Fire. We are told to look for "fire" in new sales reps so they'll have a burning desire to find and close deals. And while drive is tremendously important, staying composed, focused, and motivated during long sales cycles requires more.
To determine if a candidate will be successful, use this checklist of traits and questions.
What to Look for in a Sales Hire
- Natural Curiosity
- Active Listening
- Selling Aptitude
- Record of Success
No matter how much you love it, sales isn't an easy job. There are going to be hard days and some sales won't go your way. That's why sales reps need to have grit.
According to Dan Tyre, a Partner Sales Enablement Manager at HubSpot, "Sales reps need to have the ability to push through when things get hard."
Senior Sales Manager at HubSpot, Mintis Hankerson, agrees.
Hankerson adds, "There are always going to be lots of unknowns in a role. You will always need to learn new things. But a foundation of hard work and resilience provides the needed soft skills to learn the hard skills."
Sales is as much a mental game as it is a job. To have grit in the position means that when the uncontrollables aren't in your favor, you can lean into the controllables and your own inputs.
"Sales success is truly about our own inputs whether it be into skill development or more prospecting activity," Hankerson says.
When interviewing sales candidates, ask these questions to help determine if they have grit:
- "Tell me something that was very hard for you to learn when you first started."
- "How did you handle a tough life experience or challenge in your career? What did you rely on to get you through that?"
2. Natural Curiosity
To succeed in sales, you need to have a natural curiosity. Similar to problem-solving, with a natural curiosity, a sales rep should be able to troubleshoot and learn as they go.
Tyre says, "I like people who like to figure things out."
To determine if a candidate has natural curiosity, ask them these questions:
- "What's your learning style?"
- "What do you do for fun?"
- "How will you figure out the right things to prioritize?"
While everyone thinks the confident, guns-blazing, sales rock star is the ideal hire, bringing passionate, careful, and disciplined sales reps to your team will benefit you more in the long run.
Conscientious reps may not come out of the gate with leads and sales, but their ability to plan things in advance and set and commit to goals usually correlates with better execution and outcomes.
A conscientious rep is organized, disciplined, and has excellent time management and focus.
Daniel Palacios, a sales manager at HubSpot, says, "These traits will enable you to be successful, since a process is made to enable a rep to thrive. These are foundational traits - build the wrong foundation and it all collapses - because it enables the rep to start controlling the inputs related to activity."
When interviewing, search for proof of initiative, accountability, and results. Consider using these prompts:
- "How do you stay organized?
- "What is your process for prioritization?"
- "Give me a time when you were completely overwhelmed and how did you deal with it?"
- "Have you set difficult selling goals for yourself?"
- "What specific ways did you push yourself to achieve that goal?"
- "Describe how you would execute something similar in the role we are discussing."
- "If I gave you 100 accounts today how would you sort them? Be specific on the approach."
- "How do you select which companies you invest time with? Can you give me an example where you selected to work one account over another one?"
What drives your sales reps? Do they have a desire to succeed?
Aviva Walsh, a Partner Sales Team Manager at HubSpot, says, "To be successful a sales rep needs to have a why and a passion for whatever that why is. It can be anything that's important to them -- family, house, a yacht, financial stability. Whatever it is, it's something that drives them."
Walsh adds, "They need to have an end goal that gives them a path to work back from - this translates into a clear plan, that they can break down into smaller more achievable goals. If you don't know what you're aiming for, you don't know where you're going."
To figure out if they have hunger, ask about the last book they read or what has influenced their sales career. How does this translate into passion for the job they are applying for now? Determine how well they researched your company/the role and how passionate they are by asking:
- "What keeps you up at night?" (If they say they sleep like a baby because they always hit quota, move on. This suggests a short-sighted view of sales and a failure to strive for greater accomplishments. No matter how often quota is attained, there is always room to grow and to become a better salesperson.)
- "If you worked here, what do you think would keep you up at night?" (Their natural answer will be "hitting quota," but dig deeper here.)
- "Tell me about a time you set a goal for yourself? Why was that goal important? How did you go about achieving it?"
As a sales rep, things are going to go wrong. But it's how a rep handles those situations that speak volumes to the type of employee they'll be.
Walsh says, "It's really easy for a sales rep to blame outside factors when things aren't going their way. 'My territory isn't great, my targets too high, the rules don't make sense', etc. And oftentimes things really are challenging, but to be successful a rep needs to be able to take outside factors stride and focus on what they can control."
This means that while a rep can't control increasing quotas, they can control their own process, how they sell, where and how they find opportunity, and professional development.
To find out if a candidate has accountability, ask these questions:
- "Give me an example of a time when things weren't going your way. How did you handle it? What was the outcome?"
As we know, sales reps spend a lot of time talking to other people. Whether it's prospects or colleagues, most of the day is spent interacting with others. This means that reps need to have empathy and relate to who they're talking to.
Walsh explains, "A good rep knows what their customers feel and what they actually need. By being empathetic a rep can build trust and get a good understanding of where the customer is and what the actual issue is that they need to solve."
"Prospects these days are guarded and afraid of being 'sold to', so if a rep can show humanity, the prospect is much more likely to share important information that will allow the rep to truly be able to help," Walsh adds.
When interviewing, you can ask this question to see if a candidate has empathy:
- "Tell me about a time a customer or prospect was unwilling to share important information with you that you needed to make the sale. How did you handle it?"
This is a necessary trait for any hire, to be honest, but especially sales reps.
"Reps need to be focusing on continuous improvement to keep their skills sharp and stay ahead of the game," Walsh says. "If they can't take constructive feedback well or are not open-minded enough to learn from others, they won't progress. It's really important to keep an 'always be learning' mindset to be successful in sales."
A great way to figure out if sales candidates are coachable is to ask these questions:
- "How do you make sure you're always learning and improving?"
- "Do you have an example of a time where you failed at something, received feedback and was able to put that feedback into action?"
- "Can you tell me a time your manager/mentor coached you? Can you please tell me the process on why the conversation started and how it improved?"
8. Active Listening
Not to be redundant, but sales reps talk to a lot of people in their day. They need to be able to truly listen to prospects who are sharing their goals and discussing their issues.
Brian Sexton, a HubSpot Sales Manager, says "This is important because every single day a rep is going to have a multitude of conversations. We need to understand and ensure they have the ability to actively listen to what prospects are actually saying. They need to pay attention, be mindful, pace well, have body language in the right tone, and respond appropriately."
To determine if a sales candidate can actively listen, try out this question:
- Ask a question that might seem random just to see if the candidate is paying attention.
9. Selling Aptitude
Someone might be able to "sell," but that doesn't tell you what they know, how quickly they grasp new ideas, and if they can make big picture connections. Top-performing sales reps have a thirst for learning and growing -- you just have to determine if the person in front you meets the bill.
Review resumes closely for academic (GPAs, honors), career, and workplace achievements (President's Club or other industry awards, positions held on boards or committees, etc.) Assess their ability to simplify complex topics, especially if they'll be dealing with complex sales.
Sexton also wants to know if a candidate can challenge a prospect.
He says, "Does this individual have the ability to specifically challenge a prospect's thoughts or assumptions based on their problems. For the simple reason being we can't help everyone, so a rep can't be scared or worried to ask difficult questions and challenge a prospect during their selling process."
Additionally, a rep should have a closing mentality. "In the role we do as sales reps, it's highly transactional," Sexton adds. "Reps have a number of conversations. I need to make sure the sales hire has the ability to have a closing mentality and ask themselves, 'Is this a prospect we can help and if so, how can we move forward?'"
Palacios says that selling aptitude should translate to the discovery process and help reps match problems with solutions.
He says, "This is what enables the rep to first understand what the prospect is needing and what can we offer. Sometimes we are not the best software for their need and sometimes we fit like a glove."
These questions will be useful:
- "Explain [complicated process] in a digestible way." (It can be any process, from changing the oil in a car to cooking Coq au Vin.)
- "Where in sales do you want to improve? What is your plan to accomplish that?"
- Do a role play and when you're pretending to be the prospect, give the candidate answers that the rep should challenge.
- "How does your day-to-day looks like today? Please tell me by the hour."
- "Could you tell me a time where you realized you were lacking a certain skill and how did you improve it?"
How will they handle the unexpected when it is followed by another unexpected? Most of us are prepared for one shoe to drop but two? Find out how the candidate would manage next steps when a prospect or client quickly changed direction, requiring mid-evaluation and new KPIs. Create role play scenarios -- one might have you becoming a somewhat antagonistic prospect so you can see how they adapt to unforeseen circumstances and difficult prospects.
Afterwards, ask them to critique themselves and then give your honest feedback. If they get defensive about their handling of the situation, move on. But if they genuinely welcome your perspective, they may be a valuable fit.
- "How have you handled unexpected situations in your previous roles?"
- Create a role play where you play a somewhat antagonistic prospect.
11. Record of Success
Sales achievements and college GPAs are just the first part of learning their personal meaning of success. Sales reps are driven by their competitive nature and, let's face it, money.
But simply hitting quota isn't enough in many organizations. Companies want team players, people who care about the company's success as much as their own, and reps who aspire to be leaders in the organization.
If one rep's greatest accomplishment is achieving President's Club, and another cites renewing the company's most lucrative contract as the most rewarding achievement, you get a glimpse into what each sees as most important. One benefits the rep, the other benefits the rep and the company.
Incorporate these questions into the interview:
- "What do you consider to be your single and most significant accomplishment?" (This question is universal because whether your candidate has a long work history or is directly out of school, you will find out what is important to them and how they define success.)
- "If you were assigned the same task today, what would you do differently?" (This may not be applicable in all situations, but it's a great way to evaluate their willingness to reflect on past performance and apply learnings to new tasks.)
Asking questions is great. Listening carefully to what your candidates say is better. But when candidates actually show you these traits, that's the sign you've got a real winner.