Your sales force is the front line of your business. In fact, without a winning sales team, many companies wouldn’t even be in business. So when you’re hiring salespeople, you need to make sure you put them through a stringent qualifying process. You want to find candidates with the qualities to get results even under difficult conditions.
Earlier this year, Middle East recruiters Bayt looked into the most important attributes that UAE employers look for when hiring. This survey covered other business and management functions as well as sales, but the results map extremely well to the profile of the best salespeople.
Top of the list of most sought-after skills was good communication, cited by 68% of those asked; followed by "being a team player," and the "ability to work under pressure" with 51% and 47% respectively.
But how do you test for these qualities and what do they really mean out in the field? And how can you be sure that the salespeople you hire will be able to show these attributes once you’ve employed them?
Make a conscious effort to assess these seven qualities during the interview and hiring process, and you’ll be on the right track to getting the sales force you need.
1. Communication skills There are around 200 nationalities in the UAE, and while Arabic is the official language and English is the language of business, many more are widely spoken. But good communication isn’t just about speaking the language– it’s about having a deep understanding of your offering and being able to articulate that clearly and persuasively.
Of course, you can look for good writing and presentation skills straight from the application, but you can also check whether your candidates are willing and timely communicators. How diligently do they reply to emails and phone calls? How quickly do they respond to unexpected situations? Try "losing" their CV to see how quickly a new copy arrives in your inbox.
And think beyond their words. Look at their non-verbal communication. Research from the University of Glasgow suggested that we make judgements based on someone’s voice within 500 milliseconds. But first impressions may be formed even sooner, before the person we are talking to even starts to speak. We use non-verbal cues and "thin slicing" –unconscious assessments based on very brief observations– to form judgements that are surprisingly consistent and accurate.
So a good communicator –and a good salesperson– will be able to both "show" and "tell."
And you can form your own thin-slice impression of a potential hire at the start of the interview. Be alert to it, and don’t miss the opportunity.
2. Persistence Persistence is a classic sales attribute. Like a modern-day Sisyphus pushing his heavy wares up a slope of indifference, the good salesperson persists until the client finally understands.
But while persistence is important, beware the popular statistics on it, which can be misleading. A commonly quoted example is that 8% of salespeople get 80% of sales. This claim is based on two other claims: first, that 80% of sales come after the fifth call, and second, that 92% of salespeople never get as far as the fifth call. The inferred logic being that the remaining 8% pick up the lucrative 80% of sales.
Persistence is not about numbers– real or imagined. Good salespeople don’t bludgeon clients into submission, and some clients simply never submit.
In the book Perspectives on Increasing Sales, the authors note that there is a point at which persistence crosses the line from acceptable to annoying– and once you cross that line you’ll never get the business.
Watch how your candidates follow up their interview. A polite email with well-spaced check-ins over the phone says "diligent," while jamming your phone line every day might say "pushy."
3. Emotional intelligence Maintaining that balance –being diligent without being pushy– is a great skill for a salesperson. And it takes emotional intelligence to know how far to go without crossing the line.
Emotional intelligence is a term that was only defined in 1990, by academics at Yale and the University of New Hampshire. It means the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to be able to discriminate effectively between different emotions, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour.
But does it help in sales? Research suggests it does. A report from the Keller Center at Princeton cites an emotional intelligence trial conducted by Coca-Cola, who trained leaders in principles of emotional intelligence to assess whether it improved performance targets. Those who received training beat their targets by 15%, while those who didn’t missed theirs by the same margin. Buyers rely heavily on their emotions, and if a salesperson can accurately appraise the emotions of other people they can use that information to adapt in the selling situation and help clients solve problems in a way that makes them feel valued.
Emotional intelligence helps a salesperson to establish a connection, and to assess whether (and when) clients are emotionally ready to advance through the sales process.
How do you pinpoint it? A common way is through specific emotional intelligence tests, which use situational questions –including visual questions– to assess the reactions of candidates to particular situations, or to identify the emotions being expressed in different facial photographs.
Intuitive judgement is also valuable in making this assessment, and part of that is determining how likeable your candidate is.
4. Likeability Being likeable is an amorphous quality. It’s sometimes known by other names, like "charisma," "rapport," and "affability," but also depends on listening skills, trust and honesty.
In his book The Likeability Factor, former Yahoo! executive Tim Sanders cites a University of California study which looked at how doctors responded to patients with different combinations of likeable traits. Those perceived as more likeable received more attention and were encouraged to make more follow-up calls and visits than their less likeable peers.
Sanders describes four elements of likeability: friendliness, empathy, relevance and realness, all of which can be assessed in an interview. But of the four, it is realness that will really hit home with clients, and that quality is all about being trusted. A report from CareerBuilder found that over half of hiring managers had caught a candidate embellishing their CV. Use the interview to grill your candidates. If they’re being honest and they can back up their claims, they’ll be able to do the same when talking to clients, and their realness will show through.
5. Thick skin Salespeople need the skin of a rhinoceros– though it also has to be added that even rhinos are susceptible to both sunburn and insect bites.
But having thick skin isn’t just about being able to deal with rejection, and using it to your advantage. The real test is your long-term resilience to cumulative minor annoyances. Salespeople need to be able to handle things like relationship fallouts within the team, and misunderstandings with customers.
It can be a risky strategy to deliberately offend interview candidates, but doing this can give you insights into how they would deal with a prickly customer. The easily riled will get defensive, the more emotionally well adjusted won’t.
6. Self-starting You’ll want to assess whether your candidates are diligent about putting in the necessary research and getting things right. The extra mile is the one that leads to the door of a sale.
It’s worth checking whether the candidate took the time to look you up on LinkedIn. Did they follow your company or blogs related to what you do? A report from LinkedIn last year showed that 34% of candidates feel they don’t know enough about the company they are looking to join– despite information from LinkedIn and other sources now being widely available at their fingertips.
And if you see a flurry of activity on their LinkedIn timeline, don’t dismiss it as a vain attempt to appear interested. Great salespeople are inquisitive, and prepare by researching. If they do their homework with you, they’ll do it with your clients too.
7. Room to grow Finally, talk about the fact that the job will involve training, new skills, even things like shadowing other employees. Tell them about opportunities for mentoring in both directions and see how they respond to the idea that they may not yet be the full package.
If everyone you hired already met all the qualities we’ve looked at, you would be very fortunate and your sales force would be unstoppable. Few candidates come fully qualified in every aspect of the job, so ability and willingness to learn are important qualities, for salespeople as for other hires.
A candidate who brings 80% to the table may fill in the other 20% on the job. The greatest salespeople aren’t closed to the idea of improving– they embrace it.