When you are hiring new sales reps, what traits are you looking for? I typically try to look for the 5 traits below (these are the primary and the most important ones but there are others too) which have worked for me and will typically be useful for identifying effective sales reps in most B2B SaaS companies. I initially learned about using some these traits like “Coachability” from Mark Roberge who was CRO at Hubspot and who scaled Hubspot’s team from 0 to 450 employees. Mark really impressed upon me the importance of hiring for Coachability at the time when I was primarily focused on hiring for Intelligence and proven Prior Success. He was right because formerly successful and smart sales reps may not necessarily succeed on your team if they end up not being coachable.
What’s really important is to ask the right questions during the interview to screen effectively for these 5 traits and I will share a few pointers below based on some of the insights I learned from Mark. If you want more details on Mark’s process at Hubspot, you can read more about it in his bestselling book The Sales Acceleration Formula: Using Data, Technology, and Inbound Selling to go from $0 to $100 Million.
Note that every company and sales process is different so it’s up to you to determine and analyze what traits (these or additional ones) will work well in your context – with that said, it’s reasonable to expect that being coachable or being intelligent and some other traits are critical for success everywhere.
So here are the big 5 that I typically look for when recruiting candidates:
This research on sales rep performance published by the American Psychological Association way back in 1993 found that the most predictive indicator of sales rep success is “conscientiousness.” Conscientiousness simply means achievement and dependability. We also can refer to it as “hard work until you get it done,” also known as “GSD” (i.e. Get S**t Done, implying that getting things done comes with a goal and the dependability to achieve it). Candidates who are conscientious are goal-oriented, hardworking, persistent, and have high expectations for themselves – exactly what you want in a sales rep.
When you find a candidate that fits this description, you can count on them to not only set goals, but also to set a high bar for themselves and make a great effort to reach that bar. They’ll be able to work autonomously. Conscientious sales reps do really well with data transparency – when they have access to their own sales performance data, they can track and adjust their efforts in real time.
Testing for Conscientiousness:
But when it comes to interviewing candidates for your sales team, how do you gauge conscientiousness? Ask them to tell you about a time they set difficult goals. What did they do to stretch themselves and achieve these goals? Let them walk you through the process and purpose. If they can show they’re goal-oriented and results-driven, they will likely put in a lot of effort and do well on your sales team.
While hard work and conscientiousness is important, the most successful sales candidates will find a healthy balance between that self-starter attitude and an ability to turn coaching into results.
Mark Roberge, HubSpot’s top Sales Executive, ran an experiment where he looked for specific attributes during sales interviews and measured over time which of these attributes actually correlated with success. He collected over 1,000 interviews and hired more than 60 people before doing his first analysis. What he found was that Coachability was the #1 predictor of sales success at HubSpot.
Testing for Coachability:
One of the best exercises to test for coachability in an interview is to run a roleplay. Ask them to sell something simple to you, like their phone or the table. Spend a few minutes pretending to be a prospect while they deliver an elevator pitch and answer some of your questions. Then, ask them to reflect on the roleplay: what did they do well and what did they not do well? Candidates who are open about and unafraid of their weaknesses tend to be the most open to coaching. Next, tell them what to do differently next time. Do they get defensive or stressed, or do they receive feedback well? It’s a great sign if they take notes on your response. Then, have them do the roleplay again and see how well they apply your feedback.
So, what does this mean for you as a sales leader? You need to hire coachable reps and then dedicate time to actually coaching them. Well-coached sales teams consistently outperform the competition and improve forecasting accuracy. Moreover, your reps want to be coached because they want to develop their professional skills. It may be a serious time commitment, but prioritizing coaching has proven significant, long-term benefits.
In order to be coachable and smart about sales, a rep must be intelligent. Sales is a data-driven field, so successful reps can analyze sales data and make smart decisions based on their analysis.
Testing for Intelligence:
Good indicators of intelligence include your candidate’s academic and workplace experience and achievements, including GPA – but remember, those can be arbitrary. I’ve found that a great question to ask in an interview is: “In five minutes, could you explain something to me that is complicated but you know well?”
It can be a hobby, something technical… anything they want. Their response will tell you not only how well they can comprehend complex subjects, but also how well they can articulate them to someone who doesn’t know much about the subjects. To succeed in sales, your candidate will need to explain your product, technology, and ideology to people who are mostly unfamiliar. That question will show you how naturally this comes to them – and it’s a sneaky way of gauging intelligence.
4) Prior success
This is critical because you want someone who has shown a track record of achievement. It doesn’t matter in which area – and even someone graduating from college can show that either in academics or at sports or hobbies.
Testing for Prior Success:
This is easy – just look at the resume. Or look at their academics and grades if the candidate is fresh out of college. It’s easy to see. Also, Inc. magazine published an article recently called, “The Only Interview Question That Matters.” The question was: What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?
Even more important than the question itself is the follow-up questions you can ask, like “Walk me through the plan, how you managed it, and its measured success,” “What were some of the biggest mistakes you made?”, “Give an example of how you managed and influenced others,” and “What would you do differently if you could do it again?” It’s amazing how much insight you can gain about a candidate by spending 5 minutes asking questions about their #1 accomplishment.
Hire candidates that have passion for sales. And I suggest that you look for someone passionate about your company’s mission, too.
Testing for Passion for Selling:
Ask your candidate why they want to go into sales. Ask them what books they’ve read about sales, which sales blogs they read regularly, and what excites them about sales. People tend to succeed doing things they really like, so a passion of sales can be a good indicator of success.
Testing for Passion for Your Company:
You also want sales reps who are passionate about working at your company. It is really important to be clear up front about your company’s mission, culture and purpose
You can gauge their passion and selling savvy by what questions they ask you when given the chance. Are they well-thought-out, difficult questions? That can give you a clue into whether they will maintain high interest in your organization over time. Ultimately, the candidate that will succeed on your sales team will passionately engage with you on this subject.
These 5 characteristics of successful sales candidates might surprise some of you. What about years of sales experience or industry knowledge? Think about it: those traits can all be learned, but none of them are inherent. The most successful sales reps have high potential because they possess the 5 characteristics I’ve listed. Those are far stronger at the core than something that can be easily learned.
Sometimes it is tempting to hire a candidate that looks fantastic on paper with tons of experience even if they didn’t pass the 5 tests above. But the cost of turnover is high and you don’t want to screw it up. Hire the most dependable, goal-oriented, coachable, intelligent, and passionate people and you are guaranteed to build a world-class sales force.
If you are big organization and you’ve hired a lot of reps, I’d love to hear if you try these so let me know how these traits correlate to performance (especially Productivity Per Rep – PPR) of your most successful reps. For example, you can run a few simple regression analyses to correlate the sought after traits (which can be tracked during and after the interview) with performance of your reps. A number of companies including Hubspot have run such analyses and many of us agree on most of these 5 as strong and consistent predictors of success in inside sales.