Recruitment & Hiring, Sales

Needle in a haystack: A tried-and-tested guide to recruiting the best salespeople

Mike Adams /

Mike Adams recruiting salespeople

Co-founder and chief storyteller at Growth in Focus. Source: Supplied.

As we head into the Christmas season, many companies will be looking to hire new salespeople.

Get the selection wrong, and it will cost you somewhere between half a year and a full year of an annual target, plus reputation damage. Get it right, and you’ll have delighted customers and a growth asset for your business.

Most companies rely on unstructured interviews and proprietary psychometric tests for sales recruiting. And the results are abysmal. You must use a realistic simulation to assess sales candidates.

Multiple studies confirm work sample and ability tests are the most valid and reliable selection tools across a wide range of employment categories. Unstructured interviews rank way down the list of valid techniques. The issue for sales recruitment is how to create an efficient repeatable work sample test for a role that it is mostly about conversation skill?

Enter the sales simulation. Prepare a scenario for a common selling situation — a page of text or two or three PowerPoint slides is sufficient to describe the scenario for the candidate. Hidden from the candidate will be a list of issues, objectives and opportunities they must probe for. Give the candidates a day or two to prepare.

One person in your company (or a consultant) is designated to play the role of ‘customer’. It’s best if that person has not been influenced by the candidate’s CVs. The simulation should be performed over a recorded video conference so the interview can be easily shared with the selection committee.

In the simulation, the ‘customer’ will attempt to play their role in a standard way for each candidate, answering all the candidate’s questions without being difficult (there’s no need to add additional stress). The simulated sales conversation typically lasts between 10 and 25 minutes. After the simulation, you should ask a couple of specific follow-up questions, and get the candidate to write a follow-up email if writing skills are important.

Carefully review the simulation video and score against these categories.

  1. Rapport building. How did the candidate establish rapport at the beginning of the meeting? Did they share personal stories?
  2. Situation understanding. How did the candidate engage the customer to understand their situation? You are looking for diagnostic questions and empathetic listening.
  3. Probing for objectives and issues. Was the salesperson able to uncover the motivations of the buyer? What does the buyer want and what do they not want?
  4. Consequences. What will it mean for the buyer to achieve their objectives? Can the candidate discover both business and personal consequences for a purchase?
  5. Constraints. Was the candidate able to uncover any constraints that need to be taken into account in this buying situation?
  6. Proposing and asking. How did the candidate ask for the business or propose a suitable next step? You are listening for specific phrasing.
  7. Planning and preparation. How well did the candidate research your company and prepare for the simulated meeting?

I’ve performed hundreds of candidate simulations across multiple industries and it’s my experience fewer than 10% navigate through all of these aspects of a sales conversation. It’s an exceptional candidate that uncovers the consequences for the buyer and their constraints and very few know how to ask for the business.

Follow-up questions

No doubt each candidate will claim past sales successes, but how do you know if they’re telling the truth? You can assess storytelling skills and their honesty by asking: ‘Tell me about the most important sale that you have made.’

You’re listening and scoring for the following.

  1. Is it a story? The best salespeople tell stories to teach influence and persuade. Be wary of candidates that fail to respond with a narrative (a sequence of events).
  2. Is the buyer described in the salesperson’s story? Good salespeople solve problems for their buyers. Be suspicious if the story is just about the ‘heroic’ salesperson.
  3. Is it believable? True stories of sales success include references to good and bad fortune and vulnerabilities. Watch their eyes as they recall the events of the sale.

Finally, you need to assess the candidate’s ability to learn new skills. They’ll need to learn about your company, customers and products and services straight away, and because business is changing so rapidly, continuous learning will be an ongoing requirement.

So ask them: ‘Tell me about the last new skill you acquired.’

You’re listening for:

  1. Immediate enthusiasm. Enthusiasm not just for the new skill but also for the learning process.
  2. A story that reveals their motivation for learning.

If you follow a structured selection process that includes a realistic simulation and tests for storytelling skill you’ll recognise and select the best salespeople.

NOW READ: Sales won’t just happen: Ten steps to light your marketing fire

NOW READ: Sales cycles are becoming long and unpredictable: Here’s how businesses can adjust and thrive

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Mike Adams

Mike is the co-founder and chief storyteller at Growth in Focus and author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. He has managed sales teams in the UK, Russia and throughout Asia for international corporations such as Schlumberger, Siemens, Nokia and Halliburton and has sold over a billion dollars of products and services over his career.

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