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The 5 Most Effective Ways to Identify Top Sales Talent During an Interview

By Andrea Burkholder

What if I told you that you there are a few identified traits, that when hiring sales people, help predict long term sales success?

What if I told you that I have spoken to sales organizations across the United States and have found that it’s rare to find organizations that are looking for these traits when interviewing and hiring salespeople?

Sounds crazy right?

I thought so too, so let’s get down to what the traits are and how to identify them during the interview process.

1 – Optimism

Just about everything in life comes down to a matter of perspective. People tend to see what they are looking for and will miss serious buying signals if they aren’t in the right mindset.

Early on in my career, I was told a story about a couple of shoe salesmen. The salesmen were given a task by the British shoe manufacturer they worked for, to investigate and find new market expansion opportunities for their shoes. The salesmen were sent to the same city in Africa, an under-represented market at the time.

The first salesman sent a telegram back to headquarters with his analysis, “Zero potential here – nobody wears shoes.”

The next day, the home office received a message from the second salesman with his report, “Huge potential here – nobody wears shoes.”

It’s funny to me how differently people can see the same situation. That’s why it’s so important to identify optimistic tendencies when hiring sales people. They just have an easier time finding their way around road blocks.

When speaking at events, I often share information on the Met Life experiment. In the mid 80’s Met Life insurance company conducted a study to see if they could increase sales results and decrease training and recruiting cost. At the time, they were hiring approximately 5,000 salespeople a year with an average training cost of $30k and had roughly an 80% turnover rate. With the high cost of training, that could put a small to mid-sized company out of business.

Met Life decided to partner with Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania to see if they could increase their results. Dr. Seligman was conducting research focused on proving that optimism breeds success.

Met Life had a typical hiring process at the time. They gave an aptitude test and looked at the following. Did the candidate have a degree, did they have a history of sales, etc. Dr. Seligman incorporated a test that measured optimism to the process.

When initial result came in, they found that the optimist outsold the pessimist by 31%.

Dr. Seligman felt he could prove better results and decided to refine the process by looking for “overly optimistic” candidates. He decided to eliminate the aptitude test and typical hiring guidelines like – does the candidate have a degree.

This is where is got really interesting…. “Overly Optimistic” candidates outperformed the typical hire by 57%. Many studies have been performed over the years and the result hold true, optimist outperform standard hires by twenty to forty percent on average.

With that being said, it can be difficult to tell if someone has optimistic or pessimistic tendencies. Here are a few tips to help identify these traits during the interview process.

a. Ask Questions About Previous Positions. You can gain a lot of knowledge from someone when they are talking about why they left a previous position. If they are pessimistic, you will start to hear a trend as they speak about each position they’ve held and why they left it
b. When I need more clarification to identify their trend, I do the following:  I tell the candidate, “I am going to give you two words, I want you to pick one of the words and tell me why. The words are ICE and SNOW.” Now, there isn’t a right or wrong word, it’s how they answer the question. An optimist might say something like, “Ice, I like how it glistens on the tree’s after an ice storm.” A pessimist might say something like, “Snow because you can fall down and break your leg on ice.” Now, this isn’t a foolproof question, but can help identify their tendencies.

Sales can be a difficult job. Sales people are constantly confronted with uncertainty, rejections, road blocks, sales pressure, bad weather, rude customers. You name it, they are confronted by it. So, it’s no wonder great sales people are overly optimistic.

2 – Creative

Several years ago, I was in a meeting with the top performers from across the nation. We were pulled together in the great city of San Francisco to figure out how to increase our organizations sales results. Over the course of the week, we determined that of the ten top performers in the meeting, all were creative. Three were art majors in college, two were jewelry artist, two liked knitting and crocheting, and a couple of us were avid photographers. The last one, Lee got visibly upset as he realized everyone in the meeting was artistic thinking he was odd man out, but quickly rebounded when we reminded him he was a chef.

Creativity can surface in many ways including the arts, cooking, landscaping gaming, writing, rebuilding cars, you get the drift. Literally, the list could go on and on.

Start looking at the top performers in your organization, you’ll notice the trend. Your top performers are creative people, and there’s a reason for that. Creative people’s brains work differently than non-creative people’s brains…. that’s just the way it is.

The creative person typically thinks figuring out puzzles is fun, and as a result, thinks work is fun. They enjoy the tasks of figuring out how to improve their close rates, how to connect with different customer types and how to work more efficiently. To a non-creative brain, work is just that, work.

So how do you identify these folks during the interview process?

a. Look at their resume. You will be surprised to see how many creative people highlight their creativity somewhere on their resume.
b. Ask them to share a little about themselves. Many creative people are passionate about their interest. It’s common for them to talk about it when asked this question.
c. Listen. Many creative people will exhibit their inquisitive nature during the interview process as they attempt to figure out if you are part of a company they would like to work for.

3 – Personalizes Benefits

You’ll find that the most successful salespeople typically include personalized benefits when explaining their product.

What’s a personalized benefit you ask? It’s simply the act of tying the features of the product to how the product can improve the potential customers scenario.

For example, imagine going into a shoe store and the shoe salesperson saying, “Here’s a black shoe, do you want it?” Not an effective sales strategy right?

The salesperson would be much more successful by explaining how the product can benefit the customer. After inquiring as to what the customer is looking for, an example of a personalized benefit might sound like, “I have exactly what you are looking for. This black shoe will match all of your outfits, has a comfortable cushioned sole so you can stand for long periods of time and has a low heel so it’s easy to walk in.”

Surprisingly, I haven’t found this to be an easy skill to train to those that don’t naturally identify personalized benefits, so here’s how to identify this in an interview.

a. Listen. Potentially successful candidates will do this by nature and you will often hear it during the interview. If it doesn’t naturally come out, ask them about a random item. If they understand the difference between a product and how the product can benefit a potential customer, it will come out when asked about the product.

4 – Strong Desire to Succeed

A strong desire to succeed in a candidate can be really difficult to identify. Sometimes you can tell during the interview process, sometimes you can’t. It’s important to get strong candidates into your sales organization. Success breeds success. The more strong performers you have, the more strong performers you will have.

Here are a few tips on how to identify someone with a strong desire to succeed.

a. Pay attention to the resume. Both people with a great work ethic and/or a competitive nature can sometimes be identified on a resume. Participation on a winning sports team and/or awards for high performance can be indicators. When it’s unclear, ask questions. One of my favorite tactics is in asking them about each position they have held, simply, why did you go to this job and why did you leave. I like to go thru each position in a bulleted fashion working to determine, did someone they used to work with recruit them to the new job. Now, this isn’t foolproof, sometimes friends want to work with friends, that’s just the way it is. I love it when someone is recruited by a former manager and better yet, several former managers. I find that most people only want to put their personal stamp on people who have good work ethic and/or are high performers.
b. If you can’t figure it out thru the resume, ask you candidate what drives them, they’ll tell you.

5 – Efficient

Efficiency can make a break your sales results. I’ve consistently found that if someone isn’t efficient, they will struggle with sales no matter how great their skill level is or how strong their desire to succeed is. Now, some efficiency behaviors are easily fixable, some aren’t. You can fix how someone arranges their day or works their territory, but you can’t always fix how someone talks. Think about it, they’ve been talking that way their entire life. There are people out there that are overly wordy by nature. A sale that should take 20 minutes may take an hour and a half if the salesperson is overly wordy and explains too much.

I like to keep an eye out for this in the interview.

a. Listen. If you ask a simple question and they take twenty minutes to answer it, you may have someone that isn’t efficient. When this occurs, the next question I ask will sound like this, “Can you give me a high-level explanation of what you did on your last job? 5 words or less.” If they provide a lengthy answer, they may not be successful. We’ve given direction on what we are looking for and they are unwilling to refine their behavior. It is what it is….

What are you doing to drive sales performance? Do you have tactics to identify great sales traits? Like this article? Have a few ideas of your own? Please share 🙂

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