74% of companies who admit they've hired the wrong person for a position lost an average of $14,900 for each bad hire.
That’s a lot of wasted time, money, and resources.
But, it happens.
Everyone, especially sales professionals, are at their best when they are interviewing for a new job.
They sell themselves through enthusiasm for the job and the company, confidence in their knowledge and skills, and composure based on their experience and existing relationships.
In reality, however, this may be a facade and can quickly fade once a new salesperson is hired.
So, how do you sort through the people who are just great at selling themselves versus the people who are truly the right fit for the job?
Exceptional sales professionals share a common set of traits that contribute to their high performance and overall sales success.
If you’re a sales leader or manager responsible for hiring and developing new talent, then you need to be on the lookout for these as you recruit your next sales hire.
In this post, we outline six traits to look for, why they contribute to sales success, and what to ask during an interview to determine whether someone has it or not.
1. Willingness to learn
When you’re hiring for any role, you want someone who is always looking to improve and get better.
Sales requires constant curiosity about the industry you’re in, the clients and verticals you’re selling to, and the latest tools, technologies, and trends.
A sales person who demonstrates a willingness to learn is someone who can establish better relationships because of their ability to be curious, ask questions, and actively listen.
They will also likely be able to develop a more creative and compelling solution because they’ll be open to researching and exploring new ideas.
Learning leads to understanding, which ultimately helps solve a client’s problem and deliver the right solution.
What to ask in an interview:
What was the last sales book, blog, or podcast you read/listened to?
When someone is enthusiastic about sales they usually consider themselves a fan and student of sales.
Asking this question helps assess whether the candidate fits this description.
You can’t really fake an answer to this question because you’ll have a hard time speaking intelligently about something you’ve never seen before, especially if the other person has read or listened to it.
Tell me about something you’ve taught yourself recently.
A self-motivated learner is the best kind. It means they take initiative to develop their skills both personally and professionally. For instance, they don’t just teach themselves sales skills but they use their time to develop other skills like writing, painting, or playing the guitar.
These are the people you’re looking for.
What’s the most meaningful failure you’ve had and what did you learn from it?
Admitting to failure is a sign of maturity and accountability. Learning from failure is the cherry on top.
The point of this question isn’t to call the candidate out for their mistakes, it’s to understand whether they understood why it was a mistake and what they learned from it.
The type of response you’re looking for is a story.
Their response delivered in this way means they’ve internalized the failure and learned from it. If their response hints at defensiveness, there’s a good chance the rep isn’t very coachable.
Understanding what drives someone and how to motivate them is critical in making the right hiring decision.
Extraordinary salespeople recognize the need for support and guidance, but they aren’t necessarily motivated by external (extrinsic) factors.
Instead, they are motivated by internal (intrinsic) factors.
Intrinsic motivation involves doing something because it's personally rewarding to you.
Extrinsic motivation involves doing something because you want to earn a reward or avoid punishment.
High-performing salespeople take responsibility for their own sales success.
They do this by setting goals that are personally important and don’t rely on someone or something else to inspire action and help them maintain momentum.
Salespeople who have this sense of accountability are the ones who consistently hit their goals every month, establish trust with their managers and teammates, and are ultimately happier and more satisfied in their job because they’ve created a personal connection to achieving professional success.
While there are certainly a lot of things out of your control in sales, when reps rely on their own internal motivation it keeps them fueled and focused in the right direction.
What to ask in an interview:
What’s the best way for a manager to motivate their team?
While this question is asking about motivation in a team setting, the answer you get will likely reveal how the candidate likes to be managed.
Their answer will also provide insight into how they would tackle managing others if they were promoted to a leadership position.
Based on their response, you’ll be able to tell what type of experience and knowledge they have when it comes to how they think healthy, successful sales teams operate.
Which sales metrics do you pay attention to?
If they give you the standard answer of “quota” then it’s a good sign they aren’t effectively tracking their KPIs.
You can spot exceptional salespeople with this question because they will likely have specific numbers they measure. For instance, they will know their average deal size, close rates, number of opportunities needed each month to reach their quota, and their sales cycle length...at a minimum.
The best reps know they need a clear understanding of their numbers so they can continuously optimize their performance and focus on the activities that deliver results.
What is your ultimate career aspiration?
Perhaps it’s to become a manager or eventually start a business. Listen for cues that signal a desire for growth.
Lack of growth opportunities was one of the top three reasons that would cause a salesperson to look for a new job, according to a survey from Glassdoor.
Sales is a profession with a lot of ups and downs. Being resilient means you have the ability to mentally and emotionally cope with difficult or stressful situations.
Resilience exists when someone is able to process these types of situations in a healthy way and not let them get them down.
Whether that’s stepping away for a break to exercise or meditate, they have a way of letting things go and getting back into the right frame of mind.
Sales reps deal with objections, client service issues, rejection, and a lack of lead flow quite often — not to mention high expectations from upper management regarding revenue goals.
Before you hire someone, you want to understand how a candidate deals with this type of pressure.
What to ask in an interview:
How do you keep a smile on your face during a hard day?
This will help you assess the candidate’s attitude towards stress and rejection.
Do they need time to shake off an unpleasant conversation? Or do they bounce back immediately?
See which strategies they use to recover and move on.
Have you ever had a losing streak? How did you turn it around?
Let’s face it; everyone experiences dry spells.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re listening for what the candidate learned from the dry spell.
What steps did they take to turn it around? Did they diagnose the cause of the problem? Try out a new process? Do they understand what led to the losing streak in the first place?
Tell me about an objection you had trouble overcoming. How did you finally move the deal forward?
Every salesperson has at least one objection that plagues them. Did the candidate listen to the prospect's concerns, reassure them about their concerns, and help them reach a different conclusion?
The answer to this question will tell you a lot about how your candidate solves problems and thinks strategically.
"You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup.” - Bruce Lee
This wisdom from Bruce Lee feels appropriate for this trait because it rings true.
One of the most important traits you want to see in a salesperson is their ability to adapt to the situation at hand.
Sales is an “on your toes” type of job and can throw curveballs every step of the way. That means sellers need to be prepared, yet flexible, to handle whatever objection, question, or issue a prospect or client throws their way.
Adaptability becomes even more essential for sales professionals as the business landscape continues to change and get more competitive.
Sales reps need to keep an open mind to trying new approaches like social selling to reach buyers with new purchasing preferences or leverage video for prospecting to optimize performance and results.
Being adaptable goes hand-in-hand with a willingness to learn because often times adapting to new sales techniques and technologies requires an open mindset towards learning and development.
What to ask in an interview:
Would you be willing to do a mock sales call with me right now?
While this is an interview and your candidate should be ready for anything, a lot of people will be thrown off by this question.
It’s meant to show you how they will respond under pressure.
You’ll also be able to tell how comfortable (or uncomfortable) they feel by watching their body language. Are they squirming? Or do they still appear relaxed and confident?
A bonus insight you’ll gain from this question is a glimpse into how they approach a sales call and what their sales process looks like.
Describe a time when you had a difficult prospect, and how you handled that situation to win the sale.
The answer to this question shows how they approach difficult prospects and whether they can put aside their pride to move a deal forward for the greater good of the company.
Listen for a clear explanation of the situation, the steps they took to fix it, and the results of their actions.
When a salesperson believes in what they are selling and what they do overall, it is more exciting for them to sell.
It comes naturally to talk about how the product, service, or solution can greatly improve the productivity or effectiveness of a business, not only financially, but also in the reduction of stress and effort for their customers.
However, passion can be misinterpreted if not used wisely.
A candidate’s passion needs to extend beyond an enthusiasm for sales into one for helping your target customers and overall business.
It needs to be expressed through the desire to solve problems and connect the dots between your solution and the customers you serve.
When passion is misallocated, it can come off as overbearing or self-serving. Especially if the passion is lasered in on the product or solution and not the customer.
The best salespeople are true educators. They don't tell someone what they need; they explain why they need it.
What to ask in an interview:
If you started a company tomorrow, what would it be?
Many salespeople get into the profession because they're aspiring entrepreneurs.
By asking candidates about a fictional company, you'll learn more about their future goals and motivators.
You'll get a taste of how they pitch business ideas as well as what they are interested in outside of their day-to-day sales role.
What made you want to get into sales?
Money talks, especially when it comes to sales, but if commission is the only part to their answer, that could be a red flag.
You’ll want to listen for some type of personal connection.
Maybe a family member was in sales and that sparked their interest or perhaps they’ve always gravitated towards business and solving problems.
A story that illustrates why the candidate chose sales as a career path is what you want to pay attention to.
Why do you want this job? Why us?
You goal is to determine why the candidate wants the job.
Is this just one of many interviews because they are out of work? If you really want to fill the position, it’s important you understand the real reason they want this job.
Perhaps the candidate has been following your company or your industry and admires the work you’re doing. That means they’ve done their research and can emphasize how they see themselves adding value to the organization and fitting in based on your organization's core values.
The right person will be assessing you as much as you are assessing them.
Being in sales means you’re juggling a bunch of different things all at once: leads, appointments, proposals, internal meetings, onboarding new clients, and the list goes on.
In other words, things can get pretty hectic on a day-to-day basis. That means being organized is key to staying sane and managing time and priorities effectively.
That requires preparation, planning, and solid communication skills.
Staying organized means not only managing time effectively, but also communicating with those around you about what you’re working on.
Whether that’s blocking out your time on the calendar, expressing the need for less distraction, or asking for manager support, in order to stay organized you have to be able to sort through your to-do’s and prioritize what’s urgent.
Being organized also applies to communication with your prospects and clients. The candidate likely has good verbal communication skills, but what about written skills? Are they thoughtful and organized when writing? Or do their emails make it look like they simply dashed something off with typos and misspellings?
What to ask in an interview:
How did you prepare for this interview?
It will be immediately obvious if they didn’t do much prep for their interview, which is a huge red flag. The perfect candidates will do the proactive research you’d expect and then some. They’ll show up ready to impress and inspire.
Explain the steps you take, from the beginning of the sales process to the end.
This shows how well your candidate understands and considers the sales process. It also illustrates how they organize their thoughts and communicate complicated concepts.
Do they explain their process clearly? And do they cover the main steps: prospect, connect, research/evaluate, present, and close? These are two things you should look for in their answer.
Would you be willing to write a sample prospecting and/or follow-up email for me?
This is another one of those questions that may throw the candidate off but gives you more insight into how they work under pressure.
And isn’t that really the name of the game in sales?
Depending on the sales role you’re hiring, like an SDR, their entire day may consist of writing emails to prospects.
That makes this question even more important to know before making a hiring decision because then you’ll know what you’re working with if you should hire this person.
Their writing doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should demonstrate they can communicate clearly and concisely.
How to set your new hire up for long-term success
Whether you’re a sales leader or a hiring manager, your job has only just begun once you’ve found and hired the perfect person.
When a new rep joins the team, the first few weeks and months are absolutely critical for setting expectations.
That’s why your next priority needs to be sales onboarding. A strong onboarding process results in higher retention and productivity.
Sales onboarding is the process companies follow to help new reps get up to speed on the organization: the people, processes, and product knowledge needed to prepare them for success and perform their job effectively.
Effective sales onboarding involves extensive practice and role playing; a progressive, focused curriculum; multiple ways of teaching (from presentations and videos to online courses); an emphasis on selling skills; peer support; and planning for what happens when training is over.
If you have a program in place already, that’s great! You’re leaps and bounds ahead of the game. If you don’t, then it’s time to get to work.
Looking for help with your onboarding program and process? Not sure what to ask? Our three questions to ask before investing in sales training will give you some food for thought.