I believe that good sales recruiting is both art & science. Some of my strongest salespeople have been the least likely, and vice versa. There is no way to know with certainty how well a rep will perform until they are ramped up, even when they seem like a sure thing from the get-go. But, a well-run recruiting process can help weed out those who are least likely to succeed and increase your odds of hiring the best people.
Although hiring the right candidates is crucial at all stages of a business, in a large company a single sales rep who doesn’t produce doesn’t matter much. Many large organizations have a “some will, some won’t, so what” approach to sales recruiting—knowing the best reps will rise to the top, some will hang out in the middle of the pack, and the rest will leave, or be asked to leave.
But in a smaller organization, especially one that is bootstrapped, every sales hire matters. Every single one. A lot. Hire the wrong person and you’ve lost time, money, internal credibility and, most painfully, potential revenue from the new rep’s territory. New hires are expensive and risky and it hurts to screw up sales recruiting.
After lots of painfully wrong hires and more than a handful of great ones too, here are a few things I learned along the way. This article is long, so if you want the short version of how to hire better sales reps, jump over to my 4-minute video with 9 tips for better sales recruiting.
Take chemistry into consideration.
Chemistry counts on a small sales team. Some sales organizations don’t like to think about chemistry, instead striving to make hiring criteria quantitative and repeatable. But when I think about our most successful sales reps, the one thing I can say for certain is I had some level of natural chemistry with all of them. And so did the rest of the team. From SDRs to account executives this holds true. When interviewing, you have to want to work with them. You have to be able to imagine working with them—and look forward to that, earnestly. Hire someone who doesn’t have chemistry with you and your team and it will throw off a very delicate ecosystem. True chemistry transcends uniformity and will help you build a diverse team of individuals.
Always listen to your gut.
I sometimes had a gut feeling that was ‘off’ about someone, but they seemed right on paper. Or they scored well on my candidate scoring matrix. Or other people wanted to hire them, so I deferred. I sometimes went against my gut. But after a lot of bad hires, I came to learn that my gut is always right when it comes to sales candidates. Trust your instincts.
Use a scoring matrix. Consistently.
Despite my love of chemistry and gut intuition, I do also rely on a scoring matrix in order to evaluate candidates. A scoring matrix lists the most important skills, characteristics and experience, unique to your organization and products/services. These items are tracked throughout the interview process, leading to a quantifiable candidate score. This score is the counterbalance to the emotional aspects of hiring. Sometimes, I didn’t have chemistry with a candidate, or my gut said “no”, but they scored very high, so I hired them based on score alone. This never worked out. Using a scoring matrix is very important, but it’s just one part of candidate evaluation. Other times, when I loved a candidate, I was blinded by that love and disregarded things I saw in their score. Or, worse, I skipped the scoring altogether, “Who needs a score–she’s perfect for us!”. That never worked out either. Scoring isn’t everything, but it is an important part of the process and shouldn’t be skipped. Scoring gives you the less subjective perspective in terms of how the candidate actually fits your requirements and stacks up against all your other candidates, past and present.
Rely on standardized interview questions.
Similar to the scoring matrix, I believe all candidates, throughout the process, should be asked the same set of questions. Too many times when weighing the pros and cons of various candidates, I found not having a consistent set of information in front of me led to not having a full picture of the potential hire. Come up with a set of questions that will be asked at each stage of the interview process, and ask them. Every time.
Ask the tough questions.
Include some very tough questions in your standard interview questions to ensure you actually ask them. Too often, as sales managers, we know the questions we should ask, but we avoid them—wanting to skip over the tough stuff to have more pleasant conversations with our candidates and not put them on the spot. Hard questions weed out a lot of candidates by revealing weaknesses, undesirable characteristics, real attitudes and true aptitude. Tough interview questions are just that—tough. For a reason. They are meant to show how someone thinks on their feet, their natural approach to a situation, they are meant to see how the salesperson reacts when their feet are being held to the fire, the same way a prospect might. A wrong hire is costly, and tough questions are the fastest way to weed them out. So ask the toughest questions you can, you will learn more about the candidates through this technique than anything else. It can be painful, but it’s crucial.
Go off script.
Ask tough questions and use a standard set of interview questions throughout the process. But don’t stop there. Every part of a sales interview should be a conversation, so don’t be afraid to go off script. Sales reps have conversations with their prospects. The best ones tell stories, they build rapport quickly, they show empathy and are innately curious. If you aren’t having great conversations with a sales candidate, will your prospects? What happens outside of the standard questions, in the spontaneous conversations, can be where you find gold.
Look for the fundamentals.
Make sure your candidates have a professional phone presence. Make sure they are sending timely, well-written thank you emails. Have an active email exchange and make sure they reply quickly, accurately and with good grammar. Your prospects will be interacting with your reps primarily via phone and email so make sure their skills are strong. The ability to clearly articulate ideas and persuade is important. I can tell a lot about someone by the way they communicate in writing. It took me too long to realize that evaluation of a candidate’s written communication was an important part of the process. I hired some great talkers, who could look you in the eye and persuade you, but totally broke down when they needed to communicate coherently in writing. A modern salesperson has to be excellent at written communication. Period.
Don’t make hiring decisions under pressure.
In my recruiting environment, I didn’t always have a ton of qualified candidates to select from. That can make for desperate times. Every time I was more concerned with filling an opening than I was with waiting for the exact right person it turned out to be a mistake. Every hiring decision I made under pressure, where I sacrificed patience in exchange for a semi-good recruit, was a mistake. Every single one. Don’t settle. And don’t let yourself get desperate. Follow your process, weed out the wrong candidates and wait for the best. It will be worth it. It’s incredibly short-sighted to rush into a hire just because you have an open headcount you need to fill.
Have a partner you trust.
I don’t believe in hiring by committee, but I do think two heads can be better than one. My sales director was much better than I was at recruiting and even though he made his share of mistakes too, his instincts were far sharper than mine. Together, we balanced each other and hired better reps than we could have on our own. Even if you have many parties involved in the interview process, have a single partner who you collaborate with to make your final hiring decisions. Be a sounding board for each other. You will be each other’s sanity checks for each candidate and together can learn how to weed out the bad eggs and find the best talent.
These are my tried-and-true tactics to finding the best sales reps, all learned from lots of skinned knees along the way. It’s a little bit art and a little bit science, but the alchemy absolutely works!
And if you are really ready to get serious about hiring the best candidates, consider interviewing sales reps the way your buyers buy. It can transform your recruiting.