Hiring Sales Reps: How to Hire Top Performers

January 19, 2015

Today’s post comes to you from guest contributor Nancy Bleeke, President of Sales Pro Insider and award-winning author of Conversations that Sell. Nancy co-hosted a “Hiring Top Sales Performers” webinar with Handshake last Thursday, and if you missed it, here’s a recap! According to research by the DePaul University Center for Sales Leadership, the average turnover cost for one sales rep is almost $115,000. Hiring sales reps (or rather, hiring the wrong sales reps) for your wholesale sales team can be expensive, not to mention frustrating. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you're effectively preparing and consistently executing an effective hiring process. Whether you’re looking for direct employees, contractors, independent/manufacturer’s reps, or rep firms, here’s how to hire top performers for your sales roles:

Hiring Sales Reps: How to Hire Top Performers

1. Identify what kind of sales rep you need, and benchmark the position.

First, determine what kind of sales rep you need for your wholesale business. While many have talked about sales reps as “hunters or farmers,” I believe there are actually now three distinct roles you may need for your company. The Developer

is similar to the “farmer,” developing existing sales relationships, concentrating on upsell, and introducing new products & lines. This is the rep that is both reacting to your customer’s needs and concentrating on building and developing those sales relationships further. They seek buying decisions as they expand opportunities. The Dredger is similar to the “hunter.” The Dredger digs for opportunities and proactively seeks to uncover new buyers. They may have an existing list of contacts for your business to tap into. This is the kind of sales rep you want if a) you’re a young brand and you need to start building your customer list, b) your company is growing and you’re looking to move into new sales territory, or c) your company is moving into a new vertical and you need new buyers for those products. This person will be great at networking, asking for referrals, and forging new relationships. The Dispenser is a newer kind of sales rep. This sales rep services and maintains existing relationships, with a focus on providing an excellent experience to your buyers. This non-traditional sales role isn’t all about selling in the strictest sense of the word. It’s about being a strategic partner with retailers. Buyers value reps who play an advisory role, help them with their assortment planning, provide insights on the competitive landscape, execute quick and easy re-orders, manage inventory and make sure shelves are always stocked. If you’re an established company with a roster of long-time buyers, you’ll want a sales rep who can effectively maintain and strengthen those relationships. Once you decide what kind of sales rep you need, whether it’s one of the profiles above or a combination, benchmark the position. Evaluate your candidates against that benchmark, not each other. If they don’t meet the benchmark, they won’t become a top sales performer for you.

2. Prepare to gather the right data.

Gather data from your candidates to assess their Skill and Will. You may be very good at looking for the right skills needed for your open sales position, but skills aren’t everything. Sales “skills” can be taught and developed. “Will,” on the other hand, is equally if not more important. Will consists of internally driven factors that are hard to train in a sales rep. One webinar participant mentioned that some of their most successful sales reps did not have a prior sales background. I wasn’t surprised. If someone has the will to succeed in sales, they can easily be taught the skills they need. It’s that “will” factor that should be there from the start. The “Will” components to seek in candidates include: Integrated BeliefsBelief in Self

is a crucial attribute for a wholesale sales rep. They’re working in the field, and they need to be able to set their own goals and have the self-discipline and motivation to achieve them. Do they believe they have what it takes to be successful? Do they believe they can add value to retailers and become more of a strategic partner rather than just an “order taker?” Belief in Role is belief in what they do. Ask them how they got into sales. I find this to be a really powerful question, because the answers you get from candidates can be extremely telling. If they say something like, “I wasn’t sure what else to do when I left school and just fell into it,” you might be looking at a less enthusiastic salesperson than a candidate who says, “I got into sales because I enjoy helping people and solving problems.” Belief in Value is their belief in the value of what they sell. It leads to their ability to effectively communicate the value of products being sold--it’s a belief that what they sell is worth more than what is paid. I find this especially important in a wholesale context, since retailers are really going to want to trust that the sales rep is 100% behind every product in their catalog before making a purchase. Goal Transparency is more than being “goal oriented.” Transparency means that goals are written, specific, and measurable. PLUS, the goals are visible and detectable by others in words, writing, and actions. Initiative is a sales rep’s self-directed personal energy that leads to proactive action. Top performers bring more energy and focus to their work. They get more done than others and find ways to stay productive every day. This is so important in wholesale field reps – they need to motivate themselves to get out there everyday. Emotional Intelligence can be summed up as resiliency. Top performers bounce back from setbacks, failures, and cranky customers more quickly. They don’t let their emotions dictate their actions.

3. Execute Interviews and Activities.

Plan on holding at least 3 interviews with each candidate­ and  gather objective  information from other  activities and assessments to learn the whole picture. You could require them to do a mock sales presentation, or give them an assignment. For instance, give them the scenario that your business wants to expand into a new geographical market. Ask the candidate to research and prepare a 10-minute presentation outlining their plan/strategy for breaking into that market. On the topic of interview questions, remember that the answers are in the questions. The kinds of questions you ask have a huge impact on whether or not those answers are going to be helpful in making a good decision. In general, avoid leading questions like, “Are you a team player?” and “Are you a good communicator?” These questions guide the candidate to the “right” answer, and you’ll get a canned response. Avoid overly theoretical questions like, “What would you do if a customer had a complaint?” or “What should you do when you have multiple customers at the same time at a trade show?” These almost always elicit a hypothetical response, rather than a response grounded in reality. Instead, ask behavioral questions that are open-ended, and neither theoretical nor leading. These kinds of questions contain past tense action verbs, and refer to actual events. Using phrases like, “I’d like you to think of a time when…” and “What did you do next?” helps you get the real detail on how a candidate will behave in certain situations.

4. Seek Proof.

I can’t believe how many people don’t check references anymore. In a world where hiring managers can check out candidates’ social media profiles, there may be a misperception that everything’s already “transparent,” and there’s no need to do the additional work of checking references. I strongly disagree with that. Checking references is a powerful way to confirm what you have learned from your candidates. The key is to ask for specific references, like a customer they worked through a challenge with, a teammate who was involved in team selling situations or supervisors/sales managers who were directly responsible for writing their performance evaluation. Ask these references about certain achievements that the candidate may have mentioned, as well as specifics about situations that demonstrate their performance, actions, and attitude. If a candidate cites achievements, awards, or performance numbers, ask for the proof to support those claims. If they don’t have data to support what they’ve said, be suspicious. If they can’t provide that proof for you in the most important sell that they have (selling their capabilities to you), they’re not going to be able to provide proof to buyers when selling your products. Top sales performers will have no problem giving you the data you need. Another way to seek proof is to observe how the candidate communicates, acts, and responds throughout the hiring process. Review their emails; are they professional? How do they come across over the phone? As they try to sell you on themselves, you’re seeing them at their absolute best. If their communication style does not match how you’d expect them to interact with your customers, it’s a red flag. One of the biggest tips I can give you is to hire slowly and fire quickly. Once you’ve hired a new sales rep, pay attention. Their behaviors and activity level in the first 60 days is them at their best. If they’re not following through on the things they promised or find it difficult to adjust to the demands of a wholesale field sales role, you need to make a change quickly, cut your losses, and move on. If you have any other questions about hiring top sales performers, feel free to leave them in the comments below! About the Author: Nancy Bleeke is author of the award-winning book, Conversations That Sell and President of Sales Pro Insider, Inc., a company that specializes in sales team training, management coaching, customer service skills training and hiring and sales assessments for sales teams. Nancy has worked with thousands of sales leaders since 1998, equipping companies with the tools and insights to grow sales, customer loyalty, and employee engagement.