How to Construct the Ideal Candidate Profile to Improve Sales Hiring

Written by
Lucas Price
November 7, 2023

As a sales leader, you’re likely familiar with customer profiles. These detailed descriptions of your typical customer provide information about your target audience’s needs, desires, pain points, considerations, budget, interests, and more. It’s this level of detail that helps drive marketing and sales decisions, campaigns, and messaging. Sales leaders can also leverage ideal candidate profiles to help make informed decisions about recruiting, hiring, and retaining sales representatives.

What Sales Leaders Should Know About  Ideal Candidate Profiles

An ideal candidate profile for sales consists of the competencies or traits needed to succeed, the required skills, and the experience or specific knowledge needed. The details depend on the specifics of the role, the company, and the culture. Profiles for entry-level sales positions will be mostly competency or trait-based (e.g., history of achievement, curiosity, and grit). For more senior-level jobs, you’ll focus on competencies and also have specific requirements for certain skills and experience.

It’s often tempting to over-index on specific experiences that are a proxy for competencies and traits. For example, former college athletes tend to have a history of achievement and determination. You might inadvertently start recruiting candidates with this experience, assuming they have the desired competencies. However, it’s better to set the traits you’re looking for and measure them directly. There are lots of other types of high achievement besides just athletic competition. Grit, resourcefulness, and adaptability can come from a wide range of life experiences. For higher accuracy, focus on the competencies themselves rather than specific past experiences that sometimes form those competencies.

Best Practices for Building an Ideal Candidate Profile for Sales

You might wonder, “How do I know which traits, skills, and experience are needed to succeed?” Start by getting clear on the goals you have for the role. Not sure about the specific goals for the position? Take time to think about what achievements would make you look back and say this was a successful hire one or two years from now. Now, take the opposite point of view. What would make you look back and determine the hire was a failure?

As you can see, goals go beyond the job description. Performing this exercise often clarifies what traits, skills, and experiences are needed in the ideal candidate profile. You’ll also want to consider your company’s culture. What competencies connect to your company values and mission?

Next, take time to think expansively about the types of experiences that could bring the specific knowledge needed. Let’s say you’re hiring a sales manager for a technology company. There may be other types of sales management in technical industries that indicate the manager won’t struggle with communicating about the complexities of technology. Consider adjacent sectors outside of technology when building your ideal candidate profile.

Be careful to avoid the trap of just hiring candidates from a small set of admired companies. This experience does not always translate to success in a company that doesn’t have the same level of resources, market share, reputation, etc. Riding along with a high-flying company isn’t necessarily an indicator of the specific competencies you’re recruiting for.

Thinking expansively about specific experiences can help find overperforming and undervalued employees. A lot of companies want very specific experience profiles when recruiting sales candidates. The problem? These profiles usually drive up the price of candidates who can fit them, and these candidates are not necessarily better performers or “safer” hires. Instead, focus on building profiles that will lead to success but leave more for a broader and diverse range of applicants.

Competencies to Include in Your Ideal Candidate Sales Profile

We’ve talked about the importance of focusing on competencies and thinking expansively when building your ideal candidate profile for sales. Doing so will help you avoid the temptation of focusing on experiences and inadvertently narrowing your pool of candidates. It’s also vital to avoid over-indexing the likeability factor.

What’s the issue with the likeability factor? Well, it doesn’t tell you much at all about how the candidate will perform in the role at hand. People who appear likable during an interview might behave differently during a workday. Candidates who seem less “likable” may just be nervous or less adept at interviewing. It’s nice to have a likable candidate during the interview, but it’s better (and more important) to have a candidate with the desired competencies.

So, what competencies best fit an ideal candidate profile for sales? The following are helpful in sales roles and may be indicative of future success:

  • Learning agility: the ability to learn and apply new knowledge quickly
  • Adaptability: the ability to adjust and modify your approach in a changing, dynamic environment
  • Coachability: The ability to accept and incorporate feedback without defensiveness to improve performance.
  • Growth mindset: The desire to get better each day and help others do the same.
  • Resourcefulness: The ability to optimize situations and find creative solutions to overcome challenges.

Check out our recent article on key competencies in sales roles for more inspiration.

You’ll also want to consider factors outside of competencies, such as the following:

  • Geography: Determine whether the sales role requires a specific geographical presence. Is it primarily an inside sales position within an office environment, or does it cover a designated sales territory?
  • Experience: While industry-specific experience can be an asset, it shouldn’t be the sole criterion for assessing candidates. Successful salespeople can often excel even without direct industry experience. So, carefully consider whether the role genuinely demands in-depth industry expertise.
  • Deal Size: Clearly define the average deal size or the targeted deal size relevant to the role you're recruiting for. Familiarity with handling deals of similar sizes can help candidates successfully close larger opportunities.
  • Deal Complexity: Some sales professionals thrive in managing a high volume of smaller deals, while others excel in negotiating a few, more substantial transactions annually. Understand the expected deal volume and complexity for the role you’re hiring for.
  • Buying Committee: Does your sales process typically involve interaction with a sizable buying committee, or does a single individual predominantly make decisions?
  • Transformative Selling: Determine whether the sales role involves persuading large organizations to embrace transformative change or if it primarily focuses on delivering immediate value with minimal friction.
  • Negotiation Complexity: Be sure to assess the level of negotiation complexity associated with your products or services. Strong negotiation skills are critical for handling intricate deals, while other candidates may perform well when quick, straightforward transactions are the norm.
  • Sales Cycle Length: Consider the average duration of your sales cycle. Does the role require a candidate capable of navigating extended deal timelines patiently or one who can seize quick, time-sensitive opportunities?
  • Quota Responsibility: Although quotas may evolve, it can help to proactively identify the expected quota range to identify suitable candidates.
  • Self-sourced Deals: Is the candidate responsible for sourcing some or all of their deals?

Incorporating these essential questions into the initial steps of building a candidate profile will enable you to identify the ideal sales professionals with the competencies and capabilities required to succeed in the unique sales environment of your organization.

Putting Your Ideal Candidate Profile into Practice

Job Descriptions

Ideal candidate profiles can help you create well-written job descriptions that attract the candidates you seek. After all, the more you know about the suitable candidates for the position, the easier it will be to create a compelling job description. The descriptions should include various information such as competencies, hard skills, soft skills, job duties, and any other vital traits and skills your ideal candidates should possess.

Competency Interviews

Next, use your ideal candidate profile to help you structure competency interviews. These interviews assess a candidate's suitability for a role by honing in on specific competencies or traits required for success in the position. Structured competency interviews involve asking targeted questions based on a candidate's past experiences and performance to evaluate these competencies.

Questions should follow a structured format, such as "Tell me about a specific time..." or "Give me an example of a time…” The situations referenced should relate to the competency being assessed. Avoid assuming the answer in the question.

Finally, know that less is more. You don’t need to ask 10+ questions to assess the desired competencies. In fact, more questions can lead to poorer results as it leaves less time to ask in-depth follow-ups. Instead, focus on three to four core questions per 45-minute interview.

Scoring Rubric

Once the competency interview is completed, you need an effective way to assess those answers. A scoring rubric is a valuable tool to evaluate critical success factors for a role, including competencies. A key point: the rubric should be used to assess the candidate’s overall performance against goals and competencies instead of analyzing individual answers. Why?

First, concentrating on individual answers can be distracting for interviewers. When interviewers are preoccupied with assessing the quality of each response, their attention is taken away from the overall flow of the interview. This could cause the candidate to have a poor experience.

Second, evaluating individual answers might inadvertently favor candidates with top-notch interview skills rather than those with the specific competencies required for the role. Outstanding communication skills during an interview may not necessarily correlate to on-the-job success.

Finally, constantly scrutinizing individual responses can create a judgemental, uncomfortable atmosphere for candidates. This atmosphere has the potential to affect the authenticity and openness of the interview, making it challenging for candidates to showcase their true potential.

Following a balanced approach that emphasizes assessing candidates against overarching goals and competencies will help to ensure a fair, effective, and authentic interview and hiring process.

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