Inside Sales Hiring Tips: Does the Ideal Sales Candidate Really Exist?

In this first post in a two-part series, Kevin Gaither, Vice President of Inside Sales at uSamp, challenges the concept of an ideal sales candidate and provides three candidate qualities sales managers should focus on, instead.

inside sales hiring

Throughout my inside sales management and sales recruitment career, there’s been one question that sales managers, executives, and entrepreneurs alike seem to ask me most often. It usually sounds a little something like this: What does the ideal inside sales candidate look like, and how can I find, recruit, and hire them?

When someone asks that question, they typically hope that I’ll provide the kind of easy answer that will solve all of their sales hiring problems. Not surprisingly, they’re typically left disappointed by my response: It depends.

It depends on what you’re looking for. It depends on your company’s stage. It depends on the products and service you sell. It depends on the specific inside sales role that person will fill and the responsibilities they’ll be expected to manage. It depends on your market and your competitors, and your company’s unique capabilities, skillsets, and needs. And, frankly, it depends on what your definition of “ideal” is.

Rather than give people that lecture, however, I tend to politely suggest that they avoid taking such a myopic view of hiring sales staff, and erase any notion they have of the “perfect inside sales candidate” from their head. After all, that candidate probably doesn’t exist. If he or she does, then those sales hiring managers shouldn’t be wasting time talking to me.

The truth is that inside sales has many different flavors, and the roles within each of those flavors can vary — from account managers and outbound prospectors, to lead generators and inside sales representatives. Yes, they all serve a similar purpose and often work toward a common goal, but it would be unfair and inaccurate to judge them all based on one generic definition of the ideal sales candidate.

That being said, there are some core characteristics that the best inside sales candidates share, and if you’re able to identify and use them as a benchmark when you recruit, hire, train, and manage your sales staff, you’ll stand a far greater chance of building a highly productive inside sales organization.

So, what are those characteristics?

The answer to that question again depends on your organization. However, I’ve learned through Dr. Chris Croner at SalesDrive that there is one characteristic in particular that is virtually universal. It’s called “drive,” and it’s comprised of three core components:

1) Need for Achievement

In essence, this characteristic is personified by the desire to work tirelessly in pursuit of a goal. Tiger Woods’ hunger for greatness is a perfect example. He makes tens of millions of dollars every year and could easily put his career on cruise control. Instead, he spends millions on coaches and advisors, and practices like a hungry rookie, rather than a satisfied veteran.

Of course, this quality isn’t exactly a tangible thing you can easily detect in the sales hiring process. To diagnose whether someone has it, you should ask questions in your interviews such as:

  • What kinds of sacrifices have you had to make to be successful?You want to look for substantial examples that demonstrate dedication and a willingness to put other priorities on the backburner.
  • How do you know when you’ve truly succeeded? In other words, how tough is this person on himself? How does he judge his success?
  • What is the hardest you’ve ever worked to succeed in your job? The ideal sales candidates will be able to tell stories that show incredible effort and sacrifice on a regular basis.
  • What do you feel determined to prove? Candidates should be able to provide lucid, specific answers that explicitly speak to a relentless drive for success.

2) Competitiveness

This trait is marked by a person’s unquenchable thirst to outperform and an incredible will to win. That competitiveness doesn’t have to be isolated to the work environment, either. It could be illustrated by a sales candidate’s admission that she can’t stand to lose a game of Monopoly with friends, or that she turns everything — from driving on the highway to swimming laps in the pool — into a competition.

It’s important that you don’t confuse athleticism with competitiveness. I’ve made the mistake of hiring NCAA Div. 1 athletes under the presumption that because they were superior athletes, they would naturally be competitive. In reality, those things are not necessarily related. Successful athletes are sometimes successful because they’re naturally talented, not competitive. To ensure you’re dealing with a sales candidate who is truly competitive, you should ask questions such as:

  • When was the last time you were competitive, and what were you doing? People who are competitive won’t have any trouble answering this question. They’ll offer an example from yesterday or last week, rather than a time when they were in college or high school. Truly competitive people are fueled by a need to win every single day.
  • Where do you rank on your sales team? If the candidate’s answer is anything but “consistently at or near the top of the team,” it should be a red flag.

3) Optimism

This trait is one of the most important drivers of inside sales success, yet sales leaders often overlook it. The truth is that inside sales reps — regardless of their roles or responsibilities — must deal with frequent rejection and adversity. If they lack the optimism to overcome those hurdles, then they aren’t likely to last very long.

In my opinion, the best inside salespeople possess the certainty that they won’t be denied. For instance, when a prospect hangs up on or berates an inside sales rep, how does he respond? Does he laugh, go to the next phone number on his list, and keep calling? Or does he put his fist through a wall and cry in a corner? In an interview, it can be hard to diagnose which end of that spectrum a sales candidate leans to, but you can look for evidence by asking questions like:

  • When was the last time a customer got under your skin and how did you respond? If your sales candidate says that she was able to shake it off and close that prospect sometime later, you might have a winner.
  • What happened when you lost your last deal and what did you do to recover? Ideally, the person you’re interviewing was able to put the situation in perspective and bounce back by working on another opportunity.
  • When was the last time you persisted while everyone else was giving up? With this question, you want to look for answers with specific details that show a substantial effort in the face of significant adversity.

Ultimately, the three components listed above are all wired characteristics. A sales candidate either has them or they don’t, and in my experience — and that of my peers, colleagues, and mentors — they are near universal indicators of success.

Notice I said indicators, not guarantors.

The truth is that you might find a candidate who displays each of these characteristics who is not a great fit for your sales role. She might lack the requisite experience for the position. He could have another glaring weakness that’s difficult for you to overlook.

Ultimately, you need to use the information above in context. It should inform your sales hiring decision, not make it for you. Think of it like another filtering mechanism. If you find candidates who pass the test, then you can at least feel more confident about moving forward with them.

photo by: hsivonen

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