Q: When hiring a sales team, what are the qualities I should look for in the first few sales hires and the leadership positions?
A: These are critical hires for any young company, so let’s jump right into it. Here are important things to look for when making your very first sales hires.
Emphasize industry expertise and business acumen
It’s always a boon to hire salespeople who are proficient selling in your industry, but this is especially important for companies that are just getting started. Find someone who understands the market you’re in and especially the customers you’re selling to and the issues they face. Look for expertise, not just “experience.” Unless it’s an extremely simple business that anyone can grasp quickly (it’s possible), market expertise will be very valuable in the early days.
At some point, domain expertise or industry knowledge will be less important and can be taught to those with the right make-up. In the beginning, they’re more important because you need a quick start.
Related: Build a Stellar Sales Team
Target the right traits and characteristics
The type of salesperson you need is largely influenced by what you sell, whom you sell to and other sales nuances (B2B, B2C, price point, sales cycle length, “hunting or farming” sales techniques, and so on). But for young companies in particular, here are five general characteristics you might want to screen for at the beginning. For example:
Drive: Sales is naturally an incentive-based business, and you certainly want to create an environment to keep your team motivated. But it helps to have salespeople with that extra “something” inside them that fuels their need to compete. These are the types of people that will do what it takes to secure those critical early wins.
Entrepreneurial mindset; With an early market that is still taking shape, and in which management is still trying to “crack the code,” you need entrepreneurial sales reps. These are salespeople that are comfortable working in an undefined or unproven market and are ready to learn about the true needs of customers as they go. In this sense, they will become the eyes and ears that can help management architect the go-to-market model and process -- and make it scalable in the future.
Optimism: Growing a young business can have its ups and downs, so it helps to have people who can naturally maintain a positive attitude and “look at the bright side” of things. This is a valuable trait that can help your new sales team stay the course during the rockier times. (And a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt either!)
People skills: This seems like an obvious choice for a sales role, right? But it’s not just about how your first salespeople interact with prospects; they need to work well internally as well. Your team will start small, so there’s no room for bad attitudes to drag it down. People who have the ability to listen, communicate and play well with others are a must.
Persistence: Talent is a given, but while many skills can be taught, sheer determination usually can’t. No sales opportunity can go overlooked in the early stages, so salespeople at young companies need to stay focused and be willing to keep working for every potential deal.
Of course, there is a wide spectrum of other skills and traits to consider when making initial hires (discovery skills, ethics, critical thinking/problem solving, to name a few), but these five would certainly land at the top of my list for younger companies.
On hiring a sales manager or VP of sales
I’m not a believer that sales leaders should carry quotas. I believe they should hire, train, develop, coach, lead and manage their teams, and get results through others. Unfortunately, in early-stage companies, the first sales leader needs to produce. That means your first hires need to be wired like the above reps, but have some additional qualities:
- Lead by example on how to sell effectively.
- Coach effectively (observe, use dialogue skills, facilitate, lead others to conclusions – not just tell reps what to do differently).
- Analyze reports and patterns, and connect the dots to see where guidance, training, coaching or performance management is required.
Finally, (and perhaps most importantly), your sales leaders should foster a motivational, empowering environment where people want to belong, succeed and do their best work every day -- because that’s what it will take to help your upstart company reach new levels of success.