Sales Capacity

How to hire sales reps: A guide to hiring the right salesperson

Ask any revenue leader if hiring sales reps is a current priority, and you’ll almost always hear yes. It could be because the business is rapidly scaling (and therefore hiring), considering scaling (and therefore planning to hire) or fighting attrition (and therefore backfilling). But even when there aren’t open reqs, getting the right salespeople in the door is always in the back of revenue leaders’ minds. This is because sales capacity and hiring is a critical component of sales planning and forecasting.

Yet the average sales rep attrition rate is 35% – 3 times higher than other professions. We’ve all heard: “We hired so-and-so and she wasn’t successful. It’s a shame because we all really liked her in the interview process.”

So why does this happen, and how can we avoid it?

If you had to describe a typical salesperson, I’d wager ‘outgoing,’ ‘extroverted,’ or ‘engaging’ would land on your list. Most successful sellers are adept at engaging with people – it’s table stakes for the job. As a result, many salespeople naturally convey enthusiasm, energy and excitement in the interview process – in other words, we like them when we talk to them. But likeability alone is not proof positive they can do the job.

While the recipe for hiring sales reps will look different at each company, several ingredients become a vaccine against this conundrum. Let’s tackle each one:

  • Defining your seller profile
  • Understanding what will attract that profile
  • Using a proven framework to document your profile
  • Crafting a clear interview process to evaluate the profile
  • Using performance data to refine the profile moving forward

Define your profile: What type of salesperson is right for your organization

Most sales reps can find a way to be successful through sheer hard work, but that doesn’t mean they will thrive in every context. Thinking through what makes your business unique will illuminate the unique traits and strengths you need to look for when hiring a salesperson.

The following questions can help hone in on the type of salesperson that might not only be able to succeed, but will also be optimized for your organization:

  • Do you need transactional sellers who can work a high volume of deals and one-call-closes? Or are you in a mid-market motion where a balance of volume and deal size is critical? Or is your business anchored on enterprise deals with long and complex sales cycles?
  • What type of buyers will your sales reps need to build rapport with?  
  • What’s the blend of inbound and outbound deals the sales reps will need to generate or work? 
  • Are you an early-stage company where you need a jack-of-all-trades?  Or a company with tons of role specialization and sales support?
  • Outside of the holy grail of quota attainment, how else will you measure their success?

Understand what will attract the seller profile you want

(At least) half the battle is knowing what traits you need in a salesperson, but the other half is recruiting for it! What matters to your ideal candidates will look different based on the type of salesperson you’re hiring for.  

For an early-in-career sales rep, perhaps it’s the growth potential that matters most to them. For others, they could be more motivated by an incredible compensation package or generous stock options.  

If you’re looking for more technical sellers, perhaps it’s the chance to sell a cutting-edge product, and the opportunity they will have to collaborate with your data science, product or engineering teams. If you have a robust revenue team built out, it could be the level of acceleration they will see via the specialization you have in place.  

Knowing what carrots are a match for your seller profile is key to attracting them to your organization.

The profile skill / will matrix: What to look for when hiring a salesperson

Once you have your ideal salesperson in your mind’s eye, it can be tempting to launch into the job description straight away – you have the profile ready, right?

An interim step can give you even more acceleration to the right hire: a skill / will matrix.  Having adopted this technique from mentors and killer sales leaders over the years, I’ve seen its benefit not only as a leader but also as the salesperson.  It’s a framework that outlines the critical skills (capabilities) and wills (traits and intangibles) that are needed for the role.  

There is no one-size-fits-all skill / will matrix for a salesperson – even within one organization. Rather, it should be specific each time to the seller profile you are hiring for. By putting one in place, we have set the framework for what you need to test and evaluate in the interview cycle. For example, if coachability or receptivity to feedback is a critical trait for your role, that becomes a guidepost for how you’ll operate in your interview stage.

Craft a clear interview process to evaluate your seller profile 

Now that you have your profile ready, ideas on how to attract it, and your skill / will matrix, we should have a solid sense of what is needed.  

We’ll make that foolproof by building a templatized approach and rubric for how to evaluate your candidates against it.  

A typical interview process will often include:

  • HR screen
  • Hiring manager conversation
  • 1x1s or panel interviews with other team members

In these conversations, you can now assign team members specific questions to ask to vet those skills and wills.

Let’s turn our attention to the ‘practical evaluation’ – an area almost always included in engineering interviews (the dreaded ‘coding session’) but sometimes missed in sales interviews. 

This begins in the hiring manager conversation with roleplay scenarios, wherein you can see how the seller can operate on the fly, and importantly, receive your feedback and adjust.

The capstone of the practical evaluation is a presentation round towards the end of the interview process. In this setting, you’re crafting a scenario that your sales rep will commonly face on the job – often this is a discovery and demo conversation. This is facilitated with a crisp prompt.  Each business will adapt this to their unique sales process, but an example is below.

In this presentation you are evaluating whether they cover the agenda items you asked for, and how effectively.  But your assessment actually starts the day before the presentation.  You asked for information to be sent to you in advance: did you receive the items you asked for on time?

Once in the session, you are role playing and interacting throughout, but one of the most critical moments comes as the presentation ends, and you ask the candidate: How did you think that went?

You’re looking for an honest and humble assessment of their performance. The candidate who says ‘that was perfect’ is probably not going to be your most coachable performer.  In addition, you’re providing your own feedback to them – always as a combination of what you felt went well and what they could change next time.  How do they receive and respond to this feedback? This is perhaps the most important firsthand practical signal you can get of what it will feel like when they are on your team.

A final part of the practical evaluation is understanding how the candidate has performed in previous roles from people who have seen their work firsthand, i.e. their references. 

Use performance data to refine the seller profile

Now that you have a systematic rubric for scoring your process and an assessment for each sales hire candidate, you can begin the truly magical part of this: tracking how sales interview evaluations correlate to performance in the role over time.  

Did you identify the right skills and traits for this role? Moving forward you can look at whether the candidates who scored highly during the interview process excelled in the role. And with that insight you can continue to test and iterate on the approach over time to continually refine your hiring process.  We’ll tackle this topic in greater depth in future pieces.

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