What to look for while interviewing sales people in a startup

By Subraya Mallya on 26 February 2012 | Topics - Sales

As a Marketing lead or an executive that is not directly responsible for Sales, you must have been called to interview a sales candidate frequently. I have had my share of those interviews. Sales is one skill that I don’t profess to have any expertise on. The ability to create new relationships, manage them on an ongoing basis, get prospects to share their needs and then convince them to buy into your company vision is a special skill. I have always envied those that possess that special set of skills.

So here I was in a position to interview another Sales executive for a late stage startup which had up until now grown through the personal network of the founders. As the company reached adulthood, the decision was made to bring in seasoned Sales executive that will help take the company to the next level. To build a small sales team that was hungry and was keen to do something amazing. While not holding a sales executive position, I have had the responsibilities to influence and impact sales in many of my past roles. So interviewing sales people had become a regularity for me. This time around, as I was preparing for the interview, I thought it was a good time to jot down the strategies that have worked for me.

So how do you interview a sales executive when you are not an expert in the mechanics of sales like compensation strategy, territory management etc ? Here are some things I have used to evaluate them on

  1. Research Skills: First and foremost, I  try and understand how much the sales person knows about my company (the hiring company that is). Notwithstanding the fact that someone in my team would have already talked to the candidate and told them a lot about our company, I would still want to evaluate and see if the candidate has made an effort and done additional research on his/her own. I would ask them about some lesser known facts about our company that someone with little research could have found.  A candidate who does not research enough about the company they are going to join, tells you something about how good they will be at their  job (of researching a prospect). Granted that marketing will be tasked with enriching a lead with information about the prospect but when it comes building new relationships a little bit a personal touch would help. This is where those additional research skills are paramount.
  2. Passion for the problem: Most companies look for top-performing sales people from another successful company as the prospect pool for their sales position. I think that is a faulty strategy. In most cases the sales job would have become easier for people in those successful companies and the hunger (and hussle) might not be there. Not to mention the rigidity that they might have. I would rather look for people with passion for the problem we are trying to solve.  A quick word on passion. I don’t believe passion is transferable. Either you are passionate about a problem or you are not.  In big companies, the brand leads the sale. In startups, there is no brand yet. I have worked with sales guys who came with tall acclaim of their past deeds and just could not understand the pain of the customers we were trying to help. They soon got frustrated and it was a disaster. If the customer does not feel that you understood their problem, they will be hesitant to move forward and deal will drag on.
  3. Know your needs clearly:  Companies often are too ambitious for their own good. A company that has barely found resonance in the marketplace for their offering has no business looking for a big time sales VP who is used to carrying millions of dollars of quota. Based on that thinking you will get recruiters sending you hoards of resumes wherein each candidate is making claims of closing business worth 10 times more that what you are looking for. So what is wrong with that you say? Someone who has done 10 times the revenue target you have in mind can only be good isn’t it?. Unfortunately not. Punching above your weight class might be good in many other cases but not so much in early stage sales. In the early stage, sales team needs broader skills. In addition to closing sales, the sales person is also a proxy to the product manager and should continue doing the validation of the value proposition. So someone who has hit home runs all his/her life, he/she will not be willing to take pitches or get hit and just get on base. So in early stages, it is much better to get someone who has the aptitude to nurture opportunities and generate strategic sales.
  4. Listening Skills: Sales people are typically not great at listening. It is ironic given the very requirement of their job is to listen to the prospects and understand their needs. Most sales people believe in controlling the discussion and even have a script coming into each meeting. That goes against early stage sales. To test this, I intentionally hog the early discussion. I don’t give them a chance to interject to see if they get frustrated. And then  later on go back to some of the points I made to check if they really listened. This will be a preview of what will transpire when they go to a customer site. My test is to see if they listen twice as much as they talk. Remember, we have two ears and one mouth, and there is a reason for that.
  5. Gets the Startup mentality: Most people think sales is sales – it is pretty much the same. Quite the contrary. Startups by their very nature are evolving, by the day. Value proposition changes constantly (and hopefully gets better). Ambiguity is the order of the day. Someone who cannot think on their feet and adapt will find it challenging. I wrote about this  in an earlier post about Product Completion and what makes for an effective software sales rep. Someone who cannot deal with ambiguity might find it challenging to sell a startup solution that is ever evolving. Ask them about some of the common challenges in a startup. If they start talking about the product was not ready and the product team did not deliver then you need to be on your alert.
  6. Attitude: In most companies, sales people are the most cheerful and gung-ho. With their arrival, they inject energy into the room. They celebrate victories and boost the confidence and when things don’t go their way, they are still optimistic. To me that is a key ingredient in a sales person. In a startup there are problems aplenty. If it is not the sulking engineer, there is the ever crashing server to deal with. Not to mention the perennially complaining customer. Startups will have more than their share of problems to deal with, so the last thing we want is to add fuel to that fire and get a sales person with attitude issues.
  7. Business Acumen: Business acumen is the most overlooked skill when hiring sales people. Most often people look for relationship skills, inter-personal skills, language skills in sales people. In the early days of a startup given that your value proposition and some times the business model is evolving it is important for a sales person to understand that and accordingly make adjustments to re-target  prospects. As important is the need that a sales person understands the business of the prospect. What makes their business successful and how our solution should be positioned as a participatory cog in that wheel is critical. Taking into account the nuances of verticals (sub-verticals) in which the company operates also goes a long way in closing to early anchor/beachhead deals for the company.
  8. Define the Value Proposition: After going through what we do (and hopefully a few prior meetings with my colleagues) by now the candidate should have learnt enough about our company. So I play a little bit of role playing with them. We pick a company they would first sell our product to, if they came on board and I become the decision maker in that company. I ask the candidate to pitch our product and try and convince me to buy. As part of that role playing, I also evaluate the candidates articulation skills and also style of presenting the value proposition. This tells me how they think on their feat. I routinely change the role of that decision maker from a CIO to CFO or a COO, wherein I imply a change in role of the candidates’ point-of-contact,  a to see if the candidate is able to course correct and adapt the value proposition.
  9. Self-Starter skills: While the inclination and goal is to provide a great environment for sales to succeed, in the early days of a startup there is bandwidth issues all around. Moneywise as well as resource-wise. The same founder who is driving products might also be the expert in the domain. So she can only be in one place. Sales person in the initial days are expected to fill-in for lack of necessary support structure like  sales engineer, demo slides, product setup, marketing support, collateral etc. How a sales person navigates such issues during a mock situation during the interview can tell you a lot about their self-starter skills
  10. Courage: The most important skill needed in startups is courage.  Courage to call it a spade when it needs to. Sales process goes through a lot of iteration initially. So a salesperson should be very forthright in what works and what does not. That might include things they would not know. It is not the lack of the abilities in the area of sales. It is the unknown. Most often you are dealing with a product which has not yet put the necessary miles in. If that is not the case, it is definitely the case of scant marketing support.  Traditionally salespeople are used to rejections. But in a startup the same thing is multi-fold. Standing in front of people repeatedly to pitch a product that is not getting any traction needs courage.

As I mentioned, I have not lived in a salesperson’s shoes, carried a sales quota. So I look at it from my vantage point where I am called in to help Sales and being responsible for revenue. Using these strategies above, I have been able to help influence sales hiring decisions.

What has worked for you? Would love to hear from you guys who might agree or disagree.

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