When it comes to assessing a candidate’s fit for sales, one size definitely does not fit all. Traits such as assertiveness, criticism tolerance (the ability to take a “no”), and resilience may be important to “get past the gatekeeper” and “close the sale.” But selling complex products or differentiating a company’s services from those of its competitors requires consultative and relationship selling skills—two competencies that many salespeople lack. For example, transactional sales (especially those based primarily on price) depend on the salesperson’s ability to do three things: to get people to accept a call, to negotiate the best deal, and to close quickly. More complex selling opportunities require extensive product knowledge, broad competitive intelligence, excellent relationship-management skills, and resilience. Years of experience and a decade’s worth of President’s Club awards are not necessarily transferable from one industry to another, one company to another, or even one territory or product to another.
Before hiring or promoting a salesperson, you must ask these eight questions when screening and interviewing candidates:
1. What product or services are you selling? Success in selling requires a lot more than a few years of experience and the completion of sales skills training. Adding value and differentiating your company from the rest of a crowded market require finesse and advanced skills.
2. To whom are you selling? Selling promotional products to a retail shop owner requires a very different sales skill set from selling an enterprise-wide human resource information system.
3. How competitive is the marketplace? If you are the only game in town (or at least considered the industry leader), salespeople can lean on the company’s reputation for credibility. But what if your company or product is unfamiliar to your prospects? The most important skill a salesperson might need is the ability to build endorsement.
4. Is this a new territory or a mature one? As when negotiating markets that vary in competitiveness, developing a new territory or working a mature market requires different selling styles and skills. (You are likely familiar with the “hunters versus farmers” sales model.) It’s much easier to introduce yourself as the new account manager when a customer down the street has been doing business with your company for several years than to try to get the prospect to take a chance on an unknown.
5. How long is a typical sales cycle? The longer the selling cycle, the more the salesperson needs a system in place for tracking and following leads and referrals. He or she must be patient and resilient and equipped to stick it out for the long haul. Products or services with long selling cycle s often have bigger rewards, but many salespeople are more motivated and skilled at shorter-cycle, faster rewards. (And that leads us to the compensation question . . .)
6. How do salespeople get paid? This is a complex and complicated question. But the more commission-based the compensation, the more money-management skills the salesperson must have to deal with the ups and downs of income, especially for longer selling cycles. Few hiring managers take this into consideration before hiring the high-potential candidate. Unfortunately, many sales failures have nothing to do with sales skills but arise from the need for short-term income to pay the mortgage and put food on the table while waiting for the big commission check.
7. Who is responsible for lead generation? If developing new business is a requirement for the job, then assessing the sales candidate’s track record or potential for identifying, cold calling, and qualifying new customers and developing new relationships must be part of the hiring equation. For the company that has a steady stream of warm leads, finding qualified candidates just got a lot easier. Do not assume, however, that the ability to contact warm leads and qualify them is a predictive indicator of the ability to identify new customers and cold call them.
8. Who is responsible for writing and presenting proposals? The ability to write and the ability to present are critical communication skills in today’s marketplace. Unfortunately, few salespeople have mastered these skills at a level necessary to compete effectively.