Key Competencies to Consider When Hiring Sales Roles

Written by
Lucas Price
September 29, 2023

As a sales leader, the odds are unfortunately against you when it comes to hiring. Nearly half (46%) of new sales hires fail, putting 70% of your annual quota at risk. Of course, you can’t just give up on hiring altogether, and we’ve already discussed that raising or lowering hiring standards to extremes doesn’t work either.

In light of this conundrum, a lot of sales hiring managers tend to go with gut feelings or instinct when interviewing candidates. When doing so, likeability and experience often rise to the top of must-have qualifications. There’s a tendency to overrate these factors, and the problem here is that both likeability and experience can be misleading. Neither is a real competency that can be assessed.

Let’s examine the problem with likeability and experience—and discuss the competencies you should look for instead that are more useful for solving the sales hiring problem.

The Problem with Hiring for Likeability and Experience

The problem with likeability is that it is typically displayed in interviews as someone trying the hardest they can. The people who appear likable may not be as pleasant during an average workday. Conversely, the people who come across as less likable may just be nervous.

But it doesn’t really matter, because likeability isn’t predictive of much at all when it comes to sales performance. It’s great when a candidate is likable in the interview, but it’s more important that they possess the key competencies needed to succeed.

Experience is hard to quantify and even easier to overestimate. Perhaps a candidate comes from a company you admire. They may have different marketing assets, resources for custom work per account, and solution engineering behind them. Maybe that translates into success in the role you’re hiring for, or maybe it doesn’t. It’s hard to know.

A candidate may have few years of experience but possess the acumen and competencies needed to be an A-player on your team. Another candidate may have decades of experience but lacks the expertise you’re looking for. If you start focusing on the wrong experiences during the interview process, it will all be a guessing game about how this candidate will do once they’re hired.

So, how do you know if someone will actually succeed at your company? The trick is to evaluate the candidates against the traits needed to succeed in the role you’re hiring for.

Competencies that Predict Success in Sales

When considering the qualities someone would need to succeed in the role, at the company, and with your buyers, you may need to momentarily remove your rose-colored glasses. Chances are it’s difficult to succeed in the role you’re hiring for. Sales roles are often a lot more challenging than we give them credit for. Honestly assess the challenges so you can identify the necessary traits. If you look at everything from an overly optimistic point of view, you risk missing out on competencies that actually predict success.

You can accurately set the right standard for evaluating candidates once you understand the challenges as well as the traits needed to succeed in the role. The better candidates you can find, the faster they’ll ramp up, the more they’ll learn from customers, and the more insight they’ll share with others on the go-to-market teams. These small differences in achieving better hires will compound over time to make a big difference in your team’s and organization’s success.

Some competencies tend to be useful across lots of sales jobs. Here are some of the traits that may be important in your role:

  • 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.
  • Emotional intelligence: The capability to manage emotions and understand the emotions of others through self-awareness, self-control, empathy, and interpersonal skills.
  • Adaptability: Being flexible and working productively in a changing and dynamic environment.
  • Resourcefulness: The ability to optimize your situation and find creative solutions to overcome difficult problems.
  • Drive: The internal determination to accomplish difficult goals
  • Ownership: Acting like an owner by taking responsibility for your area of responsibility and its dependencies, as well as problems that don't have an owner. The sales leader fights for the right short-term and long-term fix and makes sure the solution is put into place.
  • Achievement: The desire to always strive to accomplish more, holding yourself to high standards, and relishing opportunities to accomplish the most difficult tasks.
  • Curiosity: Wanting to know more about people, situations, and challenges from others and having an authentic interest in learning.
  • Learning agility: The ability to learn new ideas, absorb, adapt, and apply what is learned into productive action or to a wholly different situation.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it is enough to get you started and help you brainstorm other key traits to add.

How to Assess Competencies Effectively

As you assess competencies for success in your target sales role, make sure you’ve done your due diligence and preparation beforehand. It’s one thing to know which competencies are necessary, and it’s another to understand how to evaluate them.

First things first: check your job descriptions. Don’t have any, or has it been a while since you’ve updated them? Start there. These descriptions should include:

  • Specific information about what you expect from the role
  • Key competencies for success
  • Daily responsibilities
  • Expectations for what the candidate will accomplish in the first three, six, and twelve months
  • Background information about your organization’s mission, vision, values, and culture

Next, use the competencies to build a tailored candidate profile. Candidate profiles help hiring managers think through the unique traits and competencies necessary for success in their role. Instead of relying on gut feel or intuition, you can rely on your understanding of what leads to success at your organization and thereby better identify candidates who have what it takes to make a positive impact.

For sales, it’s helpful to consider matters such as geography (inside sales vs. managing a territory), industry expertise, average deal size, deal complexity, and more. (Get the full list of considerations.) It’s also useful to factor in specific character traits, including:

  • Learning agility: To succeed in sales, it’s beneficial to be able to learn quickly and apply new knowledge on the job. Candidates should possess a desire to expand their knowledge and sharpen their skills to adapt to changing customer expectations and market conditions.
  • Adaptability: This character trait is essential for responding to unique customer and industry needs. Candidates should demonstrate the ability to adjust their approach and strategies based on feedback from prospects.

As you refine job descriptions and candidate profiles, leverage competency interviews to truly examine a candidate’s suitability for the position at hand. Competency interviews are used to evaluate whether a candidate possesses essential traits (e.g., resourcefulness, ownership, adaptability) and to what degree. Interviewers can use behavioral questions to better evaluate the competencies required for the role.

What makes behavioral questions different from traditional questions used in interviews (i.e., situational questions)? While situational questions are useful for assessing basic skills, behavioral questions are more useful for examining competencies. For example, when assessing adaptability, an interviewer could pose the behavioral question, “Tell me about a time you adjusted your strategy based on the feedback you received from a lead.” This question allows the candidate to share specific examples of past experiences. You can listen to their answers to determine whether the candidate actually possesses the competencies that apply to the role at hand. They will also shed light on the candidate’s past performance.

In contrast, a situational question might be, “How would you adjust your sales strategy based on feedback from a lead?” The structure of this question asks a candidate to consider what they would do in a given situation. The catch here is that it tends to open the door for great storytelling. Candidates have plenty of room to narrate a fantastic tale, which may or may not be reality.

These types of questions don’t allow interviewers to assess whether they actually possess the given competency or not. After all, you’re not hiring for storytelling. You’re hiring for competencies. So, if you want to measure specific traits that will predict success in the role, ask behavioral questions that will elicit answers about past behavior. Avoid situational questions that just allow excellent storytellers to shine.

A word of advice: when it comes to evaluating competencies, more isn’t necessarily better. In fact, we recommend asking three to five behavioral questions per 45-minute interview. Otherwise, you risk peppering the candidate with nonstop questions and missing golden nuggets in their answers. Instead, stick to a handful of questions that allow you to hone in on the candidate’s abilities.

Likewise, stick to moderation when evaluating individual competencies. Choose the five or so that are most important to you and the role itself. Don’t be afraid to add your own outside of the list we provided that are specific to the individual role or the organization you’re hiring for.

Finally, examine your hiring processes from a holistic point of view. Are they predictable and repeatable? Do you have a playbook to help you identify, recruit, hire, and retain top performers? Prioritize sustainability and do what it takes to raise the talent bar. Learn how a hiring methodology and structured interviewing process can help do just that.

Spot A-players early by building a systematic interview process today.

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