How to Hire a Top Performing Salesperson

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Patrick Sweeney

One of the most common hiring mistakes that executives make is relying too heavily on experience. There is a mistaken belief that an experienced individual will hit the ground running. Our advice is to do yourself a favor and do not steal from your competitors, unless you want them to thank you.

Think about it for just a minute. When you’re putting together a “help wanted” ad, what is the first thing you write? “Needed: A salesperson with at least five years of experience.” Experience is what we look for in job candidates. If two candidates seem equally qualified for a position, and one has slightly more experience, the decision seems easy. Experience wins. Some executives will even look in their competitors’ back yards for individuals who are ready to make a move. Conventional wisdom is that an experienced individual will hit the ground running.
But the price can be high for taking this easy road.

After all, how often have you come across people who have five years of experience, which adds up to just one year’s bad experience repeated five times?

We have a tendency to think of experience in a way that is really too limiting. What we should be looking for is not direct experience but transferable skills. In sales, for instance, it is not whether someone has sold the same product or service before but: Is he able to initiate relationships easily? Can she get a client to open up? Does she know how to identify and solve problems? These are some of the transferrable skills that can take an individual successfully from one position to another, and even from one career to another.

Those transferable skills that we carry with us are an expression of the qualities that drive us—our inherent strengths. And playing to those strengths is what separates the people who come across naturally, from those who may struggle but don’t quite make it. In sales, for instance, we have found that top performers all possess three qualities. With these qualities, they can be poised for success. Without them, selling will be like they are trying to scale a mountain, without the right equipment.

The first key quality we found to be of critical importance to sales success is empathy. Empathy is the ability to read others. It’s knowing what drives them. It is being able to intuit their strengths, limitations, potential, and motivations. Empathy is the ability to pick up the subtle clues and cues provided by others in order to accurately assess what they are thinking and feeling

It is important to keep in mind that empathy does not necessarily involve agreeing with the feelings of others, but it does involve knowing what their feelings or ideas are.

Empathy is not sympathy. Objectivity is lost in sympathy. Sympathy involves a feeling of loyalty to another person and, thus, the loss of objectivity. If you identify with and feel the emotions of others, you cannot view them in a dispassionate, objective, and helpful manner.

Thus, in order to sell effectively, you must understand how a prospect or client is feeling while still maintaining your own sense of identity, your own purpose, and your own objectives. A salesperson simply cannot sell without this invaluable and irreplaceable ability.

Ego-drive is a unique quality that makes a salesperson need to make a sale in a very personal way. Individuals with ego-drive feel that the sale has to be made. So the prospect is there to help fulfill a personal need. To the top-performing salesperson, getting a prospect to say “yes” provides a powerful means for ego enhancement. His or her self-image improves dramatically by virtue of achieving that yes and diminishes slightly with each sales failure. Whether the yes involves commission is far less relevant than the yes itself. To the ego-driven individual, "Yes, I will go out with you," or "Yes, I will join your club," or "Yes, I agree with you" is just as satisfying as "Yes, I will buy your product or service." If an individual really has ego-drive, he or she needs that yes—regardless of what the yes is—as a key means of satisfying his or her ego-drive.

When all is said and done, selling is a game of trying to beat the odds of rejection. Rare indeed is the salesperson who can close a sale in two contacts. Any person who is attempting to persuade another individual is more likely to be rejected than to be accepted. What happens then to the persuader (the individual who likes himself or herself better as a result of getting someone else to say yes) when the inevitable rejection occurs? The individual feels diminished. But the key here is that the salesperson must never feel totally diminished. When one fails, he or she obviously does not feel too good, but the essential question is, does that person have the resiliency—or what we call "ego-strength"—to bounce back from rejection? People with resilience, and it is extremely difficult to succeed at anything in life without it, view rejection as something to get over, to get through, to get on the other side of. At the end of the day, this quality has a lot to do with defining who we are. Top performers—in sales, management, leadership, whatever your pursuit—learn from negative experiences and turn them into defining moments.

The New Face of Sales
Sales roles have changed drastically. No longer are customers seeking out salespeople to inform them on products and services in order to make a buying decision. Many of our purchases are now made online, without even encountering a salesperson. And by the time we do encounter a salesperson, recent studies show that, with the help of digital communication and social media, up to two-thirds of their purchasing decision has already been made. Consumers are better educated on the products and services they are interested, as well as competitors. And they know what they want. The way we buy and sell is in the midst of a sea change. The only constant is the fundamentals needed to succeed in sales. In fact, they matter now, more than ever. To succeed in sales, an individual needs to inherently possess ego-drive (a desire to get the “yes”), ego-strength (resilience) and the empathy (willingness to listen and connect with customers). This foundation has transcended the changes in sales, throughout time
If you are looking to hire and develop top performing salespeople, you need to makes sure they possess these three core qualities. With them, along with the right training, success can follow. Without them, a salesperson will just be struggling—with themselves and with their customers

About the Author(s)

Patrick Sweeney  is the president of Caliper, an international human resources consulting firm, based in Princeton, which, over 50 years, has helped Fortune 500 and fast-growing smaller firms to hire and develop top performers. For more information, visit: or contact [email protected].