, find leads and referrals, and gather intelligence about prospects – keep looking at other resumes.
  • And for heaven’s sake….check references!  Done right, reference checks get to the heart of the individual’s track record and persona. Ask for references from both former employers and customers.  So many companies ignore this step thinking that no reference will ever turn up bad. This is absolutely not the case and you’ll pay dearly for foregoing this step.

What else do you look for to discover great sales talent? Please add to this list!


| Categories: B2B Sales Strategy, Blog, Growth, Leadership, Sales
Tags: , , , ,

6 Comments to Keys to Hiring Great Sales Talent

  1. Gary Zander
    March 22, 2012 10:42 pm

    Great, thorough synopsis on sales hiring. I’d add… Great sales people are strong problem-solvers – they’re empathetic to understand the client’s point of view, they strive to create win-win scenarios, and they’re articulate and convincing when proposing their solutions.

    • Karen Jackson
      March 23, 2012 7:42 am

      Gary, important addition – thank you! I think this is where the curiosity also trait comes in. If a person is curious, they look at a problem from multiple angles and try to understand points of view.

  2. Carol
    March 22, 2012 10:45 pm

    Great article!

    What else do you look for to discover great sales talent?

    Hunter instincts. Great sales people get up every morning and wonder where they will sell, that will lead to profits , that will lead them to eating (sustainability).

    No sales , no food.

    • Karen Jackson
      March 23, 2012 7:52 am

      Thanks for your post Carol. That “getting up each morning excited for the hunt” quality is key, and a big ingredient of why good sales people really love their job. It’s also why comp plans have to be reward oriented. You can’t send people out for the hunt but not pay them for the kill. The caution is that classic “hunters” are good at lead generation and closing, but not typically good at relationship management over time. It’s necessary to determine our needs in advance of hiring. For example, do we need people to fill the pipeline or people to perform account exec roles? In larger organizations, sales people will generally be responsible for the sales cycle, but after the initial close, immediately turn it over to another part of the organization, i.e., service delivery team. They then move on to the hunt. Small biz owners rarely have that luxury.

  3. Bill Bliss
    April 10, 2012 1:19 pm


    A great article. I particularly like how you have given “permission” to walk away if any of the signs you identified are pointed out. Better to keep looking rather than ignore a potential red flag or settle.

    I would add a couple of points – I am a bigger fan of behaviorally based questions rather than situational questions. The behaviorally based question gives an answer of how the person actually responded to a real situation, rather than a possible way they would respond in a situation. I’d change the question to, “Tell me about your most difficult customer or client. What makes them difficult and what have you done to deal with this situation?” Or, “Tell me about the most challenging sale you made in the last 12 months? What was it like and why was it challenging?” Or, “Tell me some creative ways you have used to get a sale when the conventional methods didn’t work.”

    In addition to doing reference checks with current or previous customers, I would also suggest using a Caliper profile for the finalists. This tool has been around for 50 years and has proven time and again its reliability in predicting the performance of among other roles, sales people for sure. I have used it frequently (over 1200 times) with many clients and find it to be so insightful.



    • Karen Jackson
      April 10, 2012 2:02 pm

      Bill thank you so much for your insights. “Tell me about…” is a wonderful way to position the question for the reasons you described. It is also useful in observing what path an individual will head down in response. Thanks also for the suggestion of using Caliper. I know many are searching for a tool they feel reliable. If you’ve used it more than 1200 times and still find it insightful, I’d say that’s a testimonial!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *