How To Hire A Sales Person

Being a consultant requires me to answer countless questions about hiring and managing a sales staff. Questions such as: How do I hire a salesperson? What qualities should I look for? How do I manage the person? How do I motivate him or her?

From my experience working with family-owned businesses, I’ve found that the outgoing and personable son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandma—you get my drift—is the first to be appointed salesperson. Smaller, less sophisticated, companies like to hire from the “inner circle” for various reasons—including paranoia. They want to hire a person they can trust with their “top secret” information, so they hire someone they know or someone referred to them by a close friend. That approach may work out (I was referred for my first sales job by a friend). If it does, great. If not, you’re in for an ongoing struggle between your expectations and the person’s inability to do the sales job.

Unfortunately, their poor performance can be a serious drag on your company’s success. Also, it’s not uncommon for such “privileged” people to be paid an unrealistic salary for their job. Ultimately, they can become untouchables—employees who are difficult or impossible to fire. Sure, good managers can find ways to use their talents and sometimes they can be used more productively in another capacity, but the point is this: Being family (or a friend of the family) or having a fun and talkative personality shouldn’t automatically qualify anyone to be a salesperson for your firm. The stakes are too high.

If you’ve never been in sales or don’t know your limitations in that area, it’s hard to know what to look for when hiring a salesperson. Remember, salespeople are trained in how to close the deal and, in an interview, your job is the deal. So beware. Some sales candidates are great at answering interview questions but can be as lazy as a river once hired.

To find the best sales prospects, ask open-ended questions and allow the interviewee to talk. Your job is to listen. Here are some questions to consider asking:

■ What did they think of your website (which they should have reviewed before the interview)?

■ What do they like most about being in sales? What do they dislike?

■ What sales-related books or seminars have they read/attended in the past year? (You want to hire a person who is willing to expand his or her sales knowledge by reading or attending seminars and workshops. This keeps them up to date with the business world and new sales methods.)

■ How would they go about obtaining new business?

■ How important do they find relationship-building in their sales efforts, and what are some ways they would do that?

■ In what professional organizations are they active?

■ What computer system do they use to manage their contacts? (Efficient salespeople use some kind of computer-based program to manage their contacts. Microsoft Outlook is one such program, but other systems work equally well and can run excellent reports for management.)

In interviews with sales candidates, I’ve also found it helpful to gauge their tenacity. You can do that by asking: How many times do you call on a prospect for new business? Believe it or not, 92 percent of salespeople call a prospect only four times before giving up. That leaves only 8 percent who have the tenacity to persevere. You want to hire someone from that 8-percent group.

After hiring your salesperson, you need to orient them to your company and their position in the firm. It’s a good idea to have a job description, an employment contract, and a formal training program that clearly outlines your expectations from your sales staff. Those expectations should include your firm’s compensation practices so your salespeople understand their earning potential—and to prevent misconceptions.

Remember that adrenaline (or fear of failure or the desire to please) will drive a new salesperson’s performance for the first 90 days—the so-called sales honeymoon. After that, reality sinks in. Management has expectations they must meet. The job can be more difficult than they expected. Some may start to complain about the company or misbehave. By misbehave, I mean blaming. They’ll find all sorts of excuses for their shortcomings. They’ll complain: “I don’t have enough time.” “No one calls me back.” “I have too much paperwork.” “My territory is too large.” These folks have more whine than the Napa Valley!

In my experience, salespeople who offer excuses for their low productivity are rarely successful. They have a problem with accountability and may even stir up trouble within their department. I have all kinds of stories about “The Bad Salesperson,” but that’s another column for another time.

Managing a sales team isn’t an easy task, especially if you don’t understand salespeople. They must have goals that are challenging yet attainable. They must have excellent time management skills. Your task as a manager is to find the “hot button”—the motivation—for each salesperson. For many, money is not the principal driver. For me, it was being better than Shirley, my ex-boyfriend’s successful sister. There’s a good story there, but that’s another chapter—and maybe a few good sessions with a therapist.

Being a good manager for your sales staff means being an attentive listener, providing assistance when needed, and following through on your actions. Resist the temptation to micromanage by making demands such as, “Give me an accounting of everything you did last week.” Effective sales managers have a shared vision and know what it takes to get there. In other words, they have a plan—which again, is a great idea for another chapter.