The Challenge of Hiring Sales People
Among the printing industry’s most challenging roles—as well as the most challenging jobs to fill--are sales positions. Accordingly, this article outlines PrintLink’s suggested methodology for adding to your sales team. In it we have attempted to distill our extensive practical experience in recruiting sales personnel into a series of steps and checklists that will help guide you through the complex and critical process of hiring sales staff.
Step One: Define Your Sales Process
Every sales process involves a number of basic steps. We therefore suggest that, before hiring, you define these steps not in general terms but in terms of your company’s very targeted functional requirements. The specific process map thus developed then forms the basis of both a job description and a set of hiring criteria.
Typically, the six essential steps it covers include:
- Lead development
- Customer contact
- Presentation development and delivery
- Proposal development and presentation
- Follow-up, customer support and organic growth of accounts
- Reporting structure
- Level of independence the salesperson is allowed
- Internal interactions and workflow procedures
- Types of customers or potential customers and level of interaction required (e.g., C Level, purchasing agents, print buyers)
- Existing level of acceptance by customers of your company, its products and services
- Length of sales cycle
- Type of selling (Is it focused on product, service, relationship, or solutions?)
Once your map of functional requirements is drawn, you’re ready to list the characteristics, behaviors, values, skills, abilities, and experience required for a successful salesperson in your environment. A good way to start your list of qualifications is to look internally. If there are already salespeople in your company who are strong and consistent producers, then itemize the key components of their success. You may also know external salespeople who have earned your respect; and if so, define the qualities that comprise their mastery of selling. Also ask your customers what specific qualities appeal to them in a sales representative.
Finally, you need to recognize that you can’t wait forever for the perfect salesperson to come along. Thus you should categorize each requirement on your list realistically as either a mandatory prerequisite or a beneficial but nonessential extra.
Additionally, as in all successful hires, you will need to strike a practical balance between technical job requirements and behavioral requirements. So, for example, while a high level of technical knowledge is desirable in a prospective sales employee, don’t forget that as long as the person possesses at least a fundamental background, some of the more sophisticated sales techniques can be taught, as can the specific technology of your production workflow. What cannot be taught, however, are personal attributes like drive, tenacity, heart, ability to handle rejection, empathy, and core values.
Step Three: Develop Targeted Interview Questions
Compile a list of questions specifically tailored to uncover whether candidates meet the success criteria you established above. Avoid textbook or general questions that candidates can anticipate and prepare answers for in advance. Instead, you want to ask customized questions that elicit not theoretical answers but rather specific examples of actual situations and past behaviors revealing the specific types of performance and traits you are seeking. Below for reference are examples of specific traits for sales success and corresponding lists of questions designed to reveal them:
- What do you do to build a list of possible customers?
- How do you go about researching a customer before a sales call?
- What do you expect from a sales manager to help you make sales? What assistance have you received in the past and how has it assisted with a close?
- What sort of internal support do you expect to help you make sales? What resources have you had in the past and how have they assisted you with presentations and a close?
- What did you do to prepare for this interview?
- Please give me an example of a time when you were told to produce more sales. What did you do?
- Why are you considering leaving your current employer? How did you reach this decision?
- How do you decide if a prospective customer is worth pursuing? Can you give me an example?
- How do you decide the best way to sell a particular customer?
- Approximately what percentage of your sales calls close? To what do you attribute this success rate? Alternately, why do you feel some of them don’t close?
- How do you know if you’re doing a good job?
- What would you define as your major achievements?
- What would your manager define as your major achievements?
- Did you ever alter your own standards to match your company’s standards? When and how?
- Other than business volume, what is the most important sales standard in the industry?
- In you last job or jobs, what did you need to learn? How did you go about learning it? Were you successful?
- How do you keep up with the changes in technology in our industry?
- What do you learn about your customers’ business and their problems?
- How do you keep track of what the competition is doing?
- What sales have you made when you had to study or learn information quickly?
- Which sales have you lost because you lacked the required knowledge? What did you do as a result?
- How do you keep yourself “up” for selling?
- What sales situations have challenged you the most? The least?
- What makes a good salesperson?
- What makes you a good salesperson?
- What is attractive to you about sales as a career? What is not attractive?
- What are your overall career goals? What are you doing to achieve them?
- How do you prepare for a sales call?
- How do you decide your priority order for sales calls?
- How do you handle situations when your schedule is unexpectedly interrupted? What examples can you give of priorities you have had to juggle?
- How do you manage your sales funnel?
- What sales management and sales structure assistance have you had in the past that has optimized your success? Why has it been successful?
- How do you get started on your typical day?
- How do you keep track of your leads, prospects and clients?
- Give me an example of a sale you lost. What did you do to bounce back?
- Give me an example of a near loss and what you did to save it.
- Have you ever sold something to a customer that your company couldn’t deliver? Give me an example and describe how you handled it.
- What sales systems or approaches have you used in your previous positions? Which did you find successful?
- Do you have a basic and usual presentation you utilize? Give me an example of when you had to modify your usual presentation. What did you do?
- Which kind of customer is difficult for you to sell to? How do you overcome these difficulties?
- What is the most creative sales presentation you have made? How was it developed? Did it succeed? Was the outcome worth the time and money?
- How do you persuade your customers?
- What are some examples of typical customer objections you have experienced? How did you answer them?
- How much contact do you have with your customers after a sale? What involvement do you have with them for the duration of a project?
- Provide an example of how you dealt with a customer complaint.
- How do you get to know your customers’ needs?
- What sort of follow-up do you do with prospects that have turned down your service?
- Do you have an example of a customer who has stuck with you. What did you do to make this happen?
- How often do you meet with your sales manager? Are these formal or informal meetings? What do you tend to discuss? How workable and helpful have these meetings been?
- What do you do to help other sales people?
- Give examples of your interactions with the customer service reps at your company.
- What kind of criticism have you been given by your managers? How much of it is appropriate?
- If I hired you, what would you expect from me?
- What is the hardest directive you have had to follow from your company? How did you feel about it?
- Have you had a situation when, to sell a customer, you had to try something you’ve never done before? Tell me about it.
- When have you felt it was appropriate to work around or circumvent a company policy in order to make a sale?
- Why did you choose to make your career changes? Please provide an example of expectation and outcome.
The following nine tips will assist you further in interviewing sales candidates and interpreting the results:
- Be sure to ask all candidates the same set of questions.
- Remember that, although appropriately professional salespeople will respect confidentiality and non-disclosure, they can still provide you with convincing examples that preserve the anonymity of their present company’s clients.
- Do not be overly impressed by the presentation skills of candidates, since good salespeople are obviously masters at selling themselves.
- Don’t be sidetracked by an engaging conversation. Make sure you document facts and that are potentially verifiable.
- Find out candidates’ level of interest in your company, for example by having them tell you what information they have found out about your company through their own research. Then have them explain why they want to become part of your team. Don’t make the mistake of telling them all about your company, only to have them paraphrase the same information back to you (although that would be a valid indicator of their listening skills.)
- The hiring process will require more than one interview and discussion.
- We strongly recommend that more than one staff person be involved in these sessions. Having another of your salespeople participate provides an additional assessment and also helps to determine how a prospective employee will mesh with your existing sales force and the common goal.
- Tabulate the results of each interview in chart form that will facilitate comparison with other results and assigning a grade.
- PrintLink strongly recommends using psychometric profile testing to help identify the top contenders among short-listed candidates.
We hope that the above recommendations will assist hiring managers in identifying qualities and candidates that will translate to strong sales success. Yet sales success is never a cookie-cutter venture, but rather a complex endeavor customized to fit the specific dynamics of your individual company. It therefore requires not only effective hiring practices but also effective and continual co-operation and collaboration among company management, sales representatives, and other staff, including CSRs, sales-support and production personnel. Management also needs to recognize that bringing a new salesperson on board requires a commitment and an investment up front to set the new sales reps up for success instead of failure. (Previous articles by PrintLink have addressed the importance and dynamics of this mutual give and take.)
And lastly, while we suggest that you always aim to hire the best, we also advise against holding out for the sales rep who walks in the door with an automatic bag of business—simply because that magical person is unlikely ever to appear. Instead, when faced with a lack of fully qualified sales candidates, we recommend that you grow your own. In fact, some of the best potential producers may not even have embarked on their sales careers yet. Accordingly, one of our upcoming articles will show you how to uncover and develop these promising candidates. They may lack direct sales experience, yet they demonstrate the behavioral traits and aptitudes that can spell a rewarding sales career and a profitable investment for your company.