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Best Practices for Screening Sales Candidates


Hiring is never exactly a walk in the park, but hiring salespeople is strangely nerve-wracking to many. For many roles, it’s a simple matter to screen out unqualified candidates. Can they work out a coding problem on a whiteboard? Can they proofread a memo for grammatical errors? Can they prep vegetables in the allotted time without violating any health code standards? Then they can probably do the job well enough. The rest comes down to values, personality, and culture fit.

But for salespeople, aside from the ability to use basic tools (and we all know that person who can’t figure out how BCC works no matter how often it’s explained to them), the most critical skills are soft ones. But while this makes it more challenging to screen out the wrong candidates, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to cycle through every single person in the Who’s Who of worst salespeople before striking gold.

The Employer's Guide to Hiring Salespeople

Here are a few tips for finding those diamonds in the rough.

Understand what you’re looking for.

This should be common sense, yes? But many smaller businesses that haven’t had much experience with dedicated sales staff often decide they need a “good salesperson” and leave it at that. What kind of voice does your business speak with? What does making a sale look like in accordance with your brand and company culture?

Are you looking for someone who can make cold calls to consumers in their homes or someone who can build relationships with business owners over time? Do you need someone who will excel while traveling to trade shows around the world, or someone who can zero in on analytics while chatting over the computer from the office?

The fact that someone sold luxury watches doesn’t mean they can sell vintage pinball machines. (It also doesn’t mean that they can’t. It only means that you need to know what you want in a pinball salesperson.)

Look for sales experience, even if it doesn’t scream “sales.”

People with no experience at all in sales are probably not going to thrive in a sales position. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take young people, people who are new to the workforce, or career changers, however. Not all selling comes with a sales title.

Running for office or volunteering as a canvasser can be incredibly pertinent experience. Selling ad space for the school paper may be too. Teachers who “sell” skeptical parents on a new curriculum and shelter volunteers who match nervous families with pets in need of homes both have skills that can translate very well to sales.

Behavioral interview questions can help you separate those who grasp the fundamentals of sales from those who don’t.

  • Tell me about a time when you helped someone make a difficult decision.

  • Talk about a time someone effectively sold you a product or service you weren’t expecting to buy.

  • Describe a day at [sales experience] when everything went wrong.

  • Tell me about your biggest success at [sales experience] from start to finish.

Those who can’t identify what effective selling looks like, think from a customer’s perspective, or manage crises are probably people you should screen out.

References matter

References are critical in sales. While many companies refuse to provide references these days under the mistaken notion that it will lead to a lawsuit, a good salesperson should have at least some former coworkers or supervisors, customers, or other individuals who are familiar with their work. They can give you a sense of whether the candidate’s self-assessment is at least somewhat correct.

While the stereotype of a salesperson is one of dishonesty, this is precisely the person you want to avoid hiring. Someone who can sell you on themselves at the expense of the truth will also sell your product the same way. While it may move some boxes off the shelves at first, it will also land you some very unsatisfied customers in the long run. You’re better off with an earnest and hardworking employee in need of a little training than a smooth talker with no qualms about bending the truth to suit their needs.

Let them sell to you.

Does their resume sell you on their attention to detail? Does their interview sell you on their communication skills? If not, they may struggle to sell what you’re offering as well. There are some exceptions to this, of course: cultural expectations of humility, impostor syndrome, and self-consciousness can all limit someone’s ability to speak convincingly about themselves.

If you suspect this is the case, you can ask them to sell you something they know and care about. Have them convince you to take up their pet hobby, read their favorite book, or binge-watch their latest television obsession. This will help you screen out those who simply can’t organize their thoughts or share them in a persuasive manner, while hanging on to those who are simply awkward when talking about themselves.

Looking for more tips? You’re in luck.

Hiring salespeople isn’t rocket science, but there are definitely a few pitfalls to avoid. The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Salespeople can help you navigate the process, whether you’re hiring the first person on your sales team or the fiftieth.

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