How to Hire the Best SDRs: Modern Performance Expert Roundup
More than any other single factor, hiring the right candidates determines the success of a company, which is only as strong as the individuals who make up its committees, teams, and offices. But how to separate the wheat from the chaff in sales hiring? From a hunger learn to genuine passion and intelligence: What characteristics are the most indicative of high performing individuals?
Modern Performance asked top managers at top firms like Datanyze, UpGuard, MemSQL, mParticle, and Eventbrite to share their secrets and battle-tested methods of identifying the key characteristics and capabilities of high performers during the hiring process. Our experts’ opinions differ, yet one thing is certain: Lemons or plums, make your choice wisely. For nothing has more sweeping implications for a company’s success than attracting and hiring the right people for the job.
What’s the secret to hiring for high performance? What are the most important characteristics that you look for?
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, then 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 wanted, or broke their leg playing football and had to sit out for six weeks. Maybe they’ve experienced struggle and failure through travel, perhaps on a study abroad program or a 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 twenty, thirty, or maybe forty percent. That means that they’re losing eighty percent of the time. Eight people in ten are telling them, “No, I don’t want to buy your service.” When you fail, what do you do next? What are your ten steps to get out of that hole? Last time I checked the people who got a four-point GPA at an Ivy League school 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 are a dime a dozen. I can see that on a piece of paper. It’s dealing with adversity that really enables success.
Honestly it’s kind of a joke. I’m half serious, half not. I tell people I’m not a good manager, that I just hire really good people and then make them happy to work for me. The rest kind of takes care of itself.
There are some universal characteristics of high performance, but I think it’s dependent on two overarching factors. Factor number one is: what is the organization? What is the culture and values of the organization? What is the organization trying to accomplish?
Factor number two is: what is the role? There are very different pillars for each role that depend on the team and on every specific role or capability. But there are some pillars that always carry over. For example, a demonstrated track record of dealing with adversity and ambiguity—not just dealing with it, but actually actively succeeding.
“I think there’s a big difference between someone being able to talk a good game and being able to actually demonstrate that capability. That’s a trait that always carries over.”
I’m talking particular about startups here because people who can’t operate with ambiguity shouldn’t be at a startup, especially in a sales or sales development role.
Demonstrated work ethic, particularly in a team environment, is really big—as is seeking out someone with a “student” mentality. All of these things cross over, all are important characteristics.
We look for a lot of characteristics, mainly communication skills. I look for people to listen well, ask good questions based on what they heard from me, paraphrase what I said, and repeat things that I said. These are all things that show someone would be able to handle themselves on a good qualification call and really understand the prospect.
“I want people who are hungry. When they see a challenge, they actually enjoy coming up with solutions. They’re not the kind of person who wants to see the same issue come up twice.”
The final thing is you need people who can deal with unstructured process and with ambiguity. We call one of our interview sections “dealing with ambiguity,” and we look for anecdotal ways that, when faced with challenges, people don’t get shut down but find ways to push forward.
I tend to look for four characteristics: competitiveness, eagerness to make money, attention to detail and organization, and a hunger to learn. This applies to our products, the industry, what drives our customers, how a business like ours is run, how a startup is run, et cetera.
“A hunger to learn is the most important because you’ll burn out without intellectual curiosity driving you.”
Lastly, I want people who are ambitious self-starters, but they also need to be humble enough to take direct feedback and grow from it.
I don’t think that there is secret to hiring for high performance. If there was a secret formula, then every single sales development team would be high performing and every rep would be knocking it out of the park. That being said, there are obviously things that we look for beyond someone who says, “I played football in college, which means that I’m competitive.”
First, we look for is someone who’s self-motivated. We look for a self-starter, for someone who’s diligent. If an individual is not self-motivated, not a self-starter who controls his or her day, not thoughtful, can’t self-supervise, and isn’t diligent enough to follow through in every task, then that person will never be successful.
Second, we look for general conversational competencies like the ability to adjust on the fly in an interview.
“We want someone who gives thoughtful responses, someone who can actually flow with the conversation and doesn’t just rely on pre-canned answers.”
I focus on is writing capability. If you’re in a sales position, then 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 gets information on an individual that they are reaching out to, not a name, just the title and company. So, first of all, the question is: “Can you find someone on LinkedIn?” Then I ask them to put together a prospecting email conveying the value proposition of the company. The candidates have to put their creative thinking caps on and digest a lot of information. For publicly traded companies they 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 they approach the barrier of: “Why should I take the meeting with you?”
There is a very specific process to look for the high performance pillars for a given role. They follow a very specific pattern, essentially every time.
Usually I’ll start with what seems like a very basic question: “Hey, could you tell me a story of when you demonstrated x, y, or z?” From there, I ask them to explain:
“What was the problem that you were having?”
“Can you walk me through the problem?”
“What are the specific steps you took to address the problem?”
“What were the outcomes?”
And finally, “What did you learn from that whole experience?”
Of course your interview may not be quite that formulaic. But if you ask those five questions, then it gets you around a lot of those pre-prepared answers that people have when they come into interviews.
Oftentimes in sales and sales development you’re hiring for potential and capability versus hard skills or hard metrics. But you’d be surprised how many kinds of “hard” skills that crop up in people’s everyday lives, even outside of work, demonstrate those high performance pillars of your candidate profile.
For example, I love guys who have done fundraising for their college. That’s a brutal job where you get beat up and hung up on. Generally, if you’re really good at it, then you have some kind of accolades that you can show—things that you’re proud of or can speak to. Excelling in sports, obviously, is another example, though maybe a bit of an overused one. In general, however, people who tend to excel at things, take pride in them, and actively participate in them tend to rack up accolades.
“Call me old school, but I’m a big believer that if you’re going for an interview, then you should have what I call a ‘brag book.’ You should have a record of your accomplishments.”
I also look for people who know their numbers off the top of their head. Whenever a candidate gives you a percentage of something they increased (“I think it increased about x percentage”) they’re usually full of it, to be honest with you. Good salespeople know their numbers.
I role play with candidates before hiring them. I don’t need them to understand MemSQL or our product, but I do expect them to understand whatever company they’re selling to. I have them give me the role of someone they might sell to with, giving as much context as I would need to have an intelligent conversation with them.
“I want to see how they ask questions and vet me. It’s really valuable to see what natural skills people already have and what they need to learn.”
Other than that, I ask them about problems or issues they’ve faced in their career. Or if they’re fresh out of college, then I ask about big problems or issues they faced in clubs and have them walk me through, step-by-step, how they dealt with it. I want to see that they figured out a creative solution, that they implemented it or communicated with the right people to make something happen that improved the situation.
It’s about asking the right questions. On the initial phone call the first thing I ask is: “What do you understand about our product from what you’ve researched, read, or heard?” Their answer usually makes it pretty clear what level of research they’ve done.
It’s okay if they don’t completely understand what our product does, but if they didn’t try to understand, if they didn’t even look at our customer testimonial videos or read our blog posts, then that’s a red flag.
I ask candidates why they’re interested in mParticle above other tech companies because that indicates whether someone’s running to us or running away from their current company. Tech’s a sexy space right now, and I meet or talk with a lot of people who think they want to work in the industry but can’t really give solid reasons for why. I like to dig deeper: why mParticle and why the mobile space?
As I’m often dealing with junior candidates, I ask them why they chose the college they attended. If someone chose a school where they didn’t know anyone, for instance, I know they’re okay with pushing themselves out of their comfort zone and doing something that’s uncomfortable for the sake of growth. That’s a good sign, especially because sales development involves a lot of uncomfortable situations, constant rejection, and so on.
I also look for why they’re interested in sales. A lot of candidates say to me, “I love talking with people.” There are a lot of roles that involve talking with people.
“I want to know why they’re so excited about sales that they can’t wait to ride that roller coaster. It’s definitely a roller coaster and it’s not always pleasant. You really have to love the thrill of the win; it has to make everything else worth it to you.”
The last thing I cover is behavioral questions that uncover areas for improvement and a willingness to learn. “Tell me about a time in school or a past job when you faced a challenging situation and turned it into a win.” “What’s the most difficult feedback you’ve ever received? How did you change as a result of that feedback?” Candidates who are able to answer those questions confidently without getting super nervous are typically coachable, and they naturally tend to reflect on their own experiences for the sake of growth.
The entire interview is geared towards teasing out a certain attribute or characteristic that we’re looking for. If we’re looking for someone who’s self-motivated, then we look for past examples of self-motivation and really dig into those. We also test for conversational competencies.
“Basically, what we want to know is: are you going to be able to do this job without freaking out on the way to work because you have to cold call all day?”
We also do role plays in order to put everything into practice and simulate the day-to-day environment. We give documentation, such as a basic overview of how to qualify an opportunity, so that the candidate can prepare. Then we conduct a formal role play, provide some feedback, and conduct another one to see if the interviewee can put that feedback into action.
Learn more from our experts, and see full profiles, here:
Daniel Barber, VP of Sales at Datanyze:
Chris Pollot, Director of Inside Sales at UpGuard:
Dhiraj Singh, Inside Sales and Operations Manager at MemSQL:
Brooke Lengfelder, Director of Sales Development at mParticle:
Philip Galligan, Global Manager of Sales Development at Eventbrite:
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