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Hiring the entry-level salesperson


by Troy Harrison

For years, I’ve been asked what to look for when hiring an entry-level salesperson. By “entry-level,” I mean someone who has never held a professional selling job. My advice to my clients has always been, “Don’t,” for one simple reason. Most of my clients are small- to medium-sized companies, and most are not set up to teach someone how to work, let alone to how sell. Make no mistake, you have to teach entry-level salespeople to work. Plus, screening entry-level salespeople is much different from screening an experienced salesperson. “Gut hires” are far more common because there isn’t a track record to fall back on in evaluating a candidate. And gut hires have a high fail rate – over two-thirds. So, let’s suppose that for whatever reason – economics, talent pool, customer types – you need to hire an entry-level salesperson. Here are some guidelines to implement:

Accept a higher fail rate. As noted above, hiring an inexperienced salesperson typically comes with a higher fail rate than those with track records (when a quality hiring process is implemented). With a quality hiring process, skilled interviewing and emotional detachment, fail rates can be reduced below one-third, or even one-fourth. Implementation of those same skills with inexperienced salespeople can get fail rates to one-half or just a little better – but without good interviewing processes and skills, you’re looking at fail rates of two-thirds or even three-fourths. So process and skill matter.

Carefully define the traits you need, and build your process around them. With a new salesperson, traditional interviewing techniques based on resumé, experience, and learned skills become much less relevant. That means you need to focus on traits – those innate qualities that make or break a sales career. Don’t just settle for objective judgments like “drive” or “go-getter;” learn about what traits really matter. I’d recommend the Profile Sales Assessment by Wiley International to define these (no, I don’t get a kickback from them – I just believe in it). Once you have identified the traits, figure out how to expose those or the lack thereof in the hiring process.

Look for non-employment related indicators of traits. It’s a mistake to assume that, just because there is no professional employment background, you cannot identify desirable traits and habits. However, the most wildly overrated non-employment activity is sports. Jocks have just as high a fail rate as non-athletes; don’t fall into that trap. Instead, look for activities where leadership, persuasion and intellectual curiosity were required. Class president? Sure. Member of a volunteer organization? Yep. Leader of that organization? Even better. On the debate team? Surefire success (Okay, I was a debater, so take that one with a grain of salt). Remember this: sales is an intellectual activity, not a physical activity. Look for areas where the prospective salesperson has demonstrated intellectual and persuasive abilities.

Look for work ethic. This is one of the hardest things to measure. I mentioned above that someone’s first serious employer out of school not only had the job of teaching the applicant how to sell; they have the job of teaching them how to work. While school, and more particularly, college, can require discipline, it’s a true statement that the discipline and ability to work a strong 40 hours a week is a different animal entirely. So, the question would be, have they ever worked a full-time job, anywhere? Even as a summer job? If so, how did they feel about that? What have been their habits in terms of punctuality in the interview process? If they do have an employment background, how long have they managed to hold a job? If they have recently graduated college, how did they spend the following months? I have a friend whose son, after graduating from college with a finance degree, decided to “do nothing” all summer – then was amazed at the lack of job availability when he did decide to start applying. Seems most of the jobs for which he was qualified were filled by applicants who wanted to get into the world of work instead of the World of Warcraft.

Get good at behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interviewing is a silver bullet. It’s a science of interviewing developed in the ’70s that attempts to determine job fit by asking a series of questions that encourage the interviewee to tell stories from past experience. Their answers illuminate how they might handle situations on the job, as well as their thinking and communication process. Take some time to research this, understand it, and get good at developing questions tailored to entry-level people. When the resumé is thin, this becomes even more important.

Use a good assessment. Psychometric assessments are vital for measuring traits. If you’re trying to hire without using one, you’re working with one hand tied behind your back. With entry-level candidates, it’s two hands. However, there are thousands out there. Most are junk. Research the ones that meet the Federal Department of Labor guidelines as a non-discriminatory hiring tool, and use one of them. And take the time to understand its use. Again, when hiring entry-level people, you’re looking for traits with the anticipation of teaching them the skills – so use an assessment to identify the traits.

Is this six-point plan a sure fire method for winning every time? Nope. But this can elevate your success above 50 percent, which in hiring entry-level salespeople, is a very good number indeed. Like everything else in hiring, it takes time and preparation. As Dave Ramsey says, “There are no shortcuts to anyplace worth going.”

Troy HarrisonTroy Harrison is the author of “Sell Like You Mean It!” and his new book, “The Pocket Sales Manager.” He is a speaker, consultant and sales navigator. He helps companies build more profitable and productive sales forces with his cutting-edge sales training and methodologies. For information on booking speaking/training engagements, consulting, or to sign up for his weekly E-zine, call (913) 645-3603, e-mail, or visit

This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2021 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2021, Direct Business Media.


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