The most frequent question I am asked in my travels: Do you know a good salesperson that is available for hire? My answer is always the same. If they are any good, they aren’t looking. And if you want good salespeople, then don’t try stealing them from a competitor. It rarely works. If you want good salespeople, build them.

Rick Davis


Hire for attitude and train for skill. That is the human resource credo at Southwest Airlines. The philosophy has helped make that company one of the great American success stories. Their approach to hiring can help you when you build your sales team.

The most frequent question I am asked in my travels: Do you know a good salesperson that is available for hire? My answer is always the same. If they are any good, they aren’t looking. And if you want good salespeople, then don’t try stealing them from a competitor. It rarely works. If you want good salespeople, build them.

For inexplicable reasons, sales managers habitually hire salespeople with industry experience. Moreover, they seek salespeople who possess experience for a specific product category within the industry. Window companies seek “window salespeople”; siding companies seek “siding people.” The result is a continual recycling of salespeople with mediocre track records. The alternative is to seek salespeople with the right mental and emotional makeup and then indoctrinate them into a proven sales system.

Successful businesses have found that the best approach to building a successful sales force includes a structured approach to molding their talent. For example, a New Jersey dealer of roofing and siding hires salespeople and puts them through a full year of training before allowing them on the streets. A Florida lumberyard puts sales candidates through an 18-month orientation period before putting them on the road. A thriving Atlanta lumberyard created a tiered sales structure that brings salespeople up through the ranks over a period of many months before they become full-fledged account managers. Lengthy orientation programs are becoming the industry norm.

Key to Success

The key to success begins with a solid sales structure and administrative procedures. The salesperson learns the technical side of the business and how the company process paperwork, shipments and service. When the company finally places the trainee in the sales role, the individual is prepared. These companies know exactly how they want their salespeople to perform and ensure that each individual has all the technical knowledge they need before putting them into a sales role. Success begins during the recruiting and hiring process.

Vision is a critical component of the hiring process. Successful sales organizations know the characteristics they seek in an ideal candidate. The primary characteristics have less to do with business skills than personal traits. This does not mean that high quality business skills would disqualify a candidate, but rather asserts that personal traits - e.g., leadership, teamwork - are critical in the evaluation process.

Here are three keys that I recommend my clients consider when they recruit new sales candidates.

1. Create a vision of your ideal sales candidate. The characteristics you desire may differ from another organization or manager. Moreover, the characteristics of the ideal sales candidate may be vastly different than you imagine. Most business leaders believe that the best salespeople are hard-driving go-getters that aggressively ask for the order. Evolved organizations have discovered that a warm, engaging personality often translates into better results. Ask yourself who you prefer to do business with and actually establish long-term relationships. For most people the answer is that they work with people in whom they trust. I personally seek highly coachable salespeople because my style is to work closely with individuals to coach their sales behaviors. Another manager may prefer a candidate that is quite independent. Regardless of the characteristics you seek, take time to write them down. My list includes the following characteristics: leadership, teamwork, decision-making, persistence, administrative skills and goal setting. The ability to evaluate these skills may not be as elusive as one might think.

2. Past behaviors are the best predictor of future performance. Recruiters and human resource specialists isolate four basic styles of evaluation for new hires - personality profile, stress test, situational testing and behavioral interviewing. Personally I am not a big fan of personality profiles such as Meyers-Briggs and DISC Theory, as they often tell you who should succeed but not who will. Stress testing can take a variety of forms. The caution of stress testing is that a high-pressure interview situation which is poorly handled may turn off a solid candidate. Situational testing is a great tool when you’re hiring a receptionist, as you can easily test typing skills. Situational testing is difficult for salespeople as it is difficult to create realistic sales situations that can predict future behaviors.

The most reliable interviewing style is the behavioral interview. During a behavioral interview, the manager asks a salesperson about past situations and behaviors that they sales candidate has encountered and demonstrated. For example, I often ask the question: Describe a time when you made a decision that contradicted company policy and how you justified it. Believe it or not, there is a correct answer to this question.

The purpose of the question is to learn about a situation in which a salesperson took a calculated risk that helped achieve customer loyalty while costing little to nothing for the employer. One candidate told me that he offered a custom color on the window for his prospect at the standard window price. He justified it by noting that the $1 million order, if achieved, would provide ample opportunity to amortize the cost of the custom color. That initiative spelled a win-win for an organization.

Conversely, I often ask salespeople to tell me a time that they conformed to company policy even when they disagreed. This question helps a manager determine how manageable a new hire will be. If the salesperson has difficulty with this question, then a red flag should go up. If you want to know how a candidate will behave in the future, learn about their past performance.

3. Hire slowly. Fire quickly. It is better that you not hire a qualified candidate than it is to risk hiring an unqualified one. In other words, the conservative approach to hiring is the correct approach. Every manager and business owner feels at some point in their career, the frustration of dealing with a bad hire. The costs continue to rise while the performance remains deficient. The best way to overcome the risk of a bad hire is to proceed with caution. Meanwhile, when you discover that you’ve made a mistake, make the right decision to cut your losses quickly.