When hiring for salespeople, employers often overemphasize the “sexier” side of things when it comes to screening criteria, both literally and metaphorically speaking. Presentation, personal grooming, and attractiveness all play their part — rightly or wrongly — in determining the perceived credibility and likely effectiveness of a sales candidates. There will undoubtedly be a strong focus on communication skills and the ability to pitch and present persuasively, and on product and industry knowledge as well. These are the glossy factors that many employers use to assess the potential of each sales candidate.
There is one quality – not as sexy as, and certainly far more mundane than, the others – that often goes overlooked in the sales hiring process, in my experience: persistence. It’s not cool, it’s not charming, but studies suggest that it is one of the most crucial factors in determining whether or not a given candidate will be able to sell. The National Sales Executive Association found that just 2 percent of sales are made on the first contact, 3 percent on the second contact, 5 percent on the third contact, 10 percent on the fourth contact, and a massive 80 percent of sales are made on the fifth to twelfth contact. Persistence pays — literally.
It seems that more importance should be accorded to persistence when hiring salespeople. The question is: can employers truly spot persistence? It’s not easy to measure. Any self-respecting salesperson can galvanize themselves to give a sparkling interview pitch in a one-off scenario — they are sales people aren’t they? — but how can an employer know that said salesperson will keep banging out the follow-up calls and meetings on dark, wet Monday mornings when the client is proving evasive or awkward?
It’s clearly not easy to spot authentic persistence in interviews. Most good salespeople will be able to persuade interviewers of their persistence during an interview, even if they are not truly persistent underneath the pitch. It’s also easy to confuse desperation with persistence: a candidate can easily act with urgency in order to get a job and then go right back to their less persistent ways once a paycheck is assured. Persistence is intangible, sometimes conditional, and and always extremely hard to assess.
I think the most reliable signs of persistence are probably found in past behaviors, rather than the smokescreen of energy presented in the interview itself. For, example, I have found at least two articles (one from Fortune and one from Men’s Fitness) that discuss a correlation between career success and endurance sports. The Fortune article shows that endurance athletes (hobbyists) earned significantly more in their day jobs than average. Could the self-driving, goal-setting, highly persistent, and slightly obsessive nature of preparing for endurance sports translate well into the sales follow-up process? I believe it could.
Now, I am not saying that only sports nuts can be persistent sales people — if so, we’d have a very small pool of workers to choose from — but perhaps candidates who have a history of engaging in sports and activities that require relentless dedication and delayed gratification could be the type of persistent candidates best suited for sales roles.
In order to get a feeling for whether or not a particular candidate has the necessary persistence to succeed in sales, interviewers should ask behavioral questions about times when the candidate has set stretch goals at work or in life and how they met their goals through self-drive and persistence. Question should not only address how candidates met their sales targets, but also how they handled turnaround situations that required persistence and determination (e.g., introducing incremental growth to stagnant accounts, rescuing territories through inspiration and persistence).
I think it is crucial to assess persistence in sales candidates, and I’d be interested to know how important you think persistence is to sales and how you go about assessing it.