Every business is different. Even companies selling the same products or services differ in strategy, culture and even geography. Who can argue that selling to customers in New York City is different than selling the very same product in Manhattan, Kansas. The “right” sales person selling the same product or service to a business in one location might fail miserably with another client located elsewhere. Or a top performing salesperson assigned to a new manager sees his stellar record become mere history as a difference in style or approach disrupts his mojo.

Successful salespeopleThe right hiring decision must be based on a clear picture of your company and customers and understanding how to match the various puzzle pieces. A good job fit requires a person with the traits and motivation to sell but – and this is important – there must be a clean fit with the key stages in your sales process and culture.

How do you assess an individual’s ability to fit into your company? “One-size-fits-all” personality tests have inherent limitations. The best approach includes an assessment of some if not all of these five critical components:

It’s then important to discuss these components in the context of your company’s unique sales process and culture. Let’s begin with discussing your sales culture in these critical areas: lead generation, product knowledge and selling cycle. Now walk through a sampling of the questions that I ask my clients before designing a testing solution or setting up interview questions for them.

Getting the lead

First, and most important, I ask clients how the salesperson is expected to acquire new business. In other words, are you hiring new salespeople to catch the overflow of new business from an already busy sales force or a successful marketing campaign? Or, are you hiring them to increase market share at the expense of the competition? Maybe it’s a combination. The “best” sales fit will depend on the situation and your expectations.

The sales rep that is successful with cold-calling and lead generation may have very different skills from the sales rep that excels and sustaining client relationships. The former views prospects as people they simply haven’t met yet and welcomes the opportunity to make a connection. The relationship builder, on the other hand, may not be comfortable talking to a continual stream of strangers.

Here’s how it plays out. The cold caller thrills to the chase but may lose interest after he gets the sale. Relationship builders take the nurturing, and more time consuming, approach to gaining new business. It’s not that one style more effective. They both can be as long it meshes with your client’s buying style. Remember the puzzle? An ill-fitting piece simply won’t work.

Here’s another question. Do you expect sales staff to network? Not everyone is comfortable networking, nor are all sales reps skillful with this particular art.

People connect with other people differently. Just watch people walk into the room. Outgoing and assertive personalities make entrances, engaging everyone within earshot, almost announcing their arrival. Their collective mission is to meet as many people as possible. Contrast that behavior with reserved, introverted people. They scan the room looking for familiar faces and are relieved when someone makes eye contact.

Personality plays a huge role in determining when people will network and the degree of their success. If your business culture assumes salespeople will attend large events and expos to generate leads, hire people who are outgoing and group-oriented. They love that stuff. Hire a more reserved individual and you may be disappointed by that person’s performance in the large group settings but thrilled with how they make everyone comfortable in small groups and one-on-one presentations.

Questions you might ask before determining who will meet your expectations the best are:

  • Does your company provide sales leads or are sales reps responsible for prospecting?
  • How competitive is your market? Will this salesperson be building new relationships or attempting to grab market share from your competitors?
  • Does your sales process require face-to-face meetings? Can your product or service be sold by phone or electronically through email or a website? (Extroverts prefer direct personal contact, introverts prefer voice mail and email.)

Is knowing what you don’t know important?

Let me start this section by way of example. Several years ago a high tech company retained my services to build its sales force. Previously, the company hired several “super-stars” from a company subsidiary that sold business phone systems, which we called “boxes.” The super-stars had a new assignment to sell consulting and networking services.

They failed miserably. Why? Because the sales culture shifted from a linear, boiler-plate system to one that was knowledge-based and subjective. When selling boxes, the make-or-break sales skills came down to persuasiveness and negotiation. The new assignment required bone deep product knowledge, listening skills, analytical ability, and keen ability to learn and think on the fly. These former super-stars didn’t have the key competencies to make the cross-over from product sales to solution selling.

Here are a few pre-hiring questions to determine how important product knowledge is for your sales staff:

  • How complex is your product? Is previous experience and education necessary or can new hires be trained? Can the “right” personality succeed with proper coaching?
  • How sophisticated and knowledgeable are your customers? (Knowledgeable customers respond best to sales staff with high cognitive ability.)
  • Is the salesperson expected to keep up with competitive market forces and trends? Will you provide these market updates or is the salesperson expected to create his own information streams? Business values and motivators come into play at this juncture. Sales staff motivated by the conceptual value thrives on learning and problem solving while others, less motivated by this value, may prefer to be told only what they need to know.

The tortoise and the hare

Consider the length and complexity of your selling cycle. Sales for big-ticket capital items often take a year or more to close. Industries such as health care and government may have longer sales cycles.

Salespeople skilled with transactional sales and shorter sales cycles – the rabbits – become impatient when results are not immediate. On the other hand, relationship builders and consultative sales reps, the tortoises, become frustrated with what they perceive as the micromanagement of monthly sales quotas.

The sales cycle, compensation and benefit package, and personality affect a sales person’s chances of success. There are sales people with high tolerance for the swings between relative poverty and big payouts while others need economic stability, a regular paycheck with occasional incentives.

Remember, the sales person who ascends gloriously in one environment can fall precipitously in another. So, it pays for you, the employer, to match the personality with your culture, clients, and incentive package.

The following questions focus on a candidate’s persistence, patience, persuasion skills, motivation and cognitive ability.

  • Are your sales transactional or consultative?
  • Are you a low-cost or premium value provider?
  • After what period of time would you expect a new hire to be making his or her numbers?

The final round

Yes, you too can have a championship sales force. But, it takes some up-front work from you to hire winners. A good boxer is much more than the most muscular, aggressive person with a will to win. Promoters know better than anyone that the right match for a contender is more than luck of the draw. The same is true for sales. Define your hiring process based on the need for lead generation, product knowledge, sales cycle and compensation specific to the job. Then, ring the bell and let the bout begin.