With our experience in sales and building a first-class business, our clients often ask us, “What are the characteristics you look for in a quality salesperson?” Our answer surprises them because it’s not just the characteristics of the salesperson – it’s the characteristics of your business as well! If your business isn’t set up to accept a quality salesperson in the first place, then you will be unable to attract and hold onto a quality salesperson even if they satisfy everything on the characteristics list.
So, we are going to start our discussion about how to find that perfect salesperson by examining the environment into which that salesperson will come. Here then, are the “3 C’s” that are required to enable the quality salesperson to live up to their full potential:
A. Culture. Do you have a culture of sales?
What does company culture have to do with finding a quality salesperson? Everything! Some companies set up their salespeople for failure through the very structure of their own companies. These are top-down, pyramid structure companies, where policies and directives flow from the top to the bottom, and you guessed it, Sales are on the bottom. Typically, in pyramid companies, the chain of command goes from production to marketing, and from marketing to sales. In these companies, the marketing department is telling the salespeople what to sell and how to sell it even though it is the salespeople who are in direct communication with the customers and the marketplace.
Top-down pyramid companies tend to put their Customer Service Department on the bottom as well. They charge them with “complaint resolution,” rather than customer intel. Nobody knows more about what’s wrong with the company’s product and service than the people in the Customer Service Department, because they hear it from the customers!
We believe the ideal structure for any company attempting to attract and keep quality salespeople is the two-division company, i.e., Sales and Sales Support. In this two-division company, everybody who is not in Sales is in Sales Support. That includes R&D, Production, Marketing, Administration, the CFO, the CIO, the CMO, all the “C’s”, the VP, and even the P! Their job is to support sales. It’s where their checks come from and how the company stays in existence.
Sales also includes Customer Service because it’s not merely what you sell, it’s what you service that creates a loyal customer. Since your Customer Service people are also talking to your customers every day, they are in a singular position to help you keep your products – and service – relevant.
The two-division company provides direct links between Sales and Customer Service on the one hand, and everyone in Sales Support on the other. Elevating Sales in your company culture is absolutely necessary to getting the most out of your quality salesperson.
B. Compensation. Do you have a plan based on growth?
Most companies have some kind of a compensation system based on commission. There is always a debate about the size of the base salary, also known as the guarantee, versus the commission. Some argue that without a high enough base salary you won’t be able to attract a quality salesperson.
Others argue that if the base salary is too high you will be taking away from the salesperson’s incentive to achieve higher sales numbers. But you’re not going to get a quality salesperson unless you have a compensation plan that provides a somewhat secure base but not enough that they can rely on. On the other hand, you have to create a commission system that is reachable and gives them an incentive to increase sales.
Then there’s the matter of growth. Commission systems should not just reward for units or dollars, but they should also reward for growth. “Growth” may be defined as selling more units this month this year than they sold same month last year. With that in mind you could create a commission system with increased payments for units or dollars above and beyond same month last year. So now your salesperson is receiving an incentive to go beyond what they sold last year. This type of hybrid commission plan will need to be recalibrated annually if you want to grow sales.
Generally speaking, quality salespersons will be looking for commission systems with no cap or limit. When they know they are good, they want to get paid for their true value and are not so interested in the base salary because they don’t expect to ever have to drop to that level.
C. Control. Do you give your salespeople the freedom to perform?
Your quality salesperson needs a certain degree of freedom to do their best. They all have their own styles of doing business that have proven successful for them in the past. One surefire way to set up your salespeople for failure is to be overbearing on how they should execute their jobs. In fact, aside from capped commission rates, this is the main reason why top salespeople leave their companies.
Your quality salesperson is confident in the knowledge that they can sell your product. Try not to over manage salespeople, especially when they are performing. An example of over management might be the requirement to fill out endless forms and collect mountains of data when their real job is to make sales happen. This can occur when your office people (who have never been in the field) want to create new reports and don’t consider what a distraction data collection is for your salespeople.
Remember that a true quality salesperson is as close to a self-employed individual as you can have and still be on your payroll. Ideally, they don’t get paid whether or not they sell. They only get paid when they do sell. So, sales is their business. Once the training is over, with the exception of personnel issues and negative reports from the field, let them conduct their business with the maximum amount of autonomy.
So now you have a level playing field. It’s not stacked against the salesperson. You have not inadvertently set them up for failure. They have all the support, incentive, and freedom they need to utilize their good characteristics. But what are those good characteristics? Let’s take a look:
- Hustle. Do they move quickly?
Sales is a numbers game, and as such, you will generally have more prospects than sales. Your salesperson must move efficiently through all those prospects to get down to the ones who will actually buy. This in itself can be time-consuming and time sensitive. Without a certain degree of hustle, they may not be able to qualify all the prospects and take action in time to make the sales when the opportunities present themselves.
Look for “tells” in the interview process. How fast and directly do they answer your questions? How quickly do they move out of the office and return when you ask them to retrieve a file from the other room? When you take them for a walk, can they carry on a conversation without stopping? Do they notice the scenery or look at their feet as they walk? Ask them about how they solved time sensitive situations in the past to meet a deadline. Basically, ask how they hustled to make a sale, make a delivery, or save an account.
- Integrity. Do they take responsibility for their own behavior?
Your salesperson represents the integrity of your company. If they do whatever they promise your customers, they will likely have a high degree of repeat sales and loyal buyers. But if they make excuses or blame others, their sales will reflect that flaw and your company’s reputation will suffer.
Ask your salesperson candidate, “What was the biggest mistake you made in your last job?” If they say, “I didn’t really make a mistake, but someone else fouled up and I got blamed,” then you know they will not take responsibility in the future. Your customers know about your company and your product because of what your salesperson represents. As far as your buyers are concerned, your salesperson is responsible for everything your company does, whether good or bad.
- Identification. Do they like your company and your products?
In order to be effective, a quality salesperson must believe in your company and your products. They must believe that your products are adding true value to people’s lives and that your company stands behind those products. When they say or imply to their buyer, “You can trust me on this,” they are putting their personal reputation on the line
During the interview, pay special attention to how well prepared they are. Have they done thorough research on your company and products? Do they understand how your products distinguish themselves? Do they know anything about your company’s history, competition, and the industry in which you compete? Do they know anything about your company’s goals and challenges?
- Loyalty. Will they stay with your company?
It’s one thing to find a quality salesperson, train them, and introduce them to your buyers, but it’s quite another to keep them and see an ongoing return on your investment in them. Nothing is worse than false starts in the marketplace. It upsets your customers, reduces your sales, and hurts your credibility. When you hire a new salesperson, you are taking quite a risk. You might well be thinking, “What if this person doesn’t work out,” or, “What if this person leaves and I have to go through this same process all over again with a new candidate,” or worse, “What if this person leaves and takes my customers with them?”
During the interview, you may want to ask them how long they spent at their last three jobs and why they left. Also, you can mitigate this risk by making sure your compensation plan creates some loyalty.
- Social Skills. Can they communicate with anybody?
In these days of email, text, and social networking, we have actually lost many of our social skills. Social skills are absolutely necessary for sales. Your buyer doesn’t buy your product so much as they buy your salesperson! So, who is this salesperson? Do your buyers like them? Do they trust them? Do they look forward to spending time with them?
Probably the greatest sales skill of all is empathy. Can your salesperson candidate put themselves in your buyer’s shoes? Ask them what they think your buyers are looking for. Do they listen?
The best sales pitch in the world that’s what I want to see goes like this: “I can help you sell your product.” Do they know what your buyer’s product is? Do they know how your product can help your buyers sell their product? (Hint: Your buyer’s top priority may be to bring in more customers. Your salesperson may assist in this by decorating your buyer’s store with colorful, seasonal marketing materials.)
Look for candidates who are friendly, affable, and sociable. Do they make eye contact when they speak? Do they let you finish speaking or do they interrupt? Are they defensive or open? Do they have respect for other cultures, religions, and nationalities?
- Tenacity. Will they be committed to the sale?
It’s not about when your salesperson makes their pitch so much as it is when the customer decides to make the purchase. If your salesperson doesn’t return on a regular basis and stay on top of what is going on with the prospect, then he could lose the sale. When the prospect finally is ready to make the purchase, it will go to the salesman who is there on a regular basis.
In sales there is no “yes” and “no,” only now and later. The only person that can truly say no is your salesperson, if and when they give up on the prospect. Many prospects need to see your salesperson several times before they’ll pull the trigger. They want to know if your salesperson is dependable and will be there if there are any problems with your product. This requires a salesperson with tenacity, patience, and persistence. They have to be committed to the sale, no matter how long it takes.
Many prospects are going to require more time, information, or feedback. Many buyers only make their decisions at a specific time of year or only after a similar product to yours has been discontinued and opened up a space. Your salesperson can never give up!
- Territory. Do they know the territory?
Your ideal salesperson must be familiar with not only the physical territory in which they will be selling your products, but also the competition, the market conditions, and the state of your industry. They must know trends, buyers, and seasonal variations. They must also know who the big players are in the territory in which they will be representing your products. They should understand the policies surrounding the purchase of products for each one of these players. In other words, they must know how to get into their system.
They also must understand the implications of pricing, what the customer pays, what the retailer has to profit or “see” when they sell your product, what the distributor has to see when they sell your product, and what profit your company has when you sell your product. They have to be able to do this math quickly in their head. They have to understand the meaning of terms specific to your industry, such as, landed cost, percent on sale, gross margin, and markup. These are all part of what we collectively referred to as the “territory.”
- Personality. Are they fun people?
Especially in the CPG space, your salesperson is seen on a regular basis by your buyers. Sure, they are doing business, getting reorders, and promoting your products. But they are doing something else. They are spending time with your buyers on a reoccurring basis. Do your buyers look forward to meeting with your salesperson? Or do they grimace at the thought?
This all has to do with their personality. Happy, fun, and confident people are a pleasure to be around. They give, rather than take, energy. What do your guts tell you about your salesperson candidate during the interview process? What did their references tell you about their personalities?
Can they take positive constructive criticism and apply it? Or, do they take it personal, and get defensive? Are they argumentative, or agreeable? Are they willing to compromise to put a deal together? How do they relate to the rest of your staff? Your people have to respect and trust them since, in the two-division company, they are all working for sales! So, in a way, the salespeople are their true bosses!
One way we used to get the best salespeople was to ask for references from our largest buyers. We knew they would at least have an inside with that account!
One of the keys to how to be a good salesman is to become “the assistant buyer.” You want your buyers to trust your salesperson implicitly. You want your buyers to depend on them to keep your products in stock, exchange out any spoils or returns, and provide your buyer with information on the wider market your salesperson is aware of that can help your buyer. A good salesman is your buyer’s confidant, friend, and trusted advisor. But finding and keeping the quality salesperson you are looking for is two-way street. They have to satisfy your characteristics list, and you have to provide the environment that will attract and keep them. Now, let’s make some sales!
Who We Are
Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey co-authored the New York Times bestselling business book, The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand. The book has been selected as recommended reading in the CEO Library for CEO Forum, the C-Suite Book Club, and numerous university classes on business and entrepreneurship. It chronicles their humble beginnings from the laundry room of a rented Sonoma County farmhouse to the board room of E&J Gallo, who ultimately acquired their brand and engaged them as brand consultants. Barefoot is now the world’s largest wine brand.
Beginning with virtually no money and no wine industry experience, they employed innovative ideas to overcome obstacles, create new markets and forge strategic alliances. They pioneered Worthy Cause Marketing and performance-based compensation. They built an internationally bestselling brand and received their industry’s “Hot Brand” award for several consecutive years.
They offer their Guiding Principles for Success (GPS) & Shelf Smarts courses to help consumer product brand builders achieve success. Their book, The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways To Engage and Empower Your People, helps corporations maximize the value of their human resources.
Currently they travel the world leading workshops, trainings, & keynoting at business schools, corporations, conferences. They are regular media guests and contributors to international publications and professional journals. They are C-Suite Network Advisors & Contributing Editors. Visit their popular business site at www.thebarefootspirit.com.
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