Hiring Salespeople : What Traits, Skills & Behaviors Should I be Looking for ?

Hiring salespeople is, without doubt, the single most important part of a sales leaders role. Employing sales people who have a high probability of succeeding is critical to you and your companies long-term success, yet it’s rare for leaders to have had any formal training on how to hire effectively and what to look for in potential future stars. This leads to decisions being made on “gut feel”, certainly not a repeatable strategy that scales.

Over the years I’ve hired lots of salespeople and I’m thankful that the vast majority have proven to be successful as well as being great people. That’s not to say that I haven’t made mistakes, I certainly have. My objective with this post is to share some of the traits, skills and behaviors that I look for in Salespeople to help you maximise your hiring success and hopefully help you avoid some of your own costly mistakes.

Before I get into the details of what to look for when hiring salespeople I want to share one very important message … at some point you are going to get it wrong, expect it and be prepared to move very quickly when you do. My advice, be honest and transparent, correct the situation with maximum urgency and dignity for all involved. When this happens you will know very quickly that the individual doesn’t fit, make the tough call and end things quickly for the benefit of all concerned. Rule no. 1 – Hire Slow, Fire Fast.

Here’s a non exhaustive selection of traits that I look for when Hiring Future Sales Stars :-

  1. Curiosity – I look for salespeople who demonstrate genuine, natural curiosity. People who are interested in their customers will engage and connect at a higher level, their questioning is of higher quality and more insightful. They avoid tiring situation questions and clichéd “what keeps you awake at night” questions.
  2. Intelligence – the days when a salesperson could be successful just by being outgoing, gregarious and persistent are long gone. Today’s successful salespeople lead with insights, challenge the status quo and coach their customer to performance improvement. This demands high levels of intelligence and strong mental agility.
  3. Coach-ability – even proven world-class performers utilise coaches, they understand that the small details matter and are happy to accept help and guidance from those who could provide them with even the slightest performance advantage.
  4. Desire to learn and Improve – this is closely related to coach-ability. World class salespeople are always striving to learn and improve. They understand that even the best can get better and they are hungry for learning to help drive their own performance improvement.
  5. Optimism & Enthusiasm – people still buy from people, enthusiasm and optimism are contagious, nobody wants to work with negative, unenthusiastic people.
  6. Confidence – I look for people who have confidence in themselves and a belief that anything is possible given enough time and work. Surprisingly, I find truly confident people have higher levels of humility and display no sign of the arrogance that can be confused with confidence.
  7. Work Ethic – this is very simple, strong performers work harder. Work ethic generally trumps talent (within reason) and you will find that successful salespeople put more effort into preparing to perform, they leave very little to chance.
  8. Pro-activity – speed of thought and speed of action are important. I love to work with proactive people who make things happen and create something from nothing. I would much rather work with people who try and fail rather than those who sit back and wait for the perfect timing.
  9. Results Focus – many people judge their performance based upon their intent, others judge us based upon our results. I want to work with people who measure their success based upon their results, these are the people who hone and refine their skills to ensure the best possible outcome every-time.

If you are striving to make good, strong, repeatable hiring decisions (and who isn’t) then determine which traits are indicative of success in your business, develop a series of questions that uncover these traits and then use them consistently in every potential hire interview. Record the responses and scores for each question, you will very quickly have a benchmark to use that indicates the propensity of any individual to succeed.

I really can’t stress the importance of hiring enough, it’s the difference between winning or losing, it’s the future of your business. Done well it’s the largest source of competitive advantage (let’s not dwell on the impact when it’s not done well) and therefore deserves the time and effort needed to get it right time after time.

The Basics of Social Selling: How to Educate & Engage your Buyers Early

Social Selling is simply no longer optional for salespeople, if you have not already done so then it’s time to grasp the nettle. I’ve mentioned many, many times previously that B2B buyers have evolved, they are active in the digital world. They spend time researching companies and their product offerings long before they launch an active buying cycle. If you are a salesperson and are not active in the digital world of Social Selling then you are at a disadvantage, ultimately having to work far harder to make quota. If you are a sales leader, its high time to invest at least a small part of your training budget in supporting your teams development as social sellers.

Social Selling is based upon the theory of Six Degrees of Separation … “everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world”. Putting this theory into practice and investing the time to cultivate your network will expand your reach and, done correctly, position you as a thought leader in the eyes of your customers and prospects ready for a time when they need you. These days just about everyone has a LinkedIn profile but far less are following a thoughtful plan to maximise social selling success, it’s time to work smarter !

How do I get Started with the Basics?

I believe that the three fundamental building blocks of Social Selling success are :-

  1. The Scale of your Network.
  2. The Relevance of the Content being posted.
  3. The Value of your Interactions.

The quality of each of these basic building blocks is critical, by investing a small amount of time everyday to improve each of these three areas anyone can improve their social selling skills.

Which Social Networks Should I Focus Upon?

If you are engaged in selling to business customers then the two most appropriate networks with the highest number of registered users worldwide are 1) LinkedIn, circa 347 million users and 2) Twitter, circa 288 million users and this is where you should start. The other social networks (Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat etc.) are primarily geared towards consumers which doesn’t make them ideal vehicles for cultivating strong business to business relationships. Most people prefer to keep business and personal digital lives somewhat separated.

The Importance of the Scale of your Network

The basic rule of social selling is this … the greater the number of connections or followers that you have the greater the reach of your posts and the higher the probability that a potential customer will read and interact with your post. However, while the size of your network is important, the quality and influence of your connections also has a huge impact upon your social selling success. While you should be focused on growing your network and adding to the volume of people with whom you are connected, size is not the only important measure. You should also strive to connect with influential people (as they are probably connected with other influential people) and people within the companies that are important to you as they will definitely be connected with others in those companies.

What Should I Post?

Your goal is to educate and engage potential buyers prior to them formally engaging in a sales / buyer relationship and that means that you need to work very closely with your colleagues in Marketing. It’s probable that your Marketing partners have developed a Content Marketing plan and are publishing numerous articles across all digital media. If you are in a position to use expertly prepared professional content then do so, post content on both LinkedIn and Twitter that is relevant to potential buyers. I define “relevant” content as something that adds insight and value to your buyer in their buying role. Content such as success stories, thought-provoking insights, how to’s, top tips, check-lists etc. all provide value to clients and prospects in your network helping you educate and engage them early. Avoid posting the latest maths problem, word-search or any other non business focused content. Low relevance, or put a little more bluntly, posting rubbish, will quickly see your posts “hidden” from view as your connections strive to keep their feed useful.

I would also highly recommend that you utilise one of the free tools that help you organise your posting schedule. Check out services from Buffer, Hootsuite, Oktopost or Sendible.

How should I Connect & Interact ?

There is an etiquette to social selling. My advice is this … pay it forward. Look to be helpful, offer people something of value and expect nothing in return. Stay focused on the bigger picture, your plan is to educate and engage over time so that your connections turn to you at their time of need, don’t expect immediate payback. When sending a connection request on LinkedIn always explain why you want to connect and ensure that your reasons are relevant to them. Just as in the physical world, connection requests without explaining the reason are poor form and may lead to you being ignored, as are cold messages trying to sell something without any understanding of the persons context. Always ask yourself … am I adding value before pressing the send button !

Twitter is a little different, you can freely “Follow” anyone and I recommend that you do. Seek out all of your prospects and customers, follow them and regularly read their Tweets to gain insight into their world. Twitter is often a great way to engage senior people, 120 characters demands that your messages are short, sharp and direct.

It’s time to work smart, in fact its past time, if you are not using Social Selling to educate and engage customers then you are already behind the curve. Being present is no longer an option, if you’re not actively social selling then expect your customers to be turning to your competitors who are. Dive in and explore what’s possible, your pipelines will be better for it !

Extrovert, Introvert or Ambivert and How it Impacts Sales Performance

Those of you who have read any of my previous posts will know that I believe the role of B2B salespeople is in a period of transformational change, the behaviors and traits valued so highly by Sales Leaders and the Executive Suite in the past are evolving to be replaced by a set of behaviors built upon the foundation of curiosity, insight and a deep desire to help customers achieve their desired outcome. (Take a look at my post here to see what I believe will be the cornerstone of skills for salespeople of the future.)

In this post I’d like to explore personality style and the impact it has on results in the new world of modern, professional selling.

Firstly, lets spend a few seconds thinking about the traditional persona of a successful salesperson, chances are you are using adjectives such as Personable, Friendly, Gregarious, Funny, Energetic, an Ideas person. You may also be using Demanding, Egotistical, Craves Attention, Shoots from the hip, focuses on new bright shiny objects etc. It will come as no surprise that the traits being described are those of an extrovert. In the old world, where information was scarce and the seller held the balance of power in the buyer / seller relationship, an extrovert, pumped up and energised by engaging with many different people, was often most successful. The persona of the brave, macho, selfish salesperson leading the charge and driven to overcome the enemy is one that many sales leaders continue to search for when hiring talent today.

Since my earliest days as a sales professional (over 20 years ago) I’ve personally struggled with this persona. I would not describe myself as an extrovert and if you needed to be strongly extroverted to be successful in your sales career then maybe I’d made a poor career choice. Experience is a wonderful teacher and over the years I’ve studied and learned what makes a salesperson successful. I’ve gained the confidence to go my own way, not follow the accepted route and ignore the general belief. Finally, science and research, has now vindicated my gut decision not to focus on hiring extroverts all of those years ago, the correlation between extraversion and strong sales performance is effectively ZERO (see Why Extroverts Fail, Introverts Flounder and You Probably Succeed).

I am a big fan of Dan Pink, his book “Drive” is one of the most insightful business books that I’ve read and I’m pleased to say his most recent book has had a similar impact on me. “Drive” confirmed, with science and research, that some of the counter-intuitive beliefs that I hold to be true, actually are. In “To Sell is Human” he’s repeated the feat and compiled data on the personality styles with the greatest correlation to sales success.

So here’s the good news … the personality style with the greatest correlation to sales success is that of the ambivert, the style that sits dead centre on the Introvert / Extrovert scale (see the chart). The people who are introverted in some situations and extroverted in others with the ability to flex between styles, this is where the greatest correlation exists. The bad news … the further you move away from the centre point the lower the correlation to sales success and as I explained at the beginning of this post, many of today’s sales leaders are still focusing on hiring extroverts.

Customers have changed, buying cycles have changed, salespeople are transforming and now sales leaders everywhere have the research to help guide their hiring decisions. It’s high time sales leaders evolved the traits and behaviors that they look for when hiring future stars.

When hiring sales talent in complex B2B environments avoid the extremes of personality. Prioritise and search for those people who are finely balanced, they have the curiosity and well honed listening skills associated with an introvert combined with the confidence and energy associated with an extrovert. Hiring is such a critically important aspect of building a successful sale team, all of the training and coaching in the world won’t help if you’ve hired the wrong people. You owe it to yourself and your team to spend a little more time searching for the traits that are scientifically proven to correlate with modern sales success and not those associated with the old world.

Salespeople … Be Your Customers Knowledgeable, Curious Coach.

In my previous post I discussed “Five Skills that Define the Outstanding Salesperson of the Future”, one of the skills I highlighted is what I like to call “being a curious and knowledgeable business coach”. In this post I will discuss this in further detail, highlight what this means for salespeople and how you should use this to strengthen your relationships with customers.

Research tells us that modern B2B customers do not engage a salesperson until they are circa 60% of the way through the buying cycle (see the HBR article : The End of Solution Sales). Lots of information that customers use to make a purchasing decision can be collected without engaging a salesperson. Researching solutions, ranking providers, benchmarking pricing and gathering reviews can all be completed before ever talking with a salesperson. Technology and the onset of social media has enabled this power shift towards the buyer and it’s a trend that is only going to accelerate.

These days, this is old news. I think even the most doubting salespeople will agree that the buyer journey has evolved and in order to continue to be deemed valuable salespeople need to change too. With such a short window of opportunity in the new buying cycle, how do salespeople make an impact and differentiate themselves from their competition ? The good news is that the individual salesperson, if they have the skills and behave in the appropriate way, can still make a hugely valuable contribution to their customers success. What’s more the length of your sales-cycles will reduce as customers are much further through their buying cycle before they engage, that’s an added bonus !

Here are my top three tips on how to make the transition to being your customers knowledgeable, curious coach :-

  1. Cultivate strong role acumen : You need to be relevant, this means understanding your customers job in detail. Process, outcomes, measurements, challenges, competitors, winners, losers – you name it, you need to know about it. You must have a sufficiently deep understanding of your customers job that you could effectively step into their shoes. This is hard and it demands that you specialise and focus, you ought to be able go deep and still be comfortable with the conversation. This moves past having a vertical market specialisation, this is about truly understanding the challenges of a role within a vertical market, being able to genuinely empathise and then share insights on how to get to the required outcome. You will not be able to achieve this if you are unable to specialise, you must create a way of gaining a sufficiently deep understanding not a broad yet shallow one.
  2. Be an inquisitive sponge : Read, listen, study, watch, discuss, comment, learn and repeat. There is no shortage of content, insight and learning available to salespeople today. How you do it is down to individual preference and learning styles, but make no mistake, you should soak up every piece of available insight about your customers role, company, and market that could give you an edge. If you don’t feel that you have the knowledge to successfully step into your customers shoes then find ways to develop yourself until you do. Commit to the this, don’t wait for others to provide the opportunity for you to learn, be proactive, seek out ways of improving your domain expertise.
  3. Live the Values of a Coach : The definition of a coach is “someone whose job it is to teach people to improve”. I believe that a sales persons role is to teach people and therefore companies to improve by utilising whatever it is that you are selling (and sometimes by avoiding what you are selling when it doesn’t fit). Coaches first and foremost watch, listen and learn. They ask challenging, thought-provoking questions that help people simplify and break challenge’s down into manageable chunks. A coach guides and supports people on their journey to improvement and will always look at situations through the lens of “improvement”, they will not hold back or avoid giving difficult advice if it would help obtain an improved outcome. Next time you prepare for a customer meeting, take off your salesperson hat and put on your coaches hat, how does that change the way you prepare for your meeting ?

Buyers have changed, buying cycles have changed and they won’t be going back. Salespeople now have a choice, change and stay relevant to your buyers or stubbornly stick with what worked in the past. Change is never easy, it takes hard work and dedication, yet this is exactly how the top 1% of salespeople get to be a member of that exclusive club … will you choose to be one of them ?