A few weeks ago I experienced a disastrous sales call.  The salesperson was unfamiliar with his product and was lying to cover his ineptitude.  He was also pushy and demanding.  It was pretty obvious that this was not a successful salesperson and his management had designed a process that was ineffective, if not fraudulent.  As the prospect, I could not get a word in edgewise and none of my questions were answered effectively.  The salesperson's behavior seemed to indicate that if he kept talking long enough, and was pushy enough, he could wear me down and get a sale.  In fact, the opposite happened.  I got up and left and will never to return to that company.   During that call, I observed some really egregious sales mistakes - lying, arrogance, ignorance of his own product, a "one size fits all" sales pitch, failure to listen… I could go on and on.  If I could have videotaped the meeting it would have served as a brilliant documentary of what not to do.

The experience was so off-putting that I could not help do a mental inventory of all the salespeople I had worked with (and bought products from) and couldn't help but think about the differences between the successes and the failures.

Value-Added

The standout salespeople I have known are passionate about their product, their industry and their prospects.  They study constantly, add value on every call, and work tirelessly to be subject matter experts.  No one understands better than they do that their credibility is directly tied to their knowledge.  They actively solve problems for their clients.  They represent solid products that offer good value.

Superstar salespeople sell on value and benefits.  They can answer feature questions but they don't lead off on a feature/functionality sale.  They know that puts them into the "me too" vendor bucket and lowers their margin.  The best salespeople craft deals that are win-win for their company and their client and they are not afraid to walk away from deals that would ultimately harm their company.

Superstars also know the organization they're selling to.  They simultaneously build relationships with influencers and decision-makers.  They don't alienate influencers by going over their heads when told "no" because they have built the right relationships early in the process.

Service Driven

Great salespeople are great listeners.  They listen more than they talk and they never interrupt a prospect.  They clarify their questions once the client has stopped speaking.  They promptly follow up on any action items.

If a mistake is made or the client has an issue, a great salesperson owns that problem until it's resolved.  They never avoid calls or hand the client off.  They don't have to because they did not over-promise or lie in the first place.

Always Improving

Continuing education is important to professional salespeople. Superstars don't think they know it all, they want to learn something new or do their job better.  They prospect willingly in addition to whatever leads they are being provided. They use the right tool or technique for the job and match the prospect's behavior and style when selling.  Superstars are acutely aware of people's emotions and act accordingly.

As a business owner or sales manager, these people make your job easier. Not only do they close more deals but you never have to fight with great salespeople to be team-players.  They follow up on leads they are given.  They don't lie about their pipeline. They efficiently qualify prospects and put their time and effort into the best opportunities.  Superstars actively partner with the other resources in their company to better serve the client.  When you for a report, they deliver it without complaining.  They come into your office for help resolving client issues -- not to complain.  They serve as an outstanding resource to the rest of the company and truthfully discuss client needs, pricing, the overall market,and issues in their deals.  They work to make sure all of their clients are satisfied and good references.  They often have more referral business than other salespeople in the company because their clients genuinely enjoy working with them.

Finding the best

Why is finding outstanding sales talent so challenging?  Sometimes past employers can be blamed for instilling dysfunctional behaviors like lying to close the sale and high-pressure tactics.  If previous management was heavily metrics-driven, it can result in salespeople under so much pressure that they will artificially inflate their pipeline to buy time.  Most salespeople interview well enough to sell themselves and can give the hiring manager enough confidence cut some corners in the hiring process.  This is so dangerous for startups and small companies because they can cost you lost sales and a damaged reputation in the time it takes to determine they are a bad fit.  Beware of candidates with a very high base salary.  I've seen dozens of technology salespeople over the years coast on their base salary and not put in much effort to generating revenue.  Once discovered, they move on to a new company and often blame the old one for having a bad product, bad management or a lack of marketing.  If a candidate brags of a "magic rolodex" of prospects, I would ask to see it; they may well have a lot of contacts, but that doesn't mean those people will necessarily buy from them or be a fit for your product.

When I interview salespeople, I ask for references ahead of time.  When we meet I ask about their best customers - why the deal was good, why the client was happy and so on.  The follow-up question is if I can speak to that person as a reference.  Was that person on the list they gave me? I see if the salesperson includes a mix of clients and former employers as references.  I use competency-based questions to understand how well the candidate understands the products and services he/she has sold and what I am selling.  I spend a lot of time on questions designed to see if the person can sell based on value vs. functionality or price.   I see how well they can handle common objections.  When an applicant is from a competitor, I do twice as many reference checks to ensure I am not hiring my competitor's problem.

Some of the best salespeople I've hired or worked with over the years were not salespeople when they applied for the job. I've found these folks to have fewer bad habits to correct; and because they have not developed problematic behaviors, they are often appreciated more by prospects than the person who has been selling their entire career.  Time and time again, I've seen them outsell the veteran salespeople because they listen better, they work harder and they add more value to the client.  In this instance, I look for people who have good communication and people skills, sound decision-making and the ability to learn my product or service.

So, next time you're hiring, don't immediately hire from your competitor and discard applicants not in a sales role - someone from customer service, marketing, inside sales or even engineering might turn out to be your superstar salesperson.

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