Lessons Learned From My Years Interviewing and Hiring Sales Professionals

I was blessed to have lunch a while ago with two of the brightest young minds in the city of Denver. They were both candidates of mine I placed as sales reps with the same client just about a year ago. The day they were both onboarded, my client of 20 years expressed his gratitude to me, coated with a blanket of caution.

Dave, the VP of sales at this prominent data storage industry institution, told me that he was certain one of the two would go on to be a superstar. The other, he suspected, I would likely need to replace within about three months per my (retainer) agreement with this wonderful client of mine. The challenge, of course, was to quickly discover which one would be future hero, which one to be goat.

Fast forward to my lunch meeting, where we celebrated their success and their recent closure of one of the biggest new deals in the  company’s storied 17-year history. Turns out both of them were, and still are, prolific cold-callers! No one knew a year ago that the two would become tied-at-the-hip buddies, share a truly rewarding personal and business relationship, and even plan a vacation in Cabo together with wives and babies in tow.

A truly perceptive hiring authority would have known that both were bound for greatness if they looked beyond the surface (of their resumes) and into their eyes or checked their guts through a thorough and challenging interview process.

I know this because Dave also hired a third rep from me a few months later who, he was almost certain, would cement his legacy with his employer and enable his team to crush an ambitious annual quota. This candidate “had it all,” he exclaimed. And he was right, except that he was referring to what Derek (candidate #3) had on paper, not in his heart. And therein is the moral to the story: Never hire a set of credentials without scrutinizing a candidate’s motives and character traits.

Never Hire Credentials Only

Per his credentials, Derek was ideal. With a degree in mechanical engineering from a fine university and sales roles with Dave’s biggest competitors, he was a slam dunk hire. Derek knew the technology niche as well as anyone in his age group; had a bona fide Rolodex of prospects and existing customers to accompany him; and the bonus was he hadn’t signed a non-compete clause. Clearly Derek was what one of my mentors used to call a “walking invoice” as a candidate.

So, why was Derek absent from the festive, but working lunch? And why were we discussing the need to replace both Derek and Dave, and not just a time to celebrate? The answers are as clear to me as this morning’s sky. Turns out that Derek’s stellar credentials were just that.

Sellers Must Be Grinders

Credentials, degrees, resumes, even existing “books of business,” do not sell! Motivated “grinders” (to use a hockey term) sell. Candidates who possess discipline and work ethic that results in a truly refined approach to sales succeed in the boardrooms of corporate America. My two luncheon guests, who beamed with an internal glow, sold 20 times the business that Derek did because they are highly competitive, and driven to succeed, despite their “inferior” appearance on paper.

So, when we sat down to order fine Mexican cuisine, the verbal fare was not all about them. It was about coming to a better understanding of the ideal profile for Dave’s replacement, and how we, as a team, could finesse the execs at this data storage client to hire the right leader. These street fighting, white collar warriors, want to stay put, and, in order to produce more exceptional results, they now need a new boss who’s “a little more strategic.”

No, they were not there to beat their own chests. But no one nor any competitive force will keep them from moving onward because of their internal constitution (guts) and their focus to consistently overcome obstacles. And frankly that’s what Derek lacked.

Turns out that Derek was and (I hear) still is, focused on that degree in mechanical engineering. He’s turned his sights to a career in engineering and wants to work for an automobile manufacturer. Dave landed on his feet, of course. He’s a proven IT industry executive who has achieved great results over his career. But, he hired one too many Dereks at his previous employer and he was politely shown the door.

How to Not Hire Derek

So, how do sales VP’s find more guys and girls like the two I dined with while weeding out the Derek’s, you ask?

After 32 (plus) years of executive recruiting experience and over 700 sales/sales management placements with the world’s leading technology firms, here’s a short list of ideas for hirers to focus on from my recruiting desk:

Tip 1 - Rarely is the best interviewer (in sales) the best or the right candidate.

Focus on doers, not talkers. Ask prospects about tough times in their lives and how they overcame adversity in life or in business. Ask them what underlies their successes. If they talk about their personality, people skills, etc., move on. Sales is not fun. The most popular guy or brightest light at the party will fade out after the beating all great sales people learn to endure. Listen for answers about self-discipline, planning, initiative, competitiveness, resilience, work ethic, autonomy and personal motivation. Yes, you need a team player, but individual greatness comes from late nights of consistent and tenacious and often lonely effort.

Tip 2 – Open-ended questions will get you better results.

Allow the candidate to talk at least 60% of the interview time. But if he or she rambles, as most sales people do, reel them back in. Stop then and ask them to address your questions concisely. If they keep rambling, move on. Listening skills are essential elements of sales success.

Tip 3 – Do reference checks right.

It amazes me to this day, what people will say if you ask the right questions. Check previous (and current) managers and customers as well. Conduct these reference checks yourself, or delegate to a trusted colleague. You will learn whom to hire and how to manage him or her this way.

Tip 4 – Require a mini plan.

Require your true contenders for the position to present you with a “mini” business plan for a final interview. Ask them to execute a 30-60-90 day version of what they will do if the territory or position is theirs. Doers will jump on this chance to prove their desire and worthiness. Slackers and ego maniacs will tell you that their leads are confidential and balk at this.

Tip 5 – Ask how they do what they do.

One valuable line of questioning to pursue in order to determine who to have present that mini plan is this: Describe your sales process or methodology to me. How do you find prospects, and then, how do you qualify them and bring them to close? What do you do personally that works, when it comes to your sales methodology?

Tip 6 – Try using assessments.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve learned that some online assessments, culture indexes, surveys, whatever you want to call them, can be very insightful if properly instituted. If you can establish a baseline, or a pattern of results based upon existing top performers, you may be able to “map” future hires to those results. But keep in mind that individuals succeed with a myriad of different methods. Also, if you know that you operate successfully in a truly process-driven selling environment versus a transaction-based sales approach (for example), some online tests will point you in the right direction.

Finally, I close with a favorite quote from the late, great Peter Drucker that has guided me for years:

"In sales, more than in any other role, a resume means next to nothing. Determining real quality takes a face-to-face interview to net out what’s true and what’s not, who’s going to ask for the order versus who’s going to ask about the order. It’s the drive, intangible characteristics, and verifiable achievements that make all the difference."

By Jordan Greenberg