What to look for when recruiting your sales team

Your Business Your Future founder Gerard Burke shares his tips on how to spot a winner

Finding the right salespeople for your business is a tricky affair. If the ideal candidate was standing in front of you, would you really know? Gerard Burke, founder and MD of the Your Business Your Future program, offers advice on honing your interview techniques and what to look for in the perfect recruit

You probably started out as the main point of contact for your customers and you may well still be. As the business grew, no doubt you found others who could go out and get new business. Often these are people who have grown up with the business and they may not be ‘specialist’ sales people. Nevertheless, at some point in the development of your business, it’s likely you will need to build a team of people whose primary role is selling.

For nearly all businesses, building an enthusiastic and successful team of people who sell will be vital to growth. And, in most cases, at some point, that will mean recruiting specialist salespeople. However, in our work with ambitious owner managers, we find recruitment in general is often a significant challenge. In fact, it usually seems to go wrong, and the impact of ineffective recruitment is much greater on a smaller business than on a large one. What’s more, it can be both time-consuming and costly.

In our experience, of all the different roles owner managers seek to recruit for, finding the right salespeople seems to present the biggest challenge.

Interview approach

Great salespeople can be tricky to interview. If they’re good at selling, they’ll be able to present themselves in the best possible light and turn an interview situation to their advantage. To top it all off, great salespeople are always in high demand, so the job market is both competitive and fluid, which means that staff turnover can be high.

Many owner managers and managing directors will have learnt by trial and error what works best for their business and their sales team. Jerry Sandys now runs Sales Skill, helping owner managers build, manage and motivate sales teams.

Previously managing director of Telecom Design Communications (TDC), an electrical component distributor based in Basingstoke, Sandys has clocked up many years’ experience recruiting and training salespeople. He grew TDC from start-up to its current position as part of the £200m Abacus Group, and has clear guidelines for sales recruitment.

“It can be difficult at the interview stage to spot a great salesperson if they’re just starting out and don’t come with a track record,” says Sandys. “A useful fi lter is to start with a 45-minute interview to discuss personal circumstances. Then you can judge whether they show the right qualities.”

He stresses that a great salesperson should have passion, enthusiasm and attitude. “They are driven by money and results; they are achievers,” says Sandys. “At interview, look for those who have found ways of earning money at a young age, or been a winner in some other activity. A great salesperson should be warm, friendly, articulate and have a sense of humour. If they’re moaning about their current employer, then the chances are they’ll end up moaning about you! Watch out for creative types and dreamers who believe everything will work out in the end – they don’t often make great salespeople.”

At the second stage, Sandys asks the candidate to ‘sell’ his company’s products to him. “They have to do a lot of background work before they can do this kind of sales pitch,” he explains. “A natural salesperson will breeze through it and enjoy the experience. Others will struggle, or not prepare properly.” Sandys also gives interviewees a technical test of 10 questions on a particular product to check their understanding.

Will Storr and Thomas Byrne run Alchemi Consulting, which specialises in assessing, placing and supporting sales professionals. They believe that times have changed for organisations looking to develop their sales teams. “In the past, knowledge that was vital to build credibility and trust took years to acquire,” says Byrne. “Today, hard and soft sales skills can often be learned and used as needed, ensuring individuals can add value quickly.”

In light of these changes, Byrne suggests that growing businesses should look carefully at their recruitment processes to ensure that their sales team consists of the right kind of people. There are a number of key areas that organisations should look at when recruiting salespeople. As Byrne explains, there are certain things that it is vital to do:

Provide a clear and honest outline of the sales role

Many organisations over-sell their positions, so end up not matching a new employee’s expectations. Decide a salary and stick to it; individuals should be motivated by the opportunity and not just how much they’ll get paid.

Use your staff

Where possible, include your existing salespeople in the recruitment. If they take part, they are more likely to take the time to develop the newcomer and to be more patient with any subsequent teething problems.

Do background checks

Find out about the candidate’s background, values and any important events in their life, so that you can try to understand their motivation and personal resources. Make sure that the candidate will fit in with, and contribute to, your team and business culture.

“In many cases, the principal motivator for salespeople is not money, but the environment they work in. So, ensuring that they will feel involved is pivotal to them choosing to work hard and remain committed,” Byrne explains.

If possible, talk directly to a previous manager. Even more importantly for salespeople, talk to a customer that they have dealt with in the past. They can give first-hand insight into the sales capability of the candidate.

Discuss the future

Talk about the candidate’s long-term life goals to ensure that they are in line with your business vision. Assess levels of aptitude and attitude; don’t just focus on confidence and leadership qualities.

Think about traning

Recruiting the right kind of people is critical, but, once you’ve got them, training is just as important. The first year in a new job is an unsettled time. Managers and salespeople can suffer from buyer’s remorse – when you buy something on a whim and then regret it when you get it home.

Managers often ask: “Have I done the right thing? Should I cut my losses before I lose any more money?” Meanwhile, salespeople can wonder: “Have I jumped from the frying pan into the fire? But can I face another round of interviews?”

This is a period of great uncertainty. To guard against it, Jerry Sandys recommends weekly sales meetings and spending lots of time together. This upfront investment of time and money will pay off, he insists.

If you’ve followed all this good advice, by the end of that first year, you should have a great salesperson. But how do you keep them? After all, great salespeople will have an eye on the main chance – and that may be somewhere else!

Sandys’ answer is clear. “Success breeds success,” he says. “Salespeople will want to be part of a successful team, and that means a company with a clear vision and a dynamic leader. Other than that, pay them properly, treat them fairly (for example, don’t take key customers away once they’ve brought them in) and recognise their achievements.”

The don’ts of sales recruitment 

As well as the dos, there are also some big don’ts when it comes to finding the right salesperson, according to Alchemi Consulting’s Thomas Byrne:

… Don’t recruit an individual because they remind you of yourself. A growing business doesn’t necessarily need more of the same.

… Don’t make judgments based purely on their CV. Instead, use it as a discussion document only.

… Don’t follow a standard set of interview questions. Most candidates will make sure they are well versed with appropriate answers, so you achieve little insight from the interview.

… Don’t assume historical successes will continue. Over time, the ability of a salesperson to generate new business tends to Improve, but their commitment tends to diminish.

Since 2001, Gerard Burke has helped over 1,000 ambitious owner managers create the future they want for their businesses and for themselves. He is the founder and managing director of Your Business Your Future, the UK’s leading specialist provider of development programmes for ambitious owner-managers. Your Business Your Future programmes are delivered in partnership with Cass Business School in London. www.yourbusinessyourfuture.co.uk

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