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.

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 ?

Five Skills that Define the Outstanding Salesperson of the Future

If you have a spare minute today, do a quick search of social media and take a look at the volume of articles posted discussing the future of selling and how the role of the salesperson is changing. Headlines such as “1 million B2B Sales Jobs will Vanish by 2020” grab your attention and strike fear into many. There is no doubt that the role of a salesperson is evolving but are things really as bad as the headlines suggest ?

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that buyers have changed, the buying process has changed and the balance of power between the buyer and salesperson has radically shifted towards the buyer. Buyers are more informed, have faster, easier, access to knowledge and are well-connected to experts in their industry. All of this ensures that buyers are much farther through the buying process before they even consider engaging a salesperson and when they do, they often know exactly who they intend to engage.

In this context it’s easy to understand how the historic persona of the salesperson who is a brave, hard charging, lone wolf capable of breaking down doors to find and close the deal is no longer relevant. The days when salespeople where able to engage buyers in discussion around commodity products sold in a transactional manner are gone forever to be replaced by fast efficient technology that enable buyers to self-serve and complete the buying process without ever engaging a salesperson. If you are a seller in this type of commodity, transactional market then I’m afraid you will either change or become extinct. My advice, take steps to develop yourself and find another role soon, before the decision is made for you.

At the other end of the seller spectrum the future is very bright. I believe the need for professional salespeople who are thought leaders, able to add value throughout the buying process and take pride in helping their customers be successful will continue to grow. The traits and skills of individuals who operate successfully in this context are however very different to those that have proved successful in the past. So what are some of the traits and skills needed for future success :-

Collaborator : the successful salesperson of the future will be an outstanding collaborator, someone who thrives on working WITH their customers, in sequence with the buying process and helping enable the customer to buy. (Note: while I said working WITH customers that does not mean that you always agree with their point of view.)

Thought Leader / Educator : expertise in content marketing, an active presence on social media and a willingness to participate in networking discussions are a prerequisite for today’s salesperson. The ability to create a close partnership with colleagues in Marketing is important. The successful salesperson spends more time educating and developing their thought leadership to engage potential customers very early in their buying process, sometimes years before they have an active requirement.

Curious & Knowledgeable Business Coach : Salespeople will have a deep understanding of their customer, their customers industry and issues effecting their customers business. They will have specific domain knowledge, be curious and capable of asking insightful questions that drive their customers business forwards. A coach is someone who is accountable for helping the individual being coached develop and perform at a higher level, this is a great description of the successful salesperson of the future.

Generates Referrals & Recommendations : Salespeople of the future will pride themselves on collecting recommendations and referrals from delighted clients. Word of mouth and introductions from happy customers will be the pre-eminent method of lead generation. Traditional “Cold Calling” morphs into “Warm Calling” and proves to be far more effective.

Closing is the Natural Conclusion : Great Closing skills that manipulate a client to buy outside of their buying process are no longer deemed a strength. Salespeople of the future will close deals as the natural conclusion to the buying process where knowledge and insight has delivered value from the start and differentiated the salesperson from their competition.

The profession of selling is going through a period of radical change brought about by technology disrupting traditional processes, like many other professions. I believe that we are at the “tipping point” where selling will become regarded as true profession and the standards, skill levels and ethics of those employed in sales roles will be of the very highest level. Darwin’s “Origin of Species” quote describes the salespersons current predicament perfectly It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”