Hiring Outstanding Sales Executives – Steps to Take and Traps to Avoid


Tim J. Smith, PhD
Founder and CEO, Wiglaf Pricing

Published June 11, 2003

Bringing the right sales person into your organization can have a tremendous impact on your company’s success. Recruiting sales professionals should be an easy task. After all, given the tough economic times, many outstanding sales professionals are out of work, accomplishments in sales are easy to quantify, and sales people are an easy and pleasant group with which to work. And yet, time and time again we see sales people and sales managers fail; that is, performance is not up to expectation, personalities conflict, or successful sales people may leave just as they are hitting their stride. What is going on here?

In most cases, the problem comes down to issues of fit – fit with the role, fit with the organization, and fit with the compensation structure. With so many capable sales professionals available, the challenge is not so much finding candidates with the innate ability to sell, the issue is finding the right mix of technical skills, motivation, and personality that fit with your organization and the role. So, what steps can you take to enhance the likelihood that you will bring the right person into your organization? Here are some common traps as well as strategy for avoiding problems with fit.

Trap to avoid: poor fit with the role. No person is right for every sales job. An outstanding consultative sales professional may fail miserably in a more transactional sales environment, while a fantastic individual sales person may struggle in a sales management role.
Steps to take. During the interview process, use your questions to probe the candidate’s accomplishments as listed on the resume. Get the candidate to tell stories by using open-ended questions and let them talk. Include questions such as, “What accomplishments are you most proud of? How did you make it happen? What were the hurdles you had to overcome? What is your favorite part of the job? What frustrates you?” This line of questioning can help you determine the candidate’s style and can give you some insight into how he operates. One can typically draw connections between what a candidate portends to enjoy doing and what he/she does well. Therefore, if the candidate waxes on about how he saved the day without the help of anyone else, you may have a conflict with the role if it calls for managing others.

Trap to avoid: poor fit with the organization. While technical competence is very important, one survey of terminated employees found that only 28% of those who terminated the employee reported that technical incompetence was the primary reason. Most dismissals were a result of mismatch with the company environment or poor interpersonal skills. This problem can be compounded in the realm of sales as many are willing to overlook poor organizational adapting skills in exchange for strong sales skills.
Steps to take. Vary the environment in which interviews are staged. Rather than relying on in-office one-on-one approach, include dinners out, golf, events including spouses. Take candidates on sales calls and observe their comments. Include people at all levels of the organization in the interview process. Invest the time in extensive reference checking.

Trap to avoid: poor fit with the compensation structure. Compensation is too important to leave to compensation specialists. Rather it should be linked to your company’s strategy to avoid the “folly of demanding A and rewarding B”. Will a high base and low bonus provide the carrot that many sales people need to deliver top performance? Will a low base and high commission be appropriate to motivate a sales manager to develop subordinates?
Steps to take. Use these discussions to gather more insight into what motivates the candidate. What was the candidate’s compensation history? Was he satisfied with that structure? What was his total compensation and how high was that relative to his peers? Rather than waiting until the end of the process, compensation negotiations should be used as a measure of fit. Money is one of the few hard measures in the recruiting business. Are the candidate’s answers in this area consistent with what he claims are his strengths?

Finally, when to seek outside assistance. In an upcoming article, we will explore when it makes sense to turn to the help of a specialist, how to choose an executive search consultant, and the most effective way to work with them.

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About The Author

Tim J. Smith, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Wiglaf Pricing, an Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Economics at DePaul University, and the author of Pricing Done Right (Wiley 2016) and Pricing Strategy (Cengage 2012). At Wiglaf Pricing, Tim leads client engagements. Smith’s popular business book, Pricing Done Right: The Pricing Framework Proven Successful by the World’s Most Profitable Companies, was noted by Dennis Stone, CEO of Overhead Door Corp, as "Essential reading… While many books cover the concepts of pricing, Pricing Done Right goes the additional step of applying the concepts in the real world." Tim’s textbook, Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures, has been described by independent reviewers as “the most comprehensive pricing strategy book” on the market. As well as serving as the Academic Advisor to the Professional Pricing Society’s Certified Pricing Professional program, Tim is a member of the American Marketing Association and American Physical Society. He holds a BS in Physics and Chemistry from Southern Methodist University, a BA in Mathematics from Southern Methodist University, a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Chicago, and an MBA with high honors in Strategy and Marketing from the University of Chicago GSB.