How to Spot the Traits of Top Performers

You may have hired a lot of B2B salespeople in the past, and probably some of them looked great on paper, but turned in lackluster performances. How can you skew the odds for hiring a sales superstar in your favor? Many hiring managers look at the resume, but the key to hiring well is to look beyond the resume.

Interviewing sales people can be tough because they are trained at being interviewed by customers and can sometimes be very good at telling you what they think you want to hear. There are a variety of tests that evaluate personality traits of salespeople, and we highly recommend such assessments. But effective interviewing can also go a long way towards uncovering the best sales people – and it can often be a lot like peeling an onion.

Here are traits to look for and solid tips for interviewing for those traits.

1. Goal oriented and ambitious:

You can train skills, but motivation and a good work ethic is more innate, and you cannot train that into people. Of course, no sales candidate is going to assess themselves as unambitious so you need to make your own assessment.

  • Tip for interviewing for ambition: High performers have a pattern of accomplishments and achievements. At Peak Sales Recruiting, we include questions in the interview script that probe what they are most proud of outside the workplace such as in sports or the arts. Look for signs of achievement and competitiveness as these are key indicators of someone who is a top performer.

2. Confident:

This is perhaps one of the most obvious traits you need to look for in a salesperson. Yet, a salesperson can exude confidence in an interview, and still wilt under rejection or criticism. At Peak, we see false bravado all the time, but the best salespeople believe in their products, and if they are told “No,” they are not defeated – they still don’t give up.

  • Tip for interviewing for confidence: Chet Holmes, sales guru and author of The Ultimate Sales Machine (Penguin Group, 2007), recommended what he called the “attack.” At the end of an interviews, he would tell a candidate that although he seemed nice, there was only one open position, and the candidate just did not appear to be a superstar. Holmes wrote, “You’d be amazed how many people crumble…Let that person go. Superstars never crumble.”

Characteristics and Behaviors of Top Salespeople Study

3. Optimistic:

The ability for a sales professional to look past obstacles and focus on the end result is a trait that all top sales pros possess. This does not mean that they only focus on the ‘bright side’ of things, that they wear “rose colored glasses” or are delusional in any way. On the contrary, they are actively on the look out for challenges that may come their way and focus on the positive steps that can be taken to overcome them.

  • Tip for interviewing for optimism: Ask the candidate to name two personal and two professional challenges they have faced in their life and ask them to describe what motivated them to take these challenges head on. Was it the fact that they had taken the right steps, and it was just a matter of speaking with the CEO one more time to close the deal? Was it the fact that they saw these as small obstacles that could be disregarded because the end goal was in sight? It is essential that the candidate demonstrates to you that they are positive in the face of adversity and don’t let rejection deter them from their goals.

4. Competitive:

Defined by Merriam-Webster as “having a strong desire to win or be the best at something” is one of the most vital traits that your new sales hire should possess. It is the fuel that powers them to hunt new business opportunities, cold call, get in front of the key decision makers, and close deals.

  • Tip for interviewing for Competitiveness: Have the candidate describe how they strive to be the best sales person possible. Do they talk about learning a new sales methodology to add to their arsenal? Do they talk about using their teammates recent big deal as a driver to start work early and leave late? Do they talk about the desire to surpass their best sales numbers to date? These are some key indicators of whether this candidate is indeed competitive by nature.

5. Sense of Urgency:

The sense that “time kills deals”, defines the top performing sales people. They understand that every minute not on the phone with prospects or meeting them face-to-face is potential lost revenue. Hence, these candidates should demonstrate to you that they understand the need to act in a timely fashion.

  • Tip for interviewing for Urgency: Ask the candidate to provide examples of how they used time to their advantage. Ask the candidate to describe their daily activities. How much time is split between prospecting, working the funnel, and closing accounts? Is it broken up 15%, 40%, 45%? These numbers will help you understand how they spend their time and how much emphasis they place on closing deals so that they can start pursuing new opportunities.

6. High Need to Interact and Influence Others:

Let’s face it, people like to buy from people they like. The best salespeople have an innate need to bond with and be respected by others. That is not to say they are categorically extroverts, as many great sales people classify as introverts, but they have a strong need to develop relationships with others and influence behavior of buyers.

  • Tip for interviewing for a people person: Does the candidate appear relaxed? Is their smile and handshake genuine? Do you get a sense they are trying to forge a real connection with you? Are they listening and asking questions that build upon what you are saying. Are they attempting to drive the discussion and qualify you as much as you are qualifying them? Ask the candidate how they bond with clients. If they are sending clients helpful information that has nothing to do with the product, asking clients over for Saturday barbecues and remembering to send them birthday cards, you may have a winner.

7. Persistent and Solution oriented:

Creativity is not a word that is always associated with salespeople, but the best are very creative in finding solutions to problems. When a customer describes a challenge, the top reps instinctively move towards solutions and when they run up against obstacles, they do not curse their bad luck, but they come up with creative ways to get around the obstacles and convince the prospects.

  • Tip for interviewing for creativity: Ask the candidate about times they had to develop alternative ways of doing things in order to succeed. Give them difficult scenarios and ask them to brainstorm solutions. Focus on how the candidate overcame the obstacles more than the actual situations.

8. Organized and disciplined:

There is a commonly held view that great salespeople are akin to Wild West cowboys; that is, they ride out hard, lasso them in, and don’t give a whole lot of thought to structure or paperwork. That’s for the administrators back at the ranch. Nothing could be further from the truth. Great salespeople are disciplined, work with a plan and get things done on time.

  • Tip for interviewing for organization: Ask the candidate how they strategize who they calls on first, how they decide to approach a specific prospect, what their structure is for follow-up, what kinds of materials they send to prospects before and after sales calls and when they sends those materials, how they work to improve their sales skills, how they manages their time and what efficiencies they have discovered to streamline paperwork. Insist on examples where they have done these things rather than philosophies of what they think should be done.

9. Fits into your organization and sales environment:

Culture matters and so does sales environment. There is a world of difference between working as a salesperson for a company with widespread name recognition and a lot of sales support and working for a smaller company. The former typically has a lot of marketing and sales administration support, while the smaller company or start-up may expect the salesperson to do a great deal of marketing and administrative work themselves.

  • Tip for interviewing for fit: Make sure the candidate has been successful in an environment similar to the one they will be working in. When you question the candidate about previous positions, ask if they were expected to develop their own leads and how, who developed and distributed marketing materials, and who did various types of needed paperwork. If a candidate comes with five star ratings from an organization that just handed he/she hot leads, don’t assume they will know how to cold call or to drum up leads on their own. On the flip side, if the candidate is doing well and making their numbers with very little support from the company, you may have a sales superstar.

10. Client-focused:

Client-focused salespeople are focused on bringing the client what they need, not just what they want. A global study by the Sales Executive Council and reported by The Harvard Business Review, calls these kinds of salespeople “challengers,” and says they outsell all other kinds of salespeople. According to the article, “They focus the sales conversation not on features and benefits but on insight… They come to the table with new ideas for their customers that can make money or save money — often opportunities the customer hadn’t realized even existed.”

  • Tip for interviewing for client focus: When you ask the candidate to give you a sales pitch, do they ask a lot of questions first and then come up with a solution that fits your needs? Now ask them for examples of when they were successful in convincing clients to invest in innovative solutions.

Resumes are important, but when you really want the best sales people on your team, you can’t stop there; you must take a deep look at the traits of the person behind the resume.

For more on traits of great salespeople, see The Traits of Top Sales Performers.


Superstar-growth strategy, Chet holmes

Selling is not about relationships, Matthew Dixon


Eliot Burdett

CEO at Peak Sales Recruiting
Before Peak, Eliot spent more than 20 years building and leading companies, where he took the lead in recruiting and managing high performance sales teams. He co-founded Ventrada Systems (mobile applications) and GlobalX (e-commerce software). He was also Vice President of Sales for PointShot Wireless.

Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.

He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.

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