Paradigm Learning is currently interviewing salespeople. Candidates have interviewed with me as part of our in-person interview step for a couple of years now. After 5 years here, I've worked with and interviewed enough salespeople to sketch out the qualities to look for.
The sales process is an activity funnel. Successful salespeople break their week down into time blocks: prospecting, deal pursuit, relationship management, and miscellaneous administrative. They don’t take for granted that passively moving through their to-do list for the week will bring about the right mix of these activities. Successful salespeople know for their role what the ideal mix is for prospecting, deal pursuit, relationship management, and administrative tasks. They all know which order or priority these tasks should be given, and they proactively block time accordingly. If I had to pick one of my traits that has contributed the most to my success as a seller at Paradigm Learning, it would be my diligence.
There’s no way to dance around the need for salespeople here to be smart. They need to be able to research and prepare for meetings, process information quickly during those meetings, and think critically about how to move forward afterwards. Putting the time into these activities and working hard is a given – successful salespeople also need to have above-average intelligence.
Good salespeople come across as smart, knowledgeable, and professional when meeting with clients. A salesperson we hire must have enough poise and professionalism that we feel comfortable handing over client accounts that have done business with us for many years or sending them into demonstrations with senior leaders of potential new clients. We need to be confident enough in their ability to listen, think, and respond appropriately. In this sense, poise also encompasses their emotional intelligence – how well they interpret verbal and nonverbal cues and respond in an empathetic, controlled way.
Business to business salespeople communicate via phone, social media, email, video conferencing, and in-person. As such, it is imperative that they listen actively, speak clearly and concisely, and use proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc., in written communications. Their communications will pose thoughtful questions, offer insights, and frequently check for alignment. The interviewing process is a great time to showcase communication skills.
Our flagship product (Zodiak® – The Game of Business Finance and Strategy) is a business acumen simulation. Naturally, it’s going to take a deep understanding of business and financials to be able to explain, walk through, and demo this program. The need for salespeople to have good business acumen applies outside of Paradigm Learning though. It has become fundamental for all complex, consultative sales. The best salespeople know current events, market behavior, changes happening in key industries, and their customer’s business reality. Great sellers know how to read financial reports and can glean implications from press releases. When they go into a meeting, their customers know they’ve done research and can clearly see how the offering fits into their current strategy.
Salespeople need to possess the desire to improve – which means they need to have a thirst for learning. The internet disrupted the sales profession and when salespeople no longer held all the information, the skills they needed changed. Nowadays, we all need to be ready for the next disruption by reading books and articles, attending training sessions, sharing best practices, and watching webinars. Furthermore, salespeople need to look at their month, quarter, and year and decide what worked and what didn’t work, so they know what to change going forward. They need to learn both from their successes and their failures.
To their core, great salespeople are competitive. They want to get it right and win. And they want to be paid for the wins. Increasingly, we’ve observed that salespeople aren’t necessarily competitive with other salespeople. Most often, they’re competing with themselves. When we combine a thirst for learning with motivation, the result is continuous improvement, both in terms of executing during meetings and beating quota.
Of all the qualities listed here, you probably least expected to find “team player.” The classic archetype is that of a lone wolf, meeting with clients on his or her own and bringing back big contracts. Now, the sales process is no longer one-on-one or even one-on-two, with the salesperson meeting with a couple of decision-makers and finalizing a deal. Increasingly, organizations have moved to a buy-by-committee process. No one person can sign off on a new initiative. In response to our prospective clients buying by committee, salespeople now come to the table with a team of their own. The salesperson may bring her boss and an internal SME to a demo or to scoping, with a behind-the-scenes delivery team kept up to speed and ready to jump in as necessary. Collaboration and team player attitude make all the difference for successful implementations.
The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson (of CEB) details the results of their study of salespeople, which they’ve stratified into 5 types. The one that is most likely to be a star performer is the Challenger. This salesperson delivers insights to customers and is not afraid to take control of the sales process when necessary. Many candidates we interview skew towards a relationship bias. They want to be the friend to their customers and have everyone like them. On the surface, these seem like positive traits for a salesperson, however, in our business it’s important to be comfortable having difficult conversations, sticking to a process, and falling back on our expertise. Sometimes, we have to challenge our customers. In the end, they like and respect our company for this.
Every person is different and they will all have unique strengths and weaknesses in the areas listed above. Furthermore, every sales position is different and therefore some of these qualities may be more highly weighted at other companies. To complicate things even further, as an interviewer you will invariably have to use your gut as well.
Would you add any ideal qualities for salespeople to this list? Remove some? Which is most important at your company?