10 Steps to Hiring the Right Reps and Building an Unstoppable Sales Force

$563,500

That's the cost of a sales rep mis-hire.

According a report by Dr. Brad Smart of Topgrading Inc., a firm that helps companies assess candidates for top positions, "Based on our studies, the average cost of a mis-hire can be six times base salary for a sales rep, 15 times base salary for a manager, and as much as 27 times base salary for an executive."

Hiring the right people can be the difference between building a good company and building a great company. Mark Roberge, CRO of HubSpot – who was the first sales hire and responsible for building the entire sales team from the ground up – says, “If I could get the right people into the system – even if I did a mediocre job at training and management – they would find a way to win. But, if I got mediocre people in – even if I did a world-class job at training and leading – it wouldn’t matter.” Hiring must be one of your top priorities.

There’s a high demand for good sales reps, but the available talent is few and far between. If you don’t make it a priority, you’ll quickly find yourself behind the 8 ball with a lackluster sales team and significantly limited revenue coming in.

The Biggest Myth About Sourcing and Hiring Quality Sales Candidates

How many so-called sales superstars have you hired - people with a stellar track record, a resume to drool over and nailed the interview - only to fail miserably at your company?

Did these people completely forget how to sell? Or did we set them up to fail?

Here’s the truth: greatness in sales cannot and should not be measured by one dimension. Rather, what makes a sales rep successful is the relationship between the candidate and the company. It’s a two-way street. Any rep you bring on needs to fit into the specific role you’re hiring for, adding to the character and strength of your team. At the same time, it’s your responsibility to onboard and develop your new reps so they can utilize their skills in this new environment.

In his book Hire Right, Higher Profits, Lee Salz explains his findings that 5% of all salespeople will succeed under any circumstances, 5% will always fail and 90% fall into a “limbo group.” This middle group of people will succeed if there’s a good employee-employer match, and if there are structures and process in place that set the new hire up for success.

Our job isn’t to find the top 5%. We’d be setting ourselves up for failure because it would take too much time, money and resources. However, our job is to take the middle 90% and find the diamonds in the rough.

What’s the best way to do this? Have a consistent, well-thought-out hiring process.

We’ve talked to multiple recruiters, interviewed countless candidates, and built a stellar team, and now we’re revealing our proven process to help you find the next superstars for your sales teams.

 

1) Clearly Identify Your Needs for the Role

Assess your team’s abilities and identify what’s missing. What role, if filled, will have the largest impact on your team’s overall performance? If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, how will you know when you’ve found it?

You’re hiring for an immediate need, so screen for and hire the skills that are going to be the most useful over the next 3-6 months. Don’t get hung up on whether a candidate has what it takes to transition into a hypothetical role that might materialize in another year or two. Face those decisions if and when they come. For now, optimize for the KPIs this hire will be responsible for delivering on day one. The market changes incredibly quickly – what you think you’ll need two years from now could be extremely different from what you actually end up needing. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself.

After you identify missing links in your team, examine what characteristics and personal attributes are important for your team. The performance indicators that we use to find the best sales reps are:

  • Drive and ambition: They’re internally driven to success, are usually competitive in nature, and do whatever it takes to get the job done (within moral and ethical guidelines, of course).
  • Coachability: They’re willing (and have the ability) to listen, learn, and quickly adapt.
  • Positivity and optimism: They are resilient and persevere when faced with fear, challenges, and/or rejection. They can internally generate their own energy mental strength.
  • Empathy: They understand others’ thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, then act accordingly.
  • Curiosity: They’re lifelong learners who constantly need to try new things. They’re always asking questions; after all, that’s largely what they’ll be doing for you as a sales rep.

The hard part is testing for these performance indicators. In the next few sections, we’ll cover what questions to ask and what you should be looking for in answers.

Hiring myth: it takes domain expertise for someone to succeed in sales. Notice industry knowledge is not on this list. This can be taught! If you’ve found someone who is coachable, curious and driven, then they’ll naturally learn the ins and out of your industry, and they’ll do it quickly. Furthermore, candidates who don’t have experience in your industry can bring in new perspectives, shed light in blind spots and help your team grow.

 

2) Determine Roles and Responsibilities for the Open Position

Before you write the job description, you must start with determining the roles and responsibilities for this position. A great way to do this is to identify the phase in the sales process the candidate owns, then describe the responsibilities for each phase.

For a Sales/Business Development Reps, it could looks something like this:

For Account Executive reps, it would look something like this:

  • Account strategy
  • Objection handling
  • Needs development
  • Pricing and Proposal development
  • Presentation/Demo
  • Account management

After you have fleshed out responsibility for each stage, go back through each phase and define how established your process is, giving a score of 1 for well established, 2 for moderately established or 3 for established. Doing this will help you determine how to prioritize the right performance factors based on their impact on success.

Write down about 20 factors and rank them on performance impact. Then go back through and mark which ones are must-have factors and which ones are nice-to-have. You may be saying “I want all of these factors,” but think of must-haves as deal breakers. It’s black and white - if a candidate doesn’t have factor Y, then don’t make an offer.

However, if you’re looking at your must-have list and think, “If a candidate matches all the other must-haves, but not this one, I’d still want to make the hire,” then that factor is in fact a nice-to-have.

 

 

3) Write a Compelling Job Description.

Sell candidates on the position. In her book The Sales Development Playbook, Trish Bertuzzi emphatically states, “?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Job descriptions should sell the job. If you can’t capture their attention and interest, who the hell cares about the fine print?” She encourages people to think about the job description as the “role elevator pitch.”

How can you make your job listing stand out from all the other listings for sales roles? How can you attract the best talent to come work for you? Most job postings are simply a laundry list of duties. What matters most is why they should work for you. Inspire people! If you haven’t seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk titled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” or read his book Start with Why, invest the time to understand this concept, then apply it to your job posting.

Peter Thiel echoes the same idea in his book Zero to One, “You’ll attract the employees you need if you can explain why your mission is compelling: not why it’s important in general, but why you’re doing something important that no one else is going to get done.”

Hiring mistake: making the job posting about how much money they can make at your company. The job is not about how much money you can offer. That should be an afterthought. If you’ve determined this candidate is a good fit for you and you’re truly a good fit for this candidate, than compensation shouldn’t be the thing getting in the way of a signed contract. You’ll be able to work it out.

In your job listing, paint a picture of your company culture. Make it about being part of something bigger. Tell them the impact they’ll have on the company and, more importantly, the community. Sell them on working for your company. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box and do something a little more creative, like Hubspot.

How you write your job description says a lot about your company. As Jobvite likes to say, “Recruiting is marketing.”

 

4) Source Top Candidates

Just as sales reps are responsible for keeping their pipeline full with prospects, it’s your job as a sales leader to keep your hiring candidates pipeline full. Don’t wait to start the hiring process until you need someone – or it will be too late. It always takes more time and energy than you anticipate to find, hire, and ramp employees.

Traditionally, sales has a high turnover rate compared to other professions, so you should expect 15-20% turnover. Some people may simply not be a match for your company despite your best efforts to screen ahead of time. Others may realize sales isn’t for them or may want to move on to the next thing. The latter is common for entrepreneurial types - they tend to be top sales performers, but they also tend to not sit still in one position for long.

You have to account and plan for this turnover. You never truly know when you’re going to lose a rep, and you don’t want to get caught with your pants down.

Some managers go straight for the job boards, but Richard Harris of The Harris Consulting Group advises against it: “One will be hard pressed to find A+ players or rockstars on a job board unless there is significant reason for them to leave. Most top performers will leave for time and/or money. That's it, nothing more, nothing less.”

Here are some of the best channels to source candidates from.

  • Manually prospect on LinkedIn, AngelList and other professional social site for top talent. I’m not talking about hunting only for people with “Looking for new opportunities” in their profile headlines. The best salespeople aren’t out looking for jobs. If you come across a rep who you’d like to have on your team, don’t be afraid to reach out and start the conversation.
  • Utilize staffing and recruiting firms. There are many good firms where you can find some great sales candidates. You can try sourcing candidates from a broader talent platform like Hired or try a hybrid platform/agency that specializes in sales recruiting like CloserIQ. You may pay a little more than doing it yourself, but the time you save and access to a broader talent pool could be well worth it.
  • Use your network. Just because one rep didn’t fit in well at another company doesn’t mean they won’t at yours. Your network could also have the inside scoop on things happening in their industries, like acquisitions, acquihires or companies closing shop. This always leaves some top talent up for grabs.
  • Get employee referrals. As they say, you are the average of your 5 closest friends. That also applies to your employees. Chances are your top reps hang out with people very similar to them, which is a great, low-investment opportunity to find talent. Incentivize referrals.

According to Jobvite, 46% of employee referrals stay for three years or more compared to 14% of those hired from job boards. Furthermore, candidates sourced through referrals are hired 55% faster. Motivate your current employees to refer their friends and colleagues. Utilize platforms, resources and applicant tracking systems like Jobvite and Lever.

Don’t rely on any one single source. To keep your funnel full, use 3 or more sources. It’s always a good idea to test other sources - you may find a new source delivers better candidates than the others.

Once your have a rep in the hiring funnel, it’s time to move on to the interview process.

 

5) Initial Phone Screen

The first step in the interview process is the phone screening. Limit these to 20-30 minutes. Make your decision to cut them or move to an in-person interview quickly.

Alice Heiman, Founder and Chief Sales Officer of Alice Heiman, LLC, offers some advice: “Explain your interview process to the candidate. Ask if they have looked at your website and what they know about your company and the product they will sell. If they say nothing or they know very little and you are still interested ask them to learn about your company and get back to you, but typically that is the end of the interview with me.”

Sales professionals need to be able to present themselves extremely well over the phone, so, if they’re not able to sell themselves in 20-30 minutes, don’t expect them to be able to sell your product or service.

Things to look/listen for:

  • Was the candidate on time?
  • Was the candidate well spoken, and did the candidate communicate clearly?
  • Was the candidate comfortable on the phone?
  • Was the candidate able to build a relationship, sell him/herself well and determine next steps?

A good determinant to move forward is asking yourself, “Am I looking forward to meeting this candidate in person?” If you’ve identified someone who can help your company, move forward quickly.

Hiring mistake: not preparing for the interview. You wouldn’t tolerate your sales reps showing up for a prospecting without first doing research on the candidate, so why would you not prepare yourself for a candidate interview? We’re all busy, but carving out 10 minutes before the call can help you review their resume, ensure persona consistency with their online profiles, and identify which performance indicators you need to get more information on. When reading a resume, don’t focus on title, rather focus on actions and responsibilities so the interview is not about reading their resume but rather diving into their ability to do the job.

 

6) Take-Home Sales Exercise

According to Laszlo Bock, Google’s VP of People Operations, “The best predictor of how someone will perform in a job is a work sample test (29 percent).”

The take-home test is intended to provide you with more data, not to be the tool to make the hire/no-hire decision. It will help you confirm performance indicator matches and mismatches. The mismatches reveal areas that need to be explored more in the in-person interview.

A good take-home assignment will explore both personal and professional behaviors.

For example, our take-home assignment for a Sales Development Rep has 6 sections:

  1. Personal assessment
  2. Company profile
  3. Company assessment
  4. Skills assessment
  5. Writing sample
  6. References

Here is our full SDR candidate exercise:

PersistIQ SDR sales exercise

Feel free to view and copy this doc to make an assessment of your own, adding other elements you would like to test for.

Sales author and podcast host Andy Paul suggests, “Ask them to tell you the story(s) about: why they want to move, mistakes they made, etc. Explicitly use the word 'story.' You don't want essays. You want stories. If they can't tell a story, then that's a red flag.”

Here’s what you should be looking for.

  • Can the candidate follow instructions? You’d be surprised how many people fail the assignment before making it to section 1: Personal Assessment.

Often times, rather than having the candidate return it within 48 hours, I like to ask, “When can you have it completed?” This tests to see if the candidate can meet self-imposed deadlines, which is a key success indicator.

  • How much attention to detail does he/she have? The point here isn’t necessarily to look for spelling and grammar mistakes, although that is still important. Look for how much thought and detail the candidate puts into each answer.
  • How much research did he/she do on the people, company and industry? These days, sales is largely about finding and having the right information. Sales reps have to be detectives and uncover information on a company beyond general information found on a company’s website or LinkedIn profile.
  • How proficient is the candidate with written communication skills? Chances are writing is a big part of your rep’s daily activity, so they must be tested on it. From writing cold and follow up emails to writing RFPs and contracts, having good writing skills says a lot about the employee.

 

7) In-person and Mock Call

The sales leader who is tasked with heading the hiring efforts is often constantly on the hunt for the best questions to ask candidates. Though it may not be appropriate to ask the same exact 10 questions and only those 10 every time, you must craft a set of questions to assess the candidacy against your performance indicators. You may have 3-5 questions that you ask every single time, but you should also have another set that you can choose to ask when appropriate.

You’re not always necessarily looking for a specific answer with every question- you’re looking to determine a candidate’s thought process. Laszlo Bock explains, “The second-best predictors of performance are tests of general cognitive ability (26 percent).”

Here is a list of our top questions. Pick out the ones that make sense for the skills you’re hiring for.  

  • Since you have decided to make a job change, what criteria are you using to select your next job?
  • What can you tell me about our company?
  • Having learned about our company, what opportunities do you feel we are missing?
  • What steps did you take to prepare for this interview today?
  • Why do you feel you are the best person for this role why do you think people buy from you?
  • No one is perfect - what is one thing that you are working to improve?
  • What do you do to continue and we develop your sales skills?
  • How do you research prospects and companies before calling them?
  • What do you feel it takes to be successful in sales?
  • What are some goals that you have set for yourself and how are you working to achieve them?
  • We all fail-Can you share you most recent failure? Why did you fail, and what did you learn?
  • How do you stay organized?
  • How will you get up to speed with our company?
  • What is it about your background and skills that tell you this opportunity is a great fit for you?
  • What do you think it takes to be successful in this sales role?
  • Rejection is a big part of sales-how do you handle it?
  • What you do see your career in five years? What is it about this opportunity that intrigues you?
  • In your current sales role, what metrics do you use to keep yourself on track and achieve your goals?  
  • How do you create value for your clients?
  • Why are you planning to leave your current role?
  • Describe your typical sales day or week.
  • How would you describe your selling style?
  • How do you stay up to speed on the news and trends in your industry?
  • What books have had the most impact on your sales career?
  • What do you do to prepare for a sales call?
  • How do you plan to learn about our industry?
    Under what management style do you thrive?
  • What makes you unbeatable? Give some examples.
  • How do you feel salespeople should be managed?
  • If we were to extend an offer to you, what would you want to know to make an educated, informed decision?
  • Given the choice of a sales role or a manager role, which would you prefer and why?
  • Describe a time when you took a leadership role. What did you accomplish and what did you learn?
  • What changes have you made it to your selling approach in the last few years?
  • What questions do you have for me?

It’s not enough to ask these questions one after another and go down the list until you’re done. For each answer, dig a little deeper with probing questions. Any candidate can find similar lists of interview questions and make up answers that sound good. However, once you start digging a little deeper, the truth always comes out.

Alice Heiman, Founder and Chief Sales Officer of Alice Heiman, LLC. reveals what part of her interview looks like: “One of my favorite things to do when interviewing is to ask the candidate to come up with ideas for selling the product or service. I am looking for a few creative ideas.  I ask how they will generate leads for this position, how they have generated leads in the past and what help they expect generating leads. I also ask how long it will take for them to become the top salesperson and then have them describe for me how that will happen. I love to hear the answer.”

The second part of the in-person interview is the mock call. For SDR/BDR candidates, we do a mock qualification call. For AE candidates, we do a mock demo call.

Before this call, you must provide the candidate with all the pertinent information so he/she can properly prepare for the call. Give him/her the information that a salesperson would normally have prior to a qualification or demo call.

This doesn’t need to be a full 30-minute full-on call. For the SDR/BDR qualification call, you should only need 5 minutes for the mock qualification call, and only need 8-10 for an AE mock demo.

On the call, look for thought process, sales process and structured thinking. You’re not trying to see if he/she already sells the way you do, or if he/she is an expert in your business.

A big part of the mock call is asking them, “How do you think you did?” This shows how self-aware they are, which has proven to be a strong success factor in sales. Then give your feedback. This gives you a chance to see how the candidate takes feedback and how coachable he/she is.

Finally, the third part of the in-person interview is the “reverse interview.” Let the candidate ask you questions. Make sure to leave about 10 minutes for this section. This gives the candidate a chance to learn more about the role, the company, the industry, etc. in order for him/her to make an informed decision.  

Be cautious of candidates who ask basic questions that could be easily answered by Siri or a two-minute Google search. One candidate we had asked one of our founders how long he has been with the company… #Fail. The types of questions that a rep asks is another data point to see how much research he/she did before hand - another good indication of how well he/she can do the job and how much he/she wants the job.

Andy Paul suggests rather than ending with the reverse interview, begin with it. He explains, “If someone has done their preparation they should have those prepared at the start of the interview.”

Hiring mistake: not having a consistent interview process. Did each of your candidates go through the same interview steps or were you making it up as you went? Did you give all candidates similar questions or did you ask whichever questions came to you at the time? Did you cover everything you needed to with each of them, or did you run out of time? Holding each candidate to exactly the same standards are important. The interview should not and cannot differ because you were tired, cranky, and having an off day.

 

8) The Culture Interview

Before you think about how to hire for cultural fit, you must define and understand your current company culture.

Returning to Simon Sinek and his book Start With Why, he explains, “Your company doesn’t have a culture. It is a culture.” Culture is an ever-changing entity.  It’s not what you think it is , it is what the team thinks it is, which is why it’s important to involve your team in the process. Each hire you make changes the culture, which is why this is a critical part of the interview process, yet often gets overlooked.

Each new hire that you bring on should not only fit into your culture, but enhance it.

It’s become standard for startups in The Valley to have multiple members across many departments interview for culture fit. At larger or more corporate companies, this responsibility usually lies with the HR rep or manager hiring for the position.

Depending on your company and your process, you may make this an entirely separate interview or you may choose to do this after the in-person and mock call (of course if the candidate passed).

If you’re hiring for a more sales senior role (i.e., Senior SDR, Senior AE, manager, etc.), many HR managers recommend having at least one person junior, one person senior and one peer to that candidate. Having people at different levels involved will give you a chance to get multiple perspectives. Furthermore, it will help suss out people that are overly focused on politics.

Again, pick a few questions that you will ask very time, then keep a set of questions that you ask when appropriate.

Here’s a list of some good culture questions to ask:

  • What can you add to the team?
  • What gets you out of bed and excites you to start the day?
  • If you won the lottery, what would you do?
  • What are your favorite resources (books, blogs, podcasts, etc.) to learn about sales?
  • What one factor would you attribute to your success?
  • What do you like to do on the weekends and in your spare time?
  • Share a time when you had to break the rules - what was the outcome?
  • Share a time when your ethics were challenged - what was the outcome.
  • How do you define success?
  • What does your ideal role look like?
  • Elaborate on the type of environment in which you would function with enthusiasm and contribute positively to our team.

You also need some other specific questions in there that indirectly vet for culture. Rather than asking why they think they’d be a good fit for your culture, Andy Paul suggests, “Come up with a standard question that will surface if they would be a fit. Pose a hypothetical scenario that will produce an answer that either fits or doesn't.”

One thing that we’ve found works really well is to conduct these interviews in less formal settings. Sometimes we’ll go out to lunch and keep it conversational, other times, we’ll go out for a happy hour.

 

9) Conduct Your Reference Checks

You already have a list of references from the written exercise, but how do you leverage this asset to properly vet candidates?

There’s a lot that can be learned from the type of references the candidate provided. Did he/she give you a list of all colleagues or family friends and no superiors? And just because someone listed a reference as a manager doesn’t mean that person actually was. It will take you 30 seconds per person to hop on LinkedIn to verify.

“Poor reference checking is rampant,” explains Alice Heiman. “I recommend calling at least 2 people the candidate reported to, 3 people who worked with the candidate as a peer and if the position is for management, 3 people who reported to the candidate.”

When you’re calling the references, don’t expect someone to give you all the nitty-gritty, dirty details on their former employees. In fact, most people will be highly reticent of talking bad about them.

Rather, a great question to ask is: “Given what you know about this person, in what type of sales environment would he/she thrive?” Another one is “ "What advice would you give to Jane's new boss?”

But don’t forget some of the other important questions. Here are a few baseline questions to ask:

  • What is your relationship to the candidate?
  • Can you confirm the candidate’s job title, dates of employment and work duties?
  • What sales activities was the candidate mainly responsible for?
  • Why did the candidate leave a position?
  • What do you think the candidate needs to really continue his or her career development and professional growth?
  • Is there anything else I should know about this candidate?

Similar to the in-person interview questions, ask good follow up questions until you have a good understanding of the entire picture. For this part of the interview, it’s probably a good idea to ask the exact same questions every time.

Don’t forget some behavioral questions too. Alice Heiman offers some more questions:

  • How did the candidate react in situations with tight deadlines?  
  • When under stress, what behaviors does the candidate exhibit?
  • What are the qualities that you feel make the candidate a good salesperson?
  • Would you hire this person to sell for you?

“Confidentiality and other issues could limit what employers can say, but give it a try anyway,” Alice posits.

After I wrote this section, Andy Paul sent me an article he wrote that made me completely rethink the way reference checks should be done. Timing is essential. You must turn reference checks into valuable data points. Don’t wait do reference checks after you’ve already decided to make the hire.

 

10) Make the Offer or Thank the Candidate and Part Ways

The final decision shouldn’t fall on any single person. It’s important to debrief with your team to get a wide variety of perspectives.

This is where a hiring scorecard can come into play. There are many ways to do this. You can choose to do a simple score from 1-4 for each of your performance indicators or you can create a more complex matrix with weighted scores for different employee attributes.

We like to stay somewhere in the middle, erring on the side of simplicity. If it looks similar to Mark Roberge’s in his book The Sales Acceleration Formula, that’s because it is!

persistiq sales hiring scorecard

Click to view and copy this spreadsheet to make a scorecard of your own.

There should not be any new information in the offer. This means no surprises for the candidate in compensation, benefits or any other major factors that would influence their decision. When both parties have mutually decided it’s a good fit, don’t let things like compensation stand in the way.

CEO of CloserIQ Jordan Wan explains, “There is no downside to providing a candidate with a great interview experience. Even if you end up passing on the candidate, a positive interview experience will create an everlasting impression about the brand (and the appeal of your team) for their future job prospects, their friends, and their referrals.”

If you decide not to move forward, it’s important to follow up in a timely manner. You don’t want to part ways with a bad taste in either party’s mouths. You never know what people will say on social media, and you never know who is listening. This can and should be as easy as sending a message or calling the candidate to let them know you’ve decided to move forward with others and wish them luck on their search.

As Jim Collins says, “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” There’s only so much you can do on your own, but, with the right people around you, you can do anything.

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Stay tuned for more of the latest in outbound sales best practices and methods.

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