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.

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1) Conscientiousness

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. When interviewing, search for proof of initiative, accountability, and results.

Consider using these prompts:

  • “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.”

2) 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.

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?”

3) Adaptability

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.

4) Previous achievements

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.)

5) Hunger

What drives your sales reps? 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.)

Asking questions is great. Listening carefully to what your candidates say is better. But when candidates actually show you their conscientiousness, aptitude, adaptability and hunger, that’s the sign you’ve got a real winner. Last week I conducted a first in-person interview after several phone conversations. The candidate arrived with a 30-60-90 plan of what he would do should he get the job. With that kind of initiative, he just might.

Originally published Dec 27, 2017 7:30:00 AM, updated October 04 2019


Sales Hiring