Account Executive Sales Hire Onboarding: Modern Performance Expert Roundup
When sales managers at some of the world’s leading companies look to bring on new team members, they turn to battle-tested methods picked up over decades of experience. Here are some of the secrets top managers employ to identify the key characteristics and capabilities of high performers during the hiring process.
What’s the secret to hiring for high performance? What are the most important characteristics you look for?
There are two dimensions to hiring for high performance. The first dimension is searching for typical sales qualities: people who are driven, intelligent, competitive, motivated, and have hustle. The second dimension, which is perhaps more interesting, is testing for people who are analytical, creative, problem solvers, and product-oriented. By product-oriented, I mean they understand the product that we’re selling, understand how products work, and how to use product to solve problems. That’s a little more difficult to identify. I like to ask real-world examples. For example, I might say, “I’d like you to take me through a time where you solved a difficult problem.”
“I want to hear a step-by-step account of how they approached the problem to see how they break that problem down into pieces and ultimately settle on an approach. It gets at something that’s outside your normal, “I made 100 calls a day, it resulted in 50 demos and ultimately 10 closed deals”. I want to identify someone who can look at a product their company is building, envision how that could translate into making money, and ultimately how to sell it to a customer base.”
The number one thing I look for is that burning to desire to be great. It’s not always easy to identify that, and it’s far more rare to find that inner drive than you would initially think. But when I find people who are essentially driven and motivated to make something special of themselves, it makes my job as a manager so much easier, because they’re fueled to put in the extra effort on all levels. They’re the type of people who ask me before they even start, “What can I do to get ahead? What can I do to be most prepared before going into training? What specific articles, books or websites should I be reviewing prior to joining?”
During training, they’re already asking questions without hesitation because they know it’s going to help them. They’re the ones volunteering to give the first demos. They’re the type of people putting in the extra effort, coming in early, staying late, Googling questions that they don’t have answers to at the end of their day. They understand that their first 90 days are really important and so they want to make a mark early and often. I’m a huge believer in the positivity factor, specifically when hiring salespeople. I want people that look at things glass-half-full versus half-empty. You’re getting rejected in some ways constantly. It can just be a flat-out grind sometimes, so you need people on your team that understand that none of it’s personal, that failure along the way is expected. You have to be okay putting yourself in uncomfortable situations because it’s going to help you become stronger in the long run.
“A couple of specific characteristics I look for are competitiveness and coachability. A history of being competitive and winning in sports or other extracurricular activities is really key. It suggests a certain level of coachability. Nothing sucks more than hiring someone that thinks that they know everything. Many of the best sales reps are also people who have a chip on their shoulder. People who have been slighted in the past and are motivated to prove people wrong. I look for a history of understanding what a hard-earned dollar is. Maybe they worked throughout college, or they’ve worked from an early age because their family needed the extra income. They’re raised that way. That tells me that they know how to work hard, that money is important to them, and that they take the opportunity I’m presenting them very seriously.”
The core attribute I look for, and I’ve written about this topic from my experience in more than 1,800 interviews, is passion. If you find people that are genuinely passionate about what they do, they will work as hard as they need to in order to learn new skills or refine skills that will help them be successful. I also look for a familiarity with the concept of failure. It could be through sports. Maybe they ran around the track and didn’t get the time they’d wanted, or broke their leg playing football and had to sit out for 6 weeks. Or maybe they’ve experienced struggle and failure through travel, perhaps on a study abroad program or teach for America program that put them in an environment where they weren’t comfortable. I know it seems like a stretch, but that’s very relatable to success in sales. Most companies and individuals have a win rate around 20, 30, maybe 40%. That means that they’re losing 80% of the time. Eight people in 10 are telling them, ‘No, I don’t want to buy your service.’
“The thing that’s interesting is when you fail, what do you do next? What are your 10 steps to get out of that hole? Last time I checked, the people that got a 4-point GPA at an Ivy League school, they didn’t really see that a lot. Sure, you can consume information, good for you. That’s not that interesting in sales. It’s interesting from an intellectual horsepower perspective, but bright people but are dime a dozen. I can see that on a piece of paper. It’s dealing with adversity that really enables success.”
The characteristic I look for on the very first screening is outside impact. People who have done something that goes beyond what they’re asked to do in their role. For example, when I was hiring account managers, there was one candidate who had worked with the CEO of his prior startup, rebranding the company. There was another account manager who had worked with the CFO and the CEO of a small- to mid-sized startup on their internal processes, including restructuring their billing and a lot of their financial systems. After outside impact, there are a few other key characteristics. A good candidate should be disciplined, so I look for rigor in the way that they’ve approached a decision or the interview process, or even the way that they answer the questions.
“I look for people who will step out of what they’re asked to do. Then, in the interview, I looked for candidates that are insatiably curious. I want people who will continue to ask questions, have done some research on their own, and demonstrate a level of curiosity in everything they do.”
The first thing I look for is personal drive, which, I find, translates into ambition and motivation. I ask them about their goals. If a candidate can talk about their goals very succinctly and express why they’re in the interview process, what they see for themselves and what they want to learn, I know that they’re a motivated, ambitious person.
“It’s also very important that a candidate be humble, but confident. To identify humility, I might ask about a time when they were wrong and how they handled that situation. I look for a real hunger to learn and naturally curiosity. High performers are also able to really take feedback well, with a good attitude about it, and integrate that feedback quickly. Finally, they need to have strong sales and business development fundamentals. I’ll ask them to do their own pitch, or basically, run me through how they would interact with a potential buyer in their existing company. That’s a really great way to gauge their style, their ability to qualify, to listen, to ask effective questions, speak professionally and structure an effective call that ends with tangible next steps.”
One of the things that sets my hiring style apart is that I don’t have an exact formula for finding a killer performer. Teams and organizations are really great is when they draw people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. That being said, I do look for some key attributes in the interview process.
“When hiring for high performance, I look for some sort of record of having done it before—whether it’s in academia, sports, or a previous role. Then, how is that transferable in some sense to the role we’re interviewing for?”
I want to get at what it took for them to achieve success. Was it something that they really had to work for? Or did it just come naturally to them? If it fell more on the natural side of the spectrum, then I would want to dig in more about whether they have the dedication to grind, learn, and improve.
After an initial discussion, we’ll give promising candidates a homework assignment. For most of our inside account executives, we’ll give them a demo pitch, so they’ll actually have to turn a case study into a slide deck that they’ll present to us. We want to see how they approach the discovery phase, how they process the information they’re given and formulate that into the presentation.
“For some of the more senior-level roles, we’ll give them a problem that we’re actually facing today. If we’re launching a renewal strategy, we’ll give them two or three quarters worth of data, and ask them to recommend a new process. We’re actually testing more for their analytical and creative skills than their problem solving. For us it’s great, because before we make an investment and bring someone in, we can actually see how they might solve a problem that’s pretty important to us. We don’t expect them to solve the entire problem, just to see how they approach it, prepare, and set about solving it.”
“I like to get into their early experience with sales. What in their upbringing might have led them down that road, how they might have been inspired to go into sales.”
In the interview, I’ll ask, “What was the first thing you ever sold?” That opens up some really cool conversation. That type of question has been impactful in pulling evidence of high-performing behaviors out of people. I want to hear about a candidate’s first few jobs they had growing up. How old they were when they started. What they learned through those experiences that might have benefited them later in their career.
“I give them a retail vertical and ask them to create a presentation. I ask them to tell me about three companies in a particular vertical that could be ideal partners for us and why. What would the partnership process look like? What are the things that company seems to care about? What values would you drive home with them? Who are the right people to speak with at that company? The goal of that exercise is to see how they think about a problem and see what kind of questions they ask and to make sure they are answering the right things. It’s more situational awareness than anything else. How do they think through a problem?”
I don’t personally believe in “gotcha questions.” They ultimately don’t serve the intended purpose and instead only create uncomfortable situations.
“I want candidates to tell me stories about their past performance. In sales it’s important to be engaging as a storyteller, so I begin to test that ability.”
Having candidates walk through their stories demonstrates whether they have the emotional quotient to say, “These are what my struggles were, and these are the ways I overcame them.” Of course it also tells you how they view their successes. Are they humble? Are they not? Are they going to be a great culture fit?
The other thing that I focus on is writing capability. If you’re in a sales position, you have to write well in order to represent yourself and the company well. I think it’s wonderful that someone is able to speak on their feet, but in today’s environment, a business email is so important, and not just inter-office email, but external email.
For an SDR role, we test for this by creating a prospecting exercise. A potential new hire would get information on an individual that they would be reaching out to, not a name, just title and company. So first of all, the question is “Can you find someone on LinkedIn?” Then I would ask them to put together a prospecting email conveying the value proposition of the company. The candidates would have to put their creative thinking caps on and digest a lot of information. For publicly traded companies, they’d have to dig through financial reports, try to find a meaningful connection between the two companies, and more importantly, try to look for a method of creating affinity between themselves and the person to whom they’ll be writing.
“I look at what methods they use to create a human connection with the prospect, and from a quantitative standpoint, how did they approach the barrier of ‘Why should I take the meeting with you?’”
With external candidates, I listen for curiosity and intelligence in the phone screen. I ask them to tell me about the project that they’re most proud of and listen to see if the scale of that project is a differentiator. Some people will say, “I helped this one client be successful,” and it’s clear that it was within the role they were asked to perform. Some people will have examples where their work impacted the entire company. I look for that outside impact. For analytical roles, I might give candidates case studies similar to a case interview that you’d get from a consulting firm. But I prefer to pipeline internally. I can put internal candidates through small projects. I’ll have them complete something that actually adds value and see how quickly they’re able to get up to speed.
“Do they know where to go to get the resources? Do they know how to ask the right questions of whoever is helping to facilitate? Can they complete the assignment? Are they able to set good timeframes execute on them? I can give them exercises that get them comfortable with the role that they’d be going into and that make me feel comfortable with their ability to execute it. At the very least, we’ll know where the gaps are.”
Learn more from our experts, and see full profiles, here:
Justin Roberts, VP of Sales at Lever
Jeff Rothenberg, Director, Customer Service at Upgrade
Daniel Barber, VP of Sales at Datanyze
Chris Schwass, Head of Relationship Management at Intercom
Alexis Zhu, Director of Revenue at Affirm
Annelies Husmann, Director of Sales at Mode Analytics
For more Modern Performance Profiles subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter.