7 Traits of Great Salespeople — and How to Spot Them During the Interview

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.


Truly great talent is hard to come by. And, according to Eliot Burdett, CEO of Peak Sales Recruiting, when it comes to hiring salespeople, it is especially difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Burdett likens interviewing salespeople to “peeling an onion.”

“Salespeople are trained and wired to speak in a way they think their prospects —or the people sitting across the table from them [during the interview] — want to hear,” Burdett explains. “Our task as recruiters is to peel those layers and get to the real personality beneath.”

With that task in mind, Burdett offers this list of the seven traits of great salespeople — as well as some advice for determining whether or not the candidate sitting in front of you has these traits.

1. Great Salespeople Are Driven By Success

To be successful in sales, one must be particularly ambitious and goal-oriented. Sales, after all, is a world of quotas and targets.

In order to determine whether or not a given candidate is truly sales-driven, Burdett says interviewers must do away with the hypothetical and theoretical. Don’t ask candidates if they are driven by success; don’t ask them how they view success. Instead, ask candidates for real-life examples of the successes they’ve achieved and the sacrifices they made in order to achieve those successes.

“Often, it’s the size of the sacrifices [candidates have made] that gives us some indication of the degree to which they are driven by success,” Burdett says.

That is, candidates who have routinely made bigger sacrifices in the past in order to achieve sales success — e.g., putting in more hours; chasing new opportunities rather than resting on their laurels; moving across country for the sake of one’s career — are often more genuinely sales-driven than candidates who make small sacrifices or none at all.

2. Great Salespeople Have Confidence — Not False Bravado

A salesperson needs confidence, but it can be difficult during an interview to determine whether a candidate is truly confident, or whether they are simply playing a role, putting on a brave face because they know the interviewer wants to see a brave face.

“Often, we’ll have a bit of fun with a candidate and challenge them [in order to see how confident they really are],” Burdett says. “For example, we might say something like, ‘You say you’re quite accomplished, but I’m not totally convinced that you are.’ A confident person is going to say, ‘Here, maybe I didn’t explain myself properly. Let me walk you through it again.’ People who aren’t as confident, on the other hand, tend to get defensive.”

“It can be surprisingly revealing when you push back a little bit [on a candidate],” Burdett says.

3. Great Salespeople Have the ‘Competitive Fire’

According to Burdett, ‘competitive fire’ is “the fuel that powers salespeople to hunt new business opportunities, cold call, get in front of the key decision makers, and close deals.” It should be obvious, then, that any great salesperson will need such fuel.

Interviewers should be looking to suss out how intense a sales candidate’s desire to win is, and they can do so by asking candidates to back up their claimed competitiveness with evidence.

“Everyone is going to say they love to win and they want to be first,” Burdett says. “Ask for specific examples. I might ask a candidate, ‘If I worked in the cubicle beside you, what would you have done recently that would have made me say you’re intensely competitive?’”

Burdett also says that delving into a candidate’s activities outside of work can also help interviewers determine whether or not a salesperson has the competitive fire. Ask candidates about their hobbies and interests outside of work. If a candidate has the competitive fire, Burdett says, “they don’t just go bowling — they go full-contact bowling.”

While competitive fire is important, Burdett also stresses that companies shouldn’t hire candidates with too much competitive fire.

“You want somebody who is competitive to a high degree, but you don’t want somebody who is so competitive that they are prepared to annoy everyone around them — including potential prospects — in order to win,” Burdett says. “There is such a thing as too much fight.”

4. Great Salespeople Have a Sense of Urgency

Great salespeople are aggressive. They don’t wait for things to happen. They know that “time kills deals,” Burdett says.

One of the best ways to determine whether or not a candidate has a sense of urgency is to pay attention to how they act after the interview.

“[Candidates with a sense of urgency] will follow up quite quickly, and they’ll be seeking some degree of closure. They’ll try to actively determine where they sit in relation to other candidates,” Burdett says.

Candidates who lack a sense of urgency, on the other hand, tend to be relatively silent after the interview or slow to respond to correspondence.

5. Great Salespeople Have a Primal Need to Influence People

A person can only succeed in sales if they enjoy interacting and building relationships with other people. Great salespeople like to be heard; they like to say the right things and influence outcomes.

Burdett’s advice for assessing a candidate’s need to influence people: “See if they appear relaxed, if their smile and handshake are genuine. If they routinely bond with clients, send them useful information beyond what they are selling, or can articulate how they build rapport with prospects to overcome pricing objections, you may have a winner.”

6.  Great Salespeople Are Creative

“In sales, a big part of your job is dealing with obstacles and road blocks,” Burdett says. “The most creative people can figure out how to remove those obstacles and get around those issues.”

Burdett suggests using scenario-based questioning to uncover a candidate’s creativity (or lack thereof).

“Ask the candidate about times they had to develop alternative ways of doing things in order to succeed,” Burdett says. “Give them difficult scenarios involving gatekeepers, price, and budgeting issues, and ask them to brainstorm solutions.”

7. Great Salespeople Are Resilient

Rejection is a routine part of the salesperson’s life.

“People who are resilient don’t worry about hearing a lot of ‘Nos,'” Burdett says. “They know that hearing ‘No’ is just part of the process of getting to ‘Yes.'”

In order to determine a candidate’s level of resiliency, investigate how the candidate handles failure.

“Ask the candidate to talk about their failures and how they later on led to greater success,” Burdett says.

Read more in Interview Tips

Matthew Kosinski is the former managing editor of Recruiter.com.