Recruiting Top Producing Salespeople

How to Hire Winners

How to Hire Winners

Good help is hard to find. Never is that phrase more true – or important – than when it comes to finding, developing and keeping good salespeople.

Sales team member development will be covered in my articles on training. Retaining good salespeople is generally a question of properly setting and managing expectations which will be primarily covered in my articles on company ethics and compensation plan structuring.

In this article I’m going to describe the steps required to find productive salespeople in the first place.

In many ways it’s like a sales funnel, you start with a large pool of targeted prospects and winnow them down until you find your needle in a haystack.



This system involves nine steps:

1. Target Marketing

2. Advertising Your Opportunity

3. Vetting The Initial Responses / Creating Your Short List

4. Identifying Your Final Four

5. Telephone Interviewing

6. Checking References

7. In-Person Interviewing

8. Making Your Final Selection

9. Administering An Initial Test of Salesmanship

Let’s Get Started!

Finding the right people to man your sales team is a critical success factor. As such, it deserves your focused attention and the implementation of a detailed plan. If you want to attract, develop and keep top-producing salespeople, it’s important to have a system which begins with getting clear about exactly the type of person you’re looking to attract.

Target Marketing

Just as I recommend companies do when setting out to attract new customers (the Design Your Customer step in The Customer Factory Marketing Model) it’s critical that you get very specific about the skill set and personality type you’re looking for in your new salesperson.

There is no point in building a team of underachievers. You’re better off doing all the sales work yourself. The plan described here is designed to attract top producers, people who are capable of earning $100,000 or more annually and who have made that kind of money in the past. People who have not experienced that level of income may actually be uncomfortable with the idea and so sabotage their own efforts – and yours – in achieving it.

So, just exactly what are you looking for? That depends. It depends upon your industry, product, competition, sales cycle and venue (in-home, B2B, telephone sales, etc.). But there are some generalities that apply across all of these.

You want someone who is well spoken but still a good listener. While it doesn’t take a genius to become a top producer, a higher level of intelligence will help an inexperienced salesperson (whether their inexperience relates to sales in general or your product specifically) to get up to speed and begin producing more quickly.

Generally speaking you are looking for someone who is able to deal with uncertainty and adversity and can solve problems quickly. They can’t be inordinately risk-averse and they need to be able to differentiate between objections and personal attacks and so are well-served by a strong self image.

Entrepreneurial spirit is an important factor. Salespeople essentially run their own business within the larger company. They set their own hours, manage their own schedules and effectively write their own paychecks. Anyone who prefers a 9-5 job with a steady, reliable job is not your ideal candidate.

Other important traits include; a competitive nature, a high level of integrity and trustworthiness, the ability to take personal responsibility for successful outcomes, follow through, being able to ask tough questions and knowing how to set the right expectations with clients. These traits may be difficult to identify during the vetting and interviewing process but you should always be looking for them nonetheless.

Here are a few personal attributes that don’t generally make any difference: age, sex, race and career background. I have seen top producers in every industry and they never fall into any one particular pigeon hole. As I wrote in The Greatest Job You Never Thought Of, I have met successful salespeople of every stripe and personality type.

However, they must be willing to work with prospects whose backgrounds differ from their own. Prejudice is a luxury successful salespeople cannot afford. And, if the salesperson is a member of a group (such as gays or ethnic minorities) which is frowned upon by certain segments of the population, they need to be prepared to accept and overcome that objection, whether stated or implicit, in their sales presentations.

While the salesperson’s national origin or native tongue is not necessarily a potential obstacle to their success, if their accent or manner of speech is so pronounced as to interfere with the sales process, they may not be the person you are looking for. Successful communication is key.

As for previous industry-specific or general sales experience, there a two schools of thought. Some sales managers refuse to deal with greenhorns for a number of reasons. Inexperienced people require a lot of training and can take a lot longer to begin producing revenue. I once worked with a mortgage company who hired only top-producing veterans and offered absolutely no training and very little marketing support. Their new hires were expected to begin producing immediately and were richly rewarded for their production.

On the other hand, many sales organizations prefer to hire inexperienced salespeople in order to avoid any ingrained bad habits that veterans can bring with them. These companies generally have structured training programs in place to mold their new people into the processes and habits that the company believes will maximize their opportunity for success.

Greenhorns can become top producers. I once took a job with a home improvement company having no previous construction or in-home sales experience. Although I had owned my own companies and had achieved a six-figure income level in past, I had never been a “salesman” working for another company and was uncomfortable with the whole idea of a “sales culture.”

In my first year with that company I became its top producer, generating over $600,000 in new revenue and earning over $80,000 in commissions in my first six months. My surprising success became the basis for my book The Greatest Job where I encourage other non-believers to consider sales as a career path.

Advertising Your Opportunity

When I wrote The Greatest Job back in 2003 and 2004, I cited newspaper classified sections as the best place to find sales jobs. What an antiquated notion that is today!

Obviously, online job listing sites are where you want to place your ads these days. But which job board is the best place to advertise your opportunity?

Big shiny sites like Monster, The Ladders and Career Builder are generally better for more corporate, big-company sales job listings. Those are the places where people who are accustomed to base salary and all the perks of a corporate employer look for their next job.

Nonetheless, Craig’s List is a great place to advertise for any type of sales position because it’s so much easier for the job seeker to interact with. The applicant doesn’t have to create an account or upload a static, text-formatted resume or go through a time consuming multi-step application process for every job they’re interested in.

I have found job listings on Craig’s List from every conceivable size and type of company. But, generally speaking, you will find more postings from smaller companies there.

Writing Ad Copy That Will Attract the People You’re Looking For.

While the listings posted on the big shiny sites are generally better written than those found on Craig’s List, there are still a lot of problems with most sales job ads. Just as with every other type of advertising, you need to write the copy from the perspective of your targeted customer, not from your side of the table.

Top-producing salespeople (and those others who are capable of becoming top producers) are looking for some very specific aspects in their next sales job. They want to work for a company that has a superior offering and marketplace reputation. They look for great marketing support and communication. They want to know that the company is financially stable so that their paychecks will always clear and their customers’ orders will always be filled.

Your ad copy needs to communicate that your company has something that customers want because of its high value and unique attributes. You must reference the marketplace demand for your product along with your industry’s growth potential. You need to tell your prospective salespeople that you value your sales team, offer them a high level of ongoing support and training and handsomely reward those who produce.

Some employers prefer to play a bit of a shell game when describing the details of the job itself, keeping their cards close to the vest while extolling the incredible benefits of the sales opportunity. This is a grave mistake and a red flag to top producers, signaling danger ahead. If the company isn’t willing to publicize details of who they are and what they do in their job listings, how open and honest will they be in dealing with you and your customers going forward?

I believe that your sales job listing should include as much detail as possible without revealing potentially detrimental information to your competitors. Tell us who you are, what you do, why you’re great, how much money your average salesperson makes, how long people stay with your firm, who some of your marquee customers are and why I want to work for your instead of your competition.

While you should trumpet the superior income opportunity you are offering, you should also make it clear that you only pay for production, and that those who are not willing to work hard and ramp-up quickly should move on to another ad. You are beginning the process of setting and managing expectations and, while you want to paint an attractive picture, it’s always important to under-promise and over-deliver.

Prospective applicants will sense and appreciate your honesty just as they will sense and be repulsed by the bogus promises and fuzzy details they find in other companies’ ads.

Ads that cite unlimited or uncapped income potential need to also make clear that no level of success is guaranteed and that income will be directly tied to the rep’s ability and willingness to work hard and learn quickly.

Top producers prefer a steady flow of pre-qualified leads. If that’s something you offer, you need to state how many leads you provide each week, where they come from, how they are qualified and distributed.

How Do I Apply and What Will Happen Next?

At the end of the ad, you need to give clear instructions on how to respond and what will happen next. If possible, list your web site URL and instruct potential applicants to research your company and offering before responding. State that you will acknowledge their response by email and that all resumes will be reviewed but that only a small number will move on to the next step, a telephone interview.

Create a form-letter email that clearly states how long it will take for successful next-step candidates to be contacted and that, “If you haven’t heard from us by then you probably won’t.” Thank them for their interest in your firm, for taking the time to respond and wish them the best of luck in their job hunt.

Applying for a job takes a lot of time, effort and focused attention. And when a job seeker finds a job listing they’re really excited about, they become emotionally invested in the process. As the advertiser, your acknowledgement of each applicant’s human value takes only a few seconds but goes a long way to demonstrate that your company is a great place to work.

Vetting the Initial Responses

An important part of this process is deciding how long to advertise and how many applications to review. In today’s economy you may receive hundreds of responses in just a few days.

You should post your ad on a Monday or Tuesday and leave it up through the rest of the work week, deleting the posting before close of business Friday. Choose your targeted email inbox wisely (if you can, create an email address solely for resume submission) and watch it closely. Set a maximum number of resumes to review, but keep all that come in just in case you don’t find your prince among the first round of frogs.

In reviewing the responses don’t put all of your emphasis on career history, age, industry experience or the other usual selection criteria. Also scrutinize the manner in which the applicant communicated with you.

Sales requires persuasion skills and someone who cannot communicate clearly and persuasively in responding to a job listing will be similarly challenged out in the field. Look at the subject line of their email, the body text, spelling and grammatical issues. Does the email give you the impression that this is a person you would want representing your business?

Is their resume clearly written and cleanly laid out? Do they write in run-on sentences or are they concise and get right to the point? Do they seem to be embellishing their record with a lot of fluff or do they simply and briefly state their past assignments and accomplishments?

If the person can’t quickly and clearly communicate to you who they are and why you should hire them, they won’t be able to tell your prospects who you are and why they should do business with you. How they communicate is at least as important as what they communicate.

In terms of the resume itself, all you’re really going to be able to glean are “facts” as stated by the applicant. Education level, number of years of work experience, titles held and average length of service are the most important high-level factors.

Actual duties and accomplishments are important but are also more subjective and prone to exaggeration. Just like “fudging” on our taxes, most of us have gilded our resumes to some extent. Assume that going in and you won’t be disappointed going forward.

Personality and Intelligence Testing

I am not a big believer in the accuracy of personality testing – online or otherwise – but I know many sales managers swear by it. At rates from $1 to $10 or more per test subject, this could be an inexpensive way to eliminate bad apples from the barrel, or it could be a great way to randomly discard people who might have contributed mightily to your sales team.

The accuracy of intelligence tests is a different story in that they are more objective. While it doesn’t take a genius to be a top producer, someone with below-average intelligence is going to have a very hard time succeeding at sales.

But there’s one big caveat with any kind of testing: sometimes all you learn is how good someone is at taking a test. While I usually do very well with intelligence tests, I got slammed when I recently did an online tryout for Jeopardy. With the clock ticking on my screen, I had 15 seconds to pick one correct answer from four choices on 40 incredibly difficult questions (much harder than what you see on the television show). I experienced brain freeze on several where I knew that I knew the answer but just couldn’t pull it up out of the old memory banks. Rely too heavily on applicant testing at your own peril.

Narrowing Down The List

Using an American Idol reference, your next task is to decide how many candidates you should “send to Hollywood” or move to your list of resumes to review. These are the people whom you feel have a good chance of being one of your new top producers and may be worthy of consideration for a telephone interview.

The number of people on this list depends on a number of variables including the number of slots you have to fill, how much open production capacity you have to support your growing sales team and how many decent applications you’ve received. For a single open position, this list should be no larger than ten, from which you will choose a Final Four to interview on the phone.

Your decision criteria here should be in alignment with the original Customer Design you created in the Target Marketing step above, and should include an equal balance of objective criteria and good old fashioned gut instinct. Do an initial sort of the resumes from best to worst and then see how you would feel about simply picking the Final Four the top of that list.

If your gut is telling you to spend a little more time deciding, set a deadline and stick to it. Worst case, choose a total of five or six instead of four but realize that every person you add is going to require an equal amount of time investment going forward but may not yield additional value.

Telephone Interviewing

Telephone interviews should be kept as short as possible. Gut instinct will play an important part here but, given the gravity and formal nature of the conversation, you should expect that your candidates to be a little nervous and possibly come across a little bit more stiffly than they normally would.

Be prepared with 3-4 short, open questions such as:

  1. What attracted you to this opportunity?
  2. What would be your approach when meeting with our customers?
  3. How much money are you looking to make?
  4. Tell me about a time you were able to overcome a very strong customer objection.

Don’t spend a lot of time talking about your company – this is the applicant’s time to sell you on them, not vice versa. Pay at least as much attention to the applicants’ communication ability as you do to the actual answers they give you. Give them every chance to sell you.

Being Objectionable on the Phone

I once did a telephone interview with one company whose approach was to seemingly blow off the interview by telling applicants early in the conversation “We’re only interested in closers and I’m not hearing anything here that tells me you’re our kind of guy.”

They do this to gauge the applicant’s reaction. If the applicant apologizes for wasting their time and hangs up, they know s/he would have folded quickly in the field as well. If the applicant stands up for themselves, pushes back, asks probing questions or otherwise continues the conversation, the interviewer knows that they may have a winner on their hands. While a bit devious, this technique is clearly effective.

What Questions Does The Applicant Have?

When you’re finished asking your questions, give the applicant the opportunity to ask questions of their own. If their questions focus on the upside income opportunity, compensation plan, ability of the company to deliver on its promises, sources and quality of leads, etc., you’ll know you have a serious sales bird on your hands. If instead they ask about base salary, car allowance, holidays, work hours, vacation time, etc., you’ll know that their heart may not be where you’d like it.

Keep the telephone interview to 20 minutes or less and clearly let them know when it’s over. Then tell them that you are still in the interviewing process and will next communicate with them within three days – either by email to tell them thanks but no thanks, or by telephone to schedule an in-person interview. Then stick to that commitment to follow-up in a timely fashion.

If they pass the telephone interview, call them to schedule the in-person interview but tell them that you will be emailing them a reference form to complete and return by email beforehand. Leave enough time ahead of the in-person interview for them to complete and return the form and for you to check their references as explained below.

A Quick Reference Check

This is a topic which garners a wide range of opinions. Everyone “knows” they should check references, but few people ever actually do it. My belief is that this is an important step but can be very time-consuming and so should only be taken with candidates who pass the telephone interview hurdle, and should be kept as short, sweet and simple as possible.

Ask for three business references along with their names, titles, phone numbers, email addresses and the nature of your relationships to them. Create a simple Excel spreadsheet for the applicant to fill out with their name, as well as the names and contact information for their three references. Their ability to quickly and correctly complete this task will be telling.

After receiving the reference spreadsheet back from the applicant, call all three of the references and ask three short, open questions:

  1. How do you know this person? (compare it to what the applicant said about their relationship)
  2. What is the applicant’s greatest strength as a salesperson?
  3. What is the area in which they could gain the greatest improvement?

Five minutes on the phone with three different people will give you an incredible level of insight into not only the applicants themselves, but also the type of people whose approval they value.

The In-Person Interview

This is the most important step in the whole process, one you should make a priority in your day. Be sure your calendar is wide open for at least an hour and don’t allow anything – phone calls, emails, fire alarms, you name it – to interrupt you during the interview.

I once kept an office manager job candidate cooling her heels for the better part of an hour while I flew around the office putting out a fire. She finally left in a huff, but not before telling me that I was rude and inconsiderate for not appreciating the value of her time. She was absolutely correct and I probably lost a great employee that day.

Before I go into the nuts and bolts of the overall interview, I want to emphasize that you should be paying attention to every aspect of this meeting. What time did the candidate arrive? How did they introduce their arrival to the receptionist or yourself? Are they dressed appropriately? What condition are their clothes in? Are their shoes clean – not necessarily buffed to a gleaming shine, but just clean? Are they well groomed? Could they use a haircut, shave or a vigorous teeth brushing?

The fact is that this person should be trying to put their very best foot forward here at a job interview. How good is their best? How might they be perceived by your prospects in the field?

Your objective coming out of the interview is to gauge your personal reaction and opinion of this person – not the specific answers they give to your individual questions. After meeting with them, how do you feel about them? Would you be proud and excited to have them on your team? Are you confident in their ability to go out and make rain?

As I wrote in The Greatest Job, this interview is one of the applicant’s most important sales calls. They are pitching a very high-value prospect on buying the most important service they have to offer. Do they overstate their case? Do they seem confident in the value of their offering? Are they willing to obfuscate when asked a difficult question? Perhaps most importantly, are they willing to respond “I don’t know” when it is the only honest answer?

As a sales professional, you need to approach this interview from the perspective of a prospective customer and decide for yourself whether the person on the other side of the table from you is doing a good sales job. If you’re not sure, you’ve just decided. Remember, you’re only interested in hiring top producers.

Ask them the same questions you asked them on the phone:

  1. What attracted you to this opportunity?
  2. What would be your approach when meeting with our customers?
  3. How much money are you looking to make?
  4. Tell about a time you were able to overcome a very strong customer objection.

Having been asked these questions previously, they’ve had time to reconsider their answers during the “I wish I had said THIS” period after they hung up the phone with you. They should give you even better answers this time.

Next, ask them to give you one sentence on each of their previous employers. Note their willingness to disparage any past associations. Are they generally a positive or a negative person?

Finally, ask them about each of the references they provided. Vaguely allude to the conversations you had with those people and see how they react. Are they embarrassed or confident? What do they say about those people? Do they begin to denigrate any of them?

During the entire interview you should be noting what percentage of your time together do they spend listening and asking questions vs. speaking about themselves? Are they an intelligent questioner? A good listener? Did they answer your questions directly, completely and to your satisfaction? These are obviously important traits for top producing salespeople.

As with the telephone interview, ask them if they have any questions for you. A good candidate will have several questions while a poor candidate will not. And, as during the telephone interview, the nature of their questions will be telling.

Close the meeting by telling the applicant that you are still in the interviewing process but will be making a decision very shortly. If possible, state a date certain.

In closing, ask them “Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you think would be helpful for me in making my decision?”

This is an opportunity for them to close you. Pay close attention to how they handle it. If they pass it by, you’ve got a problem. If they come strong to the hoop with one or more closing attempts, you’ve got a player on your hands.

Making the Final Selection

At this point your choice should already be apparent. Worst case, you should be torn about choosing between two or more great candidates. If that is the case, I recommend you give both of them a shot on a probationary basis until they pass an initial test (outlined below). If they both pass the test – hire ‘em both! If only one passes, your decision is made for you.

If none of the people have really turned you on, you could be in trouble. Either your ad is sending the wrong message and therefore bringing in the wrong candidates, your company and/or opportunity are not attractive to the people you’re looking to bring in, or you’re doing a poor job selecting winners from your pool of candidates. Review every aspect of your offering and every step in your process and start over again. You’re bound to do a better job the second time around.

Administering an Initial Test of Salesmanship

I was once hired on a probationary basis by a company that required I pass what they called their “Five in Five” test before being offered a full-time job. During a five day test period I would be given 100 leads and expected to close at least five of them. No problem, right? Read on.

What they didn’t tell me was that all of these were old leads that had already been worked by someone else, who had failed to close them. While I had been trained extensively on delivering the company’s script to fresh leads in a normal conversational voice, I had been given no training whatsoever on how to work people who had already heard the script once and said “no.”

Worse yet, all of these people already had a strongly negative predisposition to the company having been pitched poorly, on something they hadn’t asked for, not been sent the free resources by email they had been promised and not been followed up with until weeks later when I called.

To make a long story short (too late!) I didn’t pass the test. But I learned a couple of important lessons. The first is that the concept of a short-term hurdle for salespeople to clear during a probationary period is sound. If the candidate can’t pass the test, you’ll know immediately that they won’t work out. This saves you a lot of time, money, aggravation and opportunity cost (wasted leads) going forward.

The second thing I learned is that you should test for what you’re looking for (explained below) and for the candidate’s ability to implement the training you’ve provided them.

The company testing me said that they wanted professional salespeople who could establish the foundation for a long-term beneficial relationship with their clients. What they were testing for was people who were willing to beat someone over the head until they either buy or die. I shared that observation with the company’s training director during my exit interview and, surprisingly, she agreed.

As it appears as though I will be building a sales team in the near future, I will be practicing what I preach in the recruiting process, including creating an initial test for them to pass. This will not only allow me to judge their effectiveness but also allow them to see whether or not this is the job for them.

I’m sure I’ll tweak it going forward but for right now my test will not require them to close any sales in their first two weeks but rather to persuade five prospects to agree to a 60-day no-obligation free trial of our service. This test will require them to do some prospecting, phone calling, persuading and interaction with the company’s systems, including the CRM.

I’ll be able to judge how well they understand our service and who our target market is, along with their ability to communicate our value proposition to that target market well enough to get people to say “yes” to something. I’m sure I’ll be posting my results to this site at some point in the future.


In many ways, the system I’ve described above can be compared to a sales funnel, with scores of applicants being systematically narrowed down by stages: short list of ten, Final Four, reference checks, in-person interviews, final selection and initial test of salesmanship.

Successfully hiring the right salespeople is a crucial element of your job and should be approached as such, carefully and systematically. This system works. Put it to work for you.

If all of this sounds like a great idea but you have no idea when you’d find the time to implement it, give me a call.

Frank Felker

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Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Compensation Plans, Contact Management, Corporate Transperency, Customer Relationship Management, Education-Based Marketing, Follow-Up Systems, Lead Distribution, Lead Generation, Motivation & Inspiration, Paperwork Minimization, Sales Management, Sales Recruit Early Wins, Sales Recruit Expectations, Sales Recruit Interviewing, Sales Recruit Testing, Sales Recruiting, Sales Training, The Leaderboard, The Sales Cycle, Top Producers