In this second post in a two-part series, Kevin Gaither, Vice President of Inside Sales at uSamp, a leading provider of online marketing research technology (and an OpenView portfolio company), provides tips for where to find top sales talent and what interview questions to ask to ensure you identify and hire the best candidates possible.
In a previous post for OpenView that covered some inside sales hiring tips, I wrote that the notion of the “ideal inside sales candidate” is a fallacy. In fact, I believe that hunting for perfect, do-no-wrong sales superstars who can solve all of your sales problems is no different than chasing a mirage. In the end, you’ll probably be exhausted, resource-drained, and no further along in your journey than when you started.
The reason is simple. Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. And, to be completely honest, it probably doesn’t exist anyway.
So rather than set out on a fantastical inside sales hiring quest to build the perfect inside sales staff, I recommend expansion-stage B2B companies going through the sales hiring process look for three specific qualities instead (thanks to Dr. Chris Croner at SalesDrive, who originally came up with these): need for achievement, competitiveness, and optimism — collectively called Drive. You can read much more about these qualities in my previous post, so I won’t go into them again here.
In this post, I’d like to offer some sales hiring advice that should help you more easily identify, recruit, and interview inside salespeople with these three key characteristics.
Let’s start with where to look for top sales talent.
While I do occasionally use some typical sales recruiting job sites like Indeed and Craigslist, I often advise early-stage sales executives to be wary of those options. Yes, they can yield a ton of resumes and applicants, but the vast majority of those resumes are worthless. As a result, to really use those sites successfully, you need to have a strong resume filtering system in place using an online survey tool like Instant.ly or screening tools found in TheResumator.com software.
So, when I’m going through the sales hiring process, I actually prefer to look for top sales talent in some less obvious places. For instance:
- The hotel check-in desk on business trips: Or, maybe the cashier at your favorite retailer. It’s not the specific place you look as much the fact that you’re constantly looking. Salespeople are everywhere if you know where to look and what you’re looking for. Two of my best hires used to work the front desk at a hotel and sold lingerie at Nordstrom’s. No kidding. Remember, you’re looking for a few inherent characteristics. If someone you meet has them, it shouldn’t matter whether they’re a burger flipper or a proven sales rep. These can be some of the best hires because you’re giving them their “shot” and they will be very loyal to you thereafter.
- Referrals from colleagues, friends, and family: This isn’t unique to my sales hiring process, of course, but it’s certainly worth noting in this post. Referrals are gold in the sales hiring world, especially if they’re coming from someone whose opinion you value highly. Make sure you’re asking for something specific, though. Don’t just ask for “anyone who…” Once you define what you’re looking for, make sure to tell those people exactly what you’re looking for.
- Salespeople who are prospecting or selling to you: I’ve made some of my best hires by opening my eyes and ears to the people who are prospecting my company. After all, if they’re showing an ability and willingness to do inside sales’ dirty work, then you know you’ve got someone who at least partially fits the bill. Don’t just hang up on these folks. Find out where they’re located — near you perhaps? How long have they been at their current company? Is it coming up on a year and maybe time for a change? Also, invite them to connect with you on LinkedIn.
- Recruiters and staffing agencies: This isn’t always a popular source for top sales talent, but I’m a huge proponent of using recruiters. Yes, recruiters have a bad rap in the business world, largely because a few bad apples tend to ruin the reputation of the bunch. But just like any vendor, you need to treat recruiters like business partners and develop a high level of trust with them. If you’re willing to clearly communicate the characteristics you want in candidates and hold your recruiting partner accountable to those characteristics, you’ll likely save time and money in your search for top sales talent. Remember, there’s got to be two-way communication. Give your recruiters immediate feedback on candidates after the interview and tell them how they stacked up against the benchmark you’ve created. For example, you might say, “They scored two out of a possible five on Optimism and here’s the story.” Or, “They scored five out of five on Coachability and here’s the story.” Your partner will get much better at finding what you want when you’re clear what exactly that is.
When you’re going through the sales hiring process, you can use one or several of those options. But once you’re able to identify the candidates you want to interview, the key is to run them through a rigorous interview that feels a bit like an investigation (not an interrogation, though). Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. Top performers want to know they’ll be playing the game with other elites. So if the interview is a cakewalk — which is what they’re probably used to — they won’t respect you or your organization.
To do that, you need to ask questions that get to the core of who your candidates really are and what they’re motivated by.
Keeping in mind the three characteristics I listed above — need for achievement, competitiveness, and optimism — you need to do a little bit more than ask the stereotypical stock interview questions to vet top sales talent.
Here are two simple tips that should improve your interviews and yield higher quality candidates:
- Ask specific, open-ended questions: If you simply ask candidates if they’re competitive, what do you think they’re likely to say? Yes. And they’ll probably stop there. To truly gauge the three characteristics above, you need to ask questions like: When was the last time you were competitive and what were you doing? What did you do the last time someone told you that you couldn’t do something or that you would fail if you tried? How did you react the last time you lost? Those questions will allow you to cut through theoretical B.S. and discover what your candidates are really made of.
- Look for details: For example, ask a candidate what the name of the last client they closed was, and ask them to give you additional details of the transaction. Was it face to face? Over the phone? How big of a deal was it? When did it close? If a candidate tells a sports-related story that illustrates her competitiveness, ask her to tell you when the event occurred and where it occurred, who they played, what position she played, and what the score was. Those precise details don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but a candidate’s ability to recall them indicates truthfulness.
Simply put, I want to hear candidates tell stories in interviews that are compelling, detail rich, and revealing. Ultimately, those are the types of stories that help you gauge your candidates’ authenticity and evaluate whether or not they possess core competencies and inherent skills that inside sales requires.
If you’re able to separate those types of candidates from the pack and hire them, then your inside sales organization will be in a much stronger position to drive the results that it’s designed to achieve. And, frankly, your job will become much easier if you invest the additional time into the interview process.
In the end, that should be the real barometer for inside sales perfection, rather than some arbitrary ambition to find and hire perfect salespeople.