Shattering the Myth of the Prototypical Salesperson

Although it is difficult for entrepreneurs to break away from hiring the prototypical salesperson, that is exactly what they must do to give their startups a chance to succeed.

My mother has never held a sales career yet she exemplifies the three characteristics that today’s successful salespeople must embody. Her story began when she challenged my grandparents to think differently and convinced them to let her earn her Teacher’s degree. She then became the first woman in the family to hold a full-time job, which she held while raising ten children. She managed to do this in the 1970s in rural Pakistan at a time when many women in the Western world were still fighting to enter the workplace.

In watching the successes and failures of numerous startup CEOs as they built out sales teams, I have developed a strong bias towards hiring for certain characteristics over experience and product/industry knowledge. In the same way that my mother succeeded not only in Pakistan but also in Canada, where she taught herself English and enrolled in night school while raising all ten of us, sales reps win by demonstrating three characteristics: resilience, goal-orientation, and intellectual curiosity. Many CEOs, however, get trapped into hiring the “Prototypical Experienced Salesperson” who has a sales pedigree but may not be the right fit. Even worse, some entrepreneurs foolishly attribute physical appearance as the key characteristics to success in sales — have you ever noticed that many salespeople are attractive females or tall, white males? Hiring prototypical salespeople is almost always a losing strategy. In fact, when it comes to hiring a salesperson, you’re often better off not hiring the salesperson from the successful company with a great product. Anyone can sell a superior product from a well-known company, but it takes a unique combination of skills and characteristics to sell an inferior or complex product from an emerging startup.

Resilience

Salespeople hear “no” far more often than they hear “yes.”

Being told “no” is deflating at best, and at worst, can totally crumble one’s confidence. So you need to have more than just thick skin in startup sales; you need to be able to build relationships with prospects — even if there’s no probability that they will buy your technology in the near future. Successful salespeople are not only accustomed to hearing “no” but also understand how to move forward once they’ve been turned down.

When screening for resilience in a candidate, look for a salesperson who has succeeded in selling an inferior or unknown product. This is especially important if you’re looking to make your first sales hire, because the first salesperson will face more rejection than anyone else you hire.

Goal-Orientation

People with a singular focus on achieving their goals are often superstar salespeople. Think of a salesperson as an Olympic hurdler: a hurdler’s end goal is 110 meters away, but to get there, she must overcome 10 hurdles along the way. Each hurdle jump brings a jolt of excitement and adrenaline that she quickly replaces with preparation for the next jump. In my experience, great salespeople also crave the adrenaline rush of jumping over hurdles (i.e. hitting sales cycle milestones) before signing that all-elusive MSA!

Goal-oriented salespeople thrive when you let them loose on the target market with stretch — but achievable — goals and appropriate financial incentives. If a salesperson is truly goal-oriented, you will not need to steer her with structured outreach plans and messaging templates; she will immediately start working towards her goals. Truly goal-oriented people obsess over their goals day and night, and work tirelessly to achieve them — they are simply wired that way and they don’t know how to be any different. Needless to say, these people must also have a strong moral fiber. Salespeople who cut corners or are dishonest may be goal-oriented, but they won’t do your startup any good.

To screen for this skill, find out how a salesperson has performed against her quotas, overcome obstacles in personal and professional life, and set a track record for achieving stretch goals in all aspects of her life.

Intellectual Curiosity

Intelligence can be divided into two equally important quotients: Emotional Quotient and Intelligent Quotient. In salespeople terms, EQ is often confused for charm, good looks, and presentation skills while IQ is also confused for charm, good looks, and presentation skills.

I’ve often seen entrepreneurs overcompensate for an above-average EQ and ignore the IQ altogether. But in my experience, the strongest and best salespeople have significantly above-average EQs and significantly above-average IQs: a deadly combination that gives them natural intellectual curiosity and a knack for creative problem-solving. Another way to think about this is that while you need interpersonal skills to warm up a cold lead and develop a relationship, you need the IQ to figure out the key pain points of the customer, challenge him as needed, and design the right solution. Finally, you need to help the client solve his problems intelligently on an ongoing basis while carefully balancing customer needs with the startup’s priorities. If your product is particularly complex or you’re trying to find product-market fit, your salespeople must be some of the smartest people in your organization.

To identify salespeople with high IQ & EQ, look for individuals who express curiosity and an aptitude for learning. Educational pedigrees, unique hobbies, and an ability to converse about a wide range of topics are true tells of intellectual curiosity. Intellectually curious salespeople are always looking for opportunities to learn — about their customers, their markets, their industries, and their products. A prototypical experienced salesperson may know a specific industry inside out, but unless he can evolve at the same rate as the product, his knowledge will stagnate as your product grows and the market shifts.

In today’s hyper-competitive selling environment, thousands of vendors are vying for a few executives’ attention at Fortune 1000 companies. Long gone are the days of a talkative, charming, coin-operated, swindling car salesperson who is only interested in maximizing his commission by selling you an SUV when you only needed a sedan. The salespeople who will earn these executives’ attention and trust are resilient, goal-oriented, and naturally curious. If your salespeople have the unique combination of these three traits, your salespeople will become your best ambassadors.