Hiring: Which Traits Predict Success in Sales?

By Selling Power Editors

It’s never easy to separate the superstars from the washouts when you’re interviewing a new sales candidate. According to Caliper Corporation president Patrick Sweeney, a job interview gives leaders only limited insight into how people will actually perform.

“Candidates can often turn out to be what we call interview stars,” Sweeney says. “That’s when the person turns in his or her best performance during the interview. A week or two later, the sales leader is asking, ‘Where’s the person I interviewed?'”

There’s a real difference between the ability to say what someone wants to hear and the ability to actually deliver a great performance. Think about the times you did well in school by pleasing the teacher, rather than by learning the subject. Personality traits and a track record of success might not be enough to go on, either. Sweeney remembers advising one sales leader who was considering hiring a woman who was a former Olympic athlete. Although the woman was clearly confident and competent and had a competitive spirit, Sweeney was concerned about her persuasion skills.

“It was suggested that she be part of a group interview before making a final decision,” Sweeney said. “The sales leader ended up calling us back to say, ‘I can’t thank you enough,’ because even though she seemed to have everything, she ended up crumbling under the pressure of a group interview. It would have taken six months to uncover that if she’d actually been hired.”

It’s true that personality plays a large role in sales success, but the profile of a winner tends to be more complex than most people assume. Based on his experience, Sweeney cites the following three qualities as highly predictive indicators of a top performer:

Able to connect. Top performers have a knack for figuring out what other people want and why they want it. They’re also empathetic. “An ability to tell where other people are coming from is truly important,” Sweeney says. “The salesperson who can’t read someone and understand his or her point of view will deliver a standard pitch – and that’s not going to get great results.”

Driven to persuade others. Successful salespeople find it personally fulfilling to be able to persuade other people to see things their way. Why? Because they genuinely believe in creating a better experience for customers.

Able to deal with rejection. Even under the best conditions, salespeople will be turned down more often than they’ll get a yes. Do they take that personally? Does it set them back? If so, for how long? “Top performers view negative experiences, not as things to be avoided, but as learning lessons,” Sweeney says.

Unfortunately, these characteristics are not necessarily apparent on the surface, nor are they simple to uncover during a job interview, which is why Sweeney recommends combining an interview with an in-depth personality assessment. One of the most insightful and significant questions you can ask when you meet anyone you think might be an asset to your team is, “What’s the most difficult experience you had to overcome, and how did you do it?”

“When we were writing Succeed On Your Own Terms, I interviewed all kinds of people, and you can really get a sense of someone’s personality by his or her reaction to that question,” Sweeney says. “In some cases, you’ll get stories like the one I got from a woman who told me about how she ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for a mistake that hurt the image of her company and made its stock price drop. She overcame that and used it as a learning experience. She now tells everyone on her team about it so they can avoid making the same kind of mistake. I was so impressed by that. Yet when you ask other people about difficult experiences, they draw a blank.”

New hires might not come with a money-back guarantee, but asking the right kinds of questions, knowing how to evaluate a candidate’s answers, and using a rigorous assessment process can help you make great strides in building a team of winning players.