Hiring good people is tricky. Hiring good salespeople is even trickier. That’s because sales professionals spend the day being interviewed by prospects and customers. Sales reps are professionally trained interviewers. They know what to say and how to say it to capture your attention.
After interviewing over 3,000 sales professionals for a variety of roles, for companies ranging from small family businesses to private equity-backed companies and even Fortune 500 firms, We’ve learned that an ideal hiring process exists and should be used to ensure sales hiring success.
Once you learn and adopt this seven-step hiring process, you will see an improvement in your ability to identify and attract top sales talent. You will have a step-by-step evaluation process that will greatly reduce the chances of a bad hire. You’ll be more confident as a sales leader.
In the same way, you follow a step-by-step process to close a sale, you need a proven hiring process for building your sales team.
Hiring the right way
Hiring sales professionals is a process with seven prescribed steps, and it requires input from multiple stakeholders. The process comes with only one rule: You can’t skip a step.
The order of the steps isn’t all that important. (Many of my clients do the behavioral assessment as step number one or number two.) Each step is designed to keep you from making a bad hire. Follow the process, and you’ll improve your ability to hire top performers. And if you’re worried that a process will slow you down, know this: Your responsibility to hire the right candidate supersedes any responsibility to hire quickly.
To accelerate the process, shorten the amount of time that lapses between each step.
A seven-step process for hiring salespeople
The seven steps to hire the ideal salesperson are:
Human resources (HR) interview
Video conference interview
PI Behavioral Assessment
PI Cognitive Assessment
Business plan and pitch
This seven-step screening and selection process is intended to be rigorous and thorough. You’ve worked hard to create a winning sales culture and being selective honors your responsibility to preserve the culture. It’s not enough to hire talented sales professionals. You must hire the best talent that fits your culture.
Follow this process even for internal or referred candidates.
1. Résumé review
All candidates must submit a résumé and provide references. Someone from the HR team will review all new résumés first, looking for the following:
Numerical examples (e.g., quota attainment, sales rankings)
Exceptional accomplishments (e.g., ranked No. 1 rep of the year)
HR will then send all candidates with sales distinction to the sales manager for review.
That said, most résumés tell you what the applicant’s roles and responsibilities were in previous jobs. You may occasionally see a strong résumé that also tells you what the candidate accomplished that their peers didn’t.
Look beyond roles and responsibilities; pay attention to what the candidate accomplished.
A good résumé doesn’t read like this: Managed the largest territory for the genetics division. It reads like this: Grew sales by 135% in assigned accounts from 2017–2019 or Voted 2019 Sales Professional of the Year for best sales results on the team.
The decision to move a candidate forward is yours, but you need to provide feedback to HR quickly, ideally within 24 hours. Top sales talent won’t stay on the market long.
2. The 30-minute HR interview
HR starts the hiring process with a quick “get-to-know-you” initial phone screen. This step should be conducted by a member of the HR team, with you on the line to mainly listen and take notes, ask a few questions, and share the benefits of working with the company. It’s a great way to weed out the poor fits and sniff out the winners.
Here are a few questions I like to ask during this interview:
What are you currently reading or studying to improve your craft?
What time does your day start and end?
Why our company?
What are you absolutely the best at?
During the call, ask yourself one simple question: Will they represent our company well to our market? If not, don’t waste your time. Keep looking.
3. Written assessment
The goal of the written assessment is to get a glimpse at how a candidate thinks and how they express those thoughts. Can they think and write clearly? Writing is a window to the mind. Formulate a set of questions for the candidate and ask that they respond directly to you within 48 hours. Here are some sample questions:
1. Why do you want to work with us?
2. What is the most generous thing your current company or a previous employer has done for you?
3. What is the most outside-the-box idea you have had in your professional career? What were the results?
4. Video conference interview
The video conference interview is conducted by the sales leader. It’s the part of the interview process where you’ll learn the most about a candidate. The interview is one hour in length and broken down into four sections:
1. Rapid fire Q&A (10 minutes)
2. Interview questions (30 minutes)
3. Presentation of the role (10 minutes)
4. Candidate questions (10 minutes)
Up to this point, most of the interview process has felt normal to the candidate. The main objective of the video conference interview is to see how the candidate handles discomfort. For the first 40 minutes of this hour-long conversation, you’ll ask hard questions that should provoke discomfort. This conversation should feel anything but normal.
During the rapid-fire section, I tell the candidate I’m looking for simple short answers, not explanations. Here are some examples:
What’s the last book you read?
Who is your mentor?
Finish this sentence, I wish I were someone who?
During the interview questions section, I ask questions about their work history, how satisfied they are with what they’ve accomplished so far, and what they’re hoping this job will do for them personally and professionally. I challenge them, too. If I don’t think they are giving me a good answer, then I tell them. Sometimes how they respond tells me more than the response.
If the candidate can maintain composure, then you’ve got a strong potential hire. Second, to résumé review, this step eliminates more candidates than the other steps combined.
Other objectives of this interview are to determine if the candidate is presentable, understands technology, makes the audience comfortable, is engaging and asks questions, is conversational, is interested or interesting, and is skilled at softly closing by asking to continue the conversation with your company.
5. Behavioral Assessment
We've tried dozens of assessments over the years, and hands down, The Predictive Index provides the best tools for this process.
One of the most valuable features of The Predictive Index’s Behavioral Assessment is that it allows you, the sales leader, to create a Job Target, which details the ideal characteristics and behavioral traits desired for each role.
You can then match candidates to the Job Target and rank them on a scale of 1-10. It’s a powerful tool that does so much more for sales leaders than just providing a personality test.
6. Cognitive Assessment
Countless studies and papers have shown that cognitive ability is the number one predictor of on-the-job success.
Cognitive ability plays a unique role in start-ups and certain roles such as leadership and sales. If change is a constant in your organization, pay special attention to cognitive ability.
Our process uses a cognitive model, much like the behavioral model; the model is specific to each role. This quick assessment will garner information that a resume or interview could never extract.
7. Business plan and pitch
This meeting is the final stage of the interview process. Customers have become accustomed to meeting virtually for many sales teams and sales leaders. This reality not only changes your sales process, but it might affect the type of seller you need to hire. It’s up to you to determine if this interview needs to be done in person or virtually.
All candidates should work with the sales manager to prepare and distribute a presentation file 24 hours before the interview. Here’s what should be expected in the presentation:
Prepare slides using PowerPoint, Keynote, or another presentation software to guide the presentation. Ideally, the sales leader should provide the candidate with a branded template to use for the final interview.
The presentation should have slides to support a mock “demo” where the candidate presents your company and its offering(s) to you and the other members of the meeting.
The presentation should include some form of a 30-60-90 day plan that demonstrates the candidate understands who your customers are, how sales are made, and how they plan to ramp production to meet your expectations.
Sales leaders should make themselves available for brief emails and phone calls from the candidate as they prepare for the final interview. Remember, we are still interviewing the candidate, and these interactions as they prepare for the interview will tell you a lot about what working with them will be like. It’s also a great opportunity for you to win them over by being a great coach and resource as they prepare.
The objectives of the presentation-style interview are to determine if the candidate:
Understands the market and knows how to identify potential accounts
Understands the competitive landscape
Can effectively pitch the company (communicating company differentiators and value propositions)
This is also an opportunity to gauge a candidate’s comfort level with technology and ability to command a room. Other members of the executive team are encouraged to attend this interview and provide the sales manager with feedback on the candidate.
Would all of your existing sales reps pass this hiring process?
Perhaps not. But the reason that you’re investing in a formal hiring gameplan is because you’ve identified an opportunity to increase the effectiveness of your team.
Is this too rigorous? It will definitely deter some candidates. And that’s the point. It will weed out lots of prospective employees—but not the ones who are a fit for your company. The top performers will shine under the pressure.