Top Sales Performers vs. Under Performers — 5 Key Questions to Ask To Tell You Who’s Who

Blog123_HiringSalespeople_1-1Over the last several years I have been working with many organizations focused on improving sales performance, and they all have one goal in common: To add new salespeople to their sales teams.

It’s amazing how each of these companies are quick to hire salespeople with no formal process.

Each company shared countless hiring stories where they were disappointed about how the person performed. With that bad experience, they were eager to establish a process to improve performance and turnover of the underperformers. Bad hires are costly.

So, why is hiring top-performing salespeople so hard?

“We Need a New Salesperson ASAP!” 

Companies are guilty of launching a recruiting process without a job profile that spells out accountability. They simply pull out the mirror to see who can fog it up. That’s what happens when you choose to blow through the pre-hiring process, which requires you to analyze and decide what you specifically need.

Let’s look more closely.

You made a hiring decision based on some criteria─urgency, great personality, coming from a competitor─only to discover this individual fails to be successful.

If you’re serious about hiring great salespeople, you don’t need to hurry because, if you hurry, you’ll keep hiring the same under performers. Isn’t there a better way?

According to CSO Insights 2016 Sales Performance Optimization Study, at least 57 percent of respondents indicate they need to hire salespeople who succeed. Perhaps, the 7 percent of companies that are exceeding expectations and the 36 percent meeting expectations will give us some clues.

As illustrated in the chart, aptitude/competency testing (as part of the hiring process) seems to be gaining some traction.


I can tell you from personal experience in hiring substantial numbers of successful sales people that when the aptitude results told me not to hire, and I did anyway, those people failed. Typically, those who presented themselves well, with experience from a competitor, fooled me the most.

“Know What to Look for in the Interview”

The process of hiring a great salesperson begins with an analysis of the job you’re trying to fill. Ask yourself:

Does your company face a complex selling cycle or a one-call close?

Do salespeople have to generate their own leads?

Do you mandate CRM use by your reps?

Do you have a repeatable sales process?

Are daily activities (calls per day, appointments set, meetings held) actively monitored and measured?

The answers to these questions dictate the kind of candidate who will succeed in your role.

All managers have made at least one sales hiring mistake at one time or another. The solution is to conduct a structured, behavior-based interview and selection process.

But interviews involve an investment of your time. There’s nothing worse than settling into an interview scheduled to last an hour and knowing in the first five minutes that the candidate is a no-go. To be absolutely sure that you’re not wasting your time with a sales candidate, you need to review the candidate’s resume thoroughly and think through the framework outlined below.

You can nip in the bud the vast majority of hiring mistakes at the resume review. Here is a sample of questions that will provide the answers you should be looking for:

5 Key Questions Sort Out Top Performers from Under Performers

  1. What do you know about our company?

    This answer will give you an indication of how candidates do pre-calls using available research. In a complex selling environment, this level of probing is critical.

  1. Tell me about a deal you spent a lot of time on but eventually lost?

    Listen to how the interviewee handles rejection. Hiring a salesperson who can’t handle rejection properly is a recipe for disaster. Rejection is a fact of life in complex sales; I want to hear how he or she strategized and reacted to the loss.

  1. What’s your most effective prospecting tool?

    You want to hire salespeople who have the ability to find qualified prospects and turn them into long-term customers/clients. Successful salespeople make prospecting an essential part of their daily plan. Be wary of candidates who seem vague about or disinterested in prospecting.

  1. What was your sales quota for last year and did you reach it?

    Top salespeople will be able to answer this question quickly and confidently while average performers will make excuses for why they ranked low on their team or didn’t reach quota.

    Be careful when candidates answer this question with excuses about the economy, unrealistic sales quotas or major competition when they had to reduce the price.

    One of the major differences between high and low producers is goal-setting. Successful salespeople set both short- and long-term goals and monitor themselves continually to ensure they’re met.

    Less successful salespeople fail to set goals, which leads to time management problems and poor results. They devote most of their time to making sales calls and very little on sales planning.

    As I like to say, “They are confusing activity with results.” Their W-2 will be the ultimate reference check on how well they did.

  1. Tell me about the time you tried to regain a lost customer or prospect?

    Listen carefully to how the interviewee approached this situation. Successful people know the difficulty of selling in the complex world. They normally don’t give up easily and always look to regain the lost business when working with an ideal prospect. They find out the reason they lost the business and look for ways back to the table.

    They always follow-up with lost business, if they felt there was a good fit, so they can pick up the pieces and uncover new issues the prospect is looking to solve.

    Be wary of candidates who go into various emotional reactions when describing a lost opportunity, such as blaming the loss on the competition cutting price or pointing fingers at their team members or the company for dropping the ball.

    Good salespeople always get feedback from lost sales so they can improve their approach. They know that how they lose and follow-up represents a huge opportunity for new business.

“It’s About the Environment”

A recent study found that when “top-performer” salespeople, as classified by their employers, left their position to work at another firm, their new employers classified them as “top performers” less than 50 percent of the time. The study went on to show that the reasons for sales success have as much to do with environment as sales ability. You need both to be successful.

You can’t dictate how freely buyers will spend, but you can focus on how rigorously your salespeople follow your adopted sales process and how consistently your managers reinforce, enforce, and coach to this process. The table below indicates both tracks are worth pursuing.


By way of best practices, it’s clear that leaving every salesperson to his or her own devices (“We hire good people and stay out of their way”) might attract high-performers, but the data suggest otherwise. Here and elsewhere in CSO’s 2016 study, we found that high-performers are attracted to disciplined, organized, and well-equipped sales organizations.

The point is this: You could hire the best salesperson in the universe, but if you have a weak or bad sales process, poor support, and customer/clients who won’t reference, then no amount of sales talent is going to get you where you need to be.

“It Takes Time to Onboard Even Great Salespeople”

With rare exceptions, expect a six to seven-month ramp-up period when hiring new B2B salespeople selling in a complex sales environment. The CSO study indicates that 64.7 percent of firms reported their ramp-up period is seven months or more.

It’s interesting that in the study there was no difference if the person had industry experience or not. To give that figure some historical perspective, back in 2003 when CSO first started tracking this metric, 40 percent of firms had a ramp-up period greater than six months. So what happened? Selling got more complex due. Customer expectations changed. Marketplaces changed. Global competition grew. More decision makers and buying processes were added to the mix. The depth and breadth of the products companies sell expanded.

You should write off the first 90 days with your new salesperson from a production standpoint. But the next three months should yield slow but steadily increasing progress. By month six, your new salesperson should be in full-on selling mode.

This timeline affects the lens through which a manager should view a candidate. So what can be done to stem the tide? If you think you can hire your way to faster productivity, you’re wrong. What sales leaders do to help salespeople during the ramp-up period makes the significant difference between under performers and top performers.

To Sum It Up

We began this post asking why it’s so hard to hire top performing salespeople; then we demonstrated how effective aptitude testing works in the process. Next, we emphasized the need to analyze the position you’re trying to fill by asking yourself five questions. Finally, we share with you the five big questions to ask in the interview with insight on the answers you need to hear. But we caution you to keep in mind the importance of environment as even top performers prefer a sales environment that’s disciplined, organized and well-equipped.

There’s no easy answer here to how to hire well. It’s a combination of many influences. However, you can go a long way towards finding and holding onto top sales performers if you bring to the hiring process a probing, somewhat skeptical mind, strong sales aptitude tests, and an environment that is conducive to supporting winners. The rewards will be well worth your efforts.

See you on upside,


For more information on how to simplify the complex sale, go to Or call William L. MacDonald in San Diego at PleinAire Strategies LLC at 760.340.4277 or 213.598.4700

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