This blog is written by Rebecca Hastings, a sales recruitment specialist and founder at The Lucent Group. Rebecca has helped businesses to hire leadership, commercial and tech teams that have added value pre/post-investment/acquisition. Some of the companies she has worked for include Modulr, Spring Technology and Harvey Nash. She has a proven track record of building diverse teams and supporting a number of women in technology initiatives and groups. 

Keep an eye out for our joint research on sales skills in Scotland, launching in the new year.


Hiring a new salesperson to join the team can be daunting. If someone doesn’t work out, the cost to your business is high, but hiring a top performer can accelerate your success. I’ve interviewed thousands of salespeople and concluded that no other role is hired in an organisation where confidence is often confused with competence. In many companies, little structured thought goes into this high stake hiring process, and non-salespeople find the task of hiring a salesperson daunting. The worst case scenario is that you have people hiring the most confident candidate and lacking confidence in their decision to do so. In this article, I’m going to share some of my top tips for finding the best possible salesperson through planning, making people relaxed, creating the best bespoke questions and assessing answers to them in the right way.

Plan to hire the best salesperson possible

The first step to creating an excellent interview process that helps you hire a high-performing candidate is planning. Create the best job description possible, and before approaching any candidates, decide how you will assess them. Build a scorecard of the top five essential experiences, skills, and personal attributes for success. Not only will this clarify the type of person you want to hire, but it can also guide your interview plan. All interviews should have a purpose, and your scorecard should guide the areas you’re assessing and the questions you’re asking. I’ll revert to this one later.

recruitinghigh-performing salespeople

Typically, the experiential aspects of your scorecard will be covered in an initial first interview if they are not apparent on the salesperson’s CV. Think of this as qualifying a lead; obviously, you don’t want to spend time on leads that will not convert (no matter how much you like them!). Assessing skills and personal attributes is where things can get more complicated, especially in sales. I will focus on this for the remainder of the article once I’ve covered some overlooked planning areas.

Other planning tips:

  • If you can, set a timetable and block out time in all of the interviewer’s diaries before commencing your search.
  • Don’t go to market with your role until the commission scheme is clear.
  • It helps things go smoothly, especially if you’re expanding your sales team, if the interviewers understand their role in the process. It should be clear from the outset who is an influencer and who is a decision-maker in the process.

Plan to sell, and don’t forget interviewing is a two-way sales pitch

Interviewing effectively is more than finding the best person for your vacancy; it’s also about ensuring you secure them. Candidates should feel listened to, understand the role and have their questions answered.

It’s not unusual for people to come out of an interview knowing little about the job apart from what’s on the job description. It’s obvious but often overlooked, so you should allow 10 minutes to discuss the job. This is your opportunity to sell the position. You should sell the company’s vision, resources, and culture while communicating it in a way that makes it as personal as possible to the candidate. The most important message to convey is what this opportunity means for their career.

If you’re unsure where to start, ask yourself, what questions would I have about the company if I were interviewing for a job tomorrow? Always be prepared to answer the most common questions from candidates, so you create the best impression.

  • What are the next steps in the hiring process?
  • When will I hear back from you?
  • Why is the position available?
  • What tools do you use?
  • How do you develop and motivate employees?
  • What are your commitments towards diversity and inclusion?
  • What are the targets?

To get the best information about skills and attitude, nod your head and smile 😊

You need to build rapport and trust to conduct a sales interview where you will get meaningful information out of someone, which is vital when assessing their attributes. Therefore, getting people relaxed and talking at the beginning of the interview is essential. Personally, I wouldn’t talk about the structure of the interview or ask any of your questions until you think they are relaxed and you notice a shift in their body language.

recruiting high-performing salespeople

Once you’ve got people talking, it’s essential to keep them talking throughout the interview. I’ve noticed that some people think they need to put their poker face on when interviewing; this is counterproductive. It makes people guarded, and they will tell you less. As people answer your questions, make sure you show no negativity or signs of judgement, no matter how off their answer is. Be empathetic to their frustrations; unless inappropriate, let them think you agree with them. You don’t have to say, “Yes, I agree with you”, for this to happen; you can use your body language. My advice would be to nod your head and smile, even when you disagree with what they’re saying or they’re giving a poor answer.

Simply nodding your head and smiling gives you the advantage when interviewing, as sometimes people open up about things they might not typically expose. Examples of things people have shared in interviews where this has been happening include being fired, performance issues or interpersonal disputes, which may render them a poor fit for the role.

The added benefit of this simple behaviour is that it helps every candidate have a positive experience. Even if you’re not going to hire someone, it’s far better for them to think, “That went well, I really liked them, and they totally got me”, rather than, “They were a bit standoffish, and I wasn’t quite sure how that went”. You never know who someone knows or where they will end up.

How do I hire a high-performing self-starter with a great attitude?

Some of the top questions clients ask me relate to assessing attitude, motivation, and credibility. Do they have the experience they say they do? How do I know I’m not being sold to? You want to be confident you’re hiring a high performer with the right attitude, who is driven and has the passion plus the skills to deliver, who is coachable, and whose motivations align with your company goals. Importantly, these people solve problems and achieve goals regardless of the challenges they face. So, how do you know if a salesperson is like this? You don’t know until someone works for you, but a strong internal locus of control is a great indicator.

Locus of control is the degree to how much you believe you are in control of your life versus external forces beyond your influence controlling your life. People with a strong internal locus of control believe they control their destiny. They will solve problems and tackle obstacles, they believe if they work hard, there will be positive outcomes. They instinctively understand that actions have consequences, so they are more likely to take accountability and learn from their mistakes.

 

recruiting high-performing salespeople

Conversely, those with an external locus of control will look to the world beyond them to rationalise events. Often, they will blame luck, fate, other people, or external events rather than take responsibility for the outcomes of their actions.

In your sales team, you want people who overcome obstacles. You definitely don’t want people around with a victim mentality who will make excuses or blame external events for the outcome of what’s happening. External events do impact the ability to sell sometimes. We’ve been through the shock of the pandemic, many of us had to pivot or adapt our sales plans, and many salespeople had their careers impacted. Assessing locus of control doesn’t mean discounting the obstacles people face; it is about understanding how they behave when faced with setbacks.

How to assess locus of control alongside sales skills and experience

Competency-based and general evidentiary questions have become ubiquitous, and candidates are well prepared to answer these. Many companies search online for a list of sales interview questions and pick a few. The problem with this approach is that candidates can also do the same internet searches when preparing for their interview. When you do this, it leads to two things. Firstly, you’ll wonder if you’re being sold to when the answers are too good. After all, salespeople are often intelligent and gifted communicators used to thinking on their feet. Secondly, you’re asking questions someone else wrote in alignment with their specific job, which may not align with the skills and attributes you’re hiring for.

The solution is to create your own questions that align with your interview scorecard. You can use a framework to help you create bespoke questions to assess locus of control and skills simultaneously. I recommend asking three to five of these after your CV review, the fact-finding segment of the interview.

Part one of these questions is always, “Tell me about a specific time”. Asking your candidate for a specific example makes it hard to invent something or build upon a hypothetical scenario or one they have observed.

Part two of the question will be the situation you want them to talk about, which relates to a skill or trait on your scorecard, but where there is a realistic challenge.

Reviewing the scorecard I shared at the start, here are a few examples.

  • Tell me about a specific time you had to:
    • create new commercial opportunities through a partner, but the relationship was cold or had not been developed.
    • build C-level relationships in an account with low customer satisfaction.
    • learn about a new technology or complex concept with limited guidance.
  • Tell me about a specific time when you were:
    • selling software consultancy services, and it was hard to connect with the decision-maker.
    • working on a bid or proposal that had to be submitted quickly.

The framework is straightforward…

recruiting high-performing salespeople framework

How to assess locus of control answers

Like sales, so much of effective interviewing is listening and observing (while nodding and smiling). Considering the question, “Tell me about a specific time you had to work to reach an ambitious target in a difficult market”. Salespeople don’t always hit targets in difficult markets; sometimes, lower-calibre salespeople will hit them through luck. Not all successes result from internal motivation, and many failures do not result from external motivation. You’re judging behaviour and skill at this point in your interview, not results.

When assessing the answers candidates give to your locus of control questions, listen and observe for these critical tells. People with an internal locus of control will discuss the numerous steps and creative approaches they took to try and achieve their goal, whether or not they hit the target. Those with an external locus of control are more likely to talk about the market conditions and how tough it was for everyone. They may blame a colleague or talk about others failing too, and they’ll say there was not much that could have been done.

Listen for

  • Did they have the presence to act, or did they accept what was happening?
  • Blaming or making excuses?
  • Did they talk about what they could have done or would like to have done? Intentions are different from effort.

Watch for

  • How do they react to the level of difficulty in the question?
  • How do they respond to probing questions?

The bonus of listening to the actions and behaviours demonstrated is that you can better judge the candidate’s resilience level.

Strengths and weaknesses and locus of control

You want to ask candidates questions they’ll be expecting, but you can do this with a twist to further understand their locus of control.

  1. At your last performance review, in which three areas were you rated strongest?
  2. Tell me the two areas you were told you could improve on most.
  3. What have you done to improve in these areas?

recruiting high-performing salespeople strength and weakness

This trio of questions is much better than asking people about their strengths and weaknesses. By asking for three strengths before two development areas, you’re likely to keep your candidate relaxed and open in their answers. You’re getting a third-party opinion about your candidate, a more honest appraisal of development areas than them listing weaknesses, and the final question gives you insight into how motivated they are. If they’re more internally motivated, they will have no issue telling you what you have done to improve, whereas externals will wait for training to be set up for them or have not gotten around to it yet.

Buyer beware

You can think you’re hiring the most self-starting high performer, but their motivations may not align. Many say that the average tenure of a salesperson is 18 months. Hiring someone who stays this short is expensive and may cost you clients and market share. High turnover in your sales team could stop you from achieving your targets and goals and, importantly, impact your career progression, reputation, bonus and stress levels.

You should always ask people what they have liked and not liked about previous roles, where they have done their best work and what it was about that environment. What roles were their most and least favourites? Listen for trends and anything that matches or doesn’t match your culture and environment. Ask them about their career goals for the next two to five years. Then ask them what steps, if any, you have taken towards reaching them. After all, this is another touch point for assessing their locus of control.

In summary, to be confident you’re hiring a high-performing salesperson:

  • Understand what skills, experience and attributes you need in your new hire
  • Plan a sales pitch for your role, considering what the opportunity means for the candidate
  • Nod your head and smile to get people to open up
  • Get a clearer view of a candidate’s suitability by asking questions using the framework, “Tell me about a specific time, when you had to do something we have identified as a must-have skill or trait, and something realistic got in the way.”
  • Listen carefully to answers and remember sometimes you’re assessing skills and behaviour, not just results, as even lazy people can get lucky.
  • Ensure alignment of aspirations.