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How to Spot a Potential Star Salesperson: "Six qualities of superstar salespeople"
By Dave Kahle   Printer Friendly Version

Want to make your job much easier? Want to look like a hero to your boss? Want to make the best single decision you'll ever make as a sales manager?

Then hire a superstar salesperson. A superstar will bring you such a treasure of powerful benefits that your single act of hiring a superstar will be the best business decision you'll ever make. First, a superstar will require very little of your management or supervisory time. A superstar spends a great deal of time thinking about his/her job, figuring out how to do it better. He's driven to succeed, and will work hard and smart in order to do so. The best management strategy with a superstar is to give him/her room and stay out of the way. That means you can spend your time with the other sales people who need it.

A superstar will be far more sensitively aware of his (and your) customer's needs and objectives. Whereas your other salespeople may miss some of the more subtler clues about what is going on in the market and within your customer's minds, your superstar will be acutely aware of them. They become one of your best sources for accurate market information, bringing you the information you need to make adjustments in your strategy.

And then, of course, your superstar salespeople will sell! It's not unusual for one superstar to produce as much as two or three of your more average performers. And, after all, isn't that what you hired him for?

So, hire a superstar, and your life gets much easier.

But, unfortunately, the 80 - 20 rule holds true in regards to salespeople. Twenty percent of your salespeople produce 80% of your volume. That's one out of five. But that rule only defines a "good" salesperson. We're concerned about a superstar.

Author Richard Gaylord Briley has articulated a similar principle, the 5/50 rule. He asserts that 5% of the people in the world produce the affluence and prosperity for the other 50%. If that's true, then you need to find the one of 20 salespeople, the elusive five-percenter, who is your next superstar.

So the question is: "Is there a way to spot those 5% during the interview process?" Above and beyond the normal standards and qualities, is there a quality or combination of qualities that every star salesperson has in common, regardless of the business or industry?

After having interviewed literally thousands of potential salespeople, and after having hired and supervised many of them, and after having trained them and worked beside them, my answer is "YES." There are certain qualities that every star salesperson possesses.

If you can identify these qualities in a prospective salesperson, regardless of the industry you're in, than you can spot an individual who will bring you a great return on your investment.

Before we discuss them, let's consider what qualities are generally not important. In most industries, physical attractiveness is not a primary consideration. It's nice if your salesperson is attractive, and it will help him/her in their initial contact with prospects, but it's not necessary. Too often, sales hires are made on the basis of how the prospect looks -- and that's often a mistake.

Probably the most overrated factor is that of "product knowledge." More business people make decisions about hiring salespeople based on the amount of product knowledge that person has than any other single factor. Product knowledge is nice, but it's not necessary. Knowledge is just that, knowledge, and it can be gained. If you have learned something about your product and your industry, so can someone else. So, it's nice that a prospective salesperson has product or industry knowledge, but it's not an indicator of success.

Here's an example. Year ago, I was hired for a sales position by a company that sold surgical staplers. I knew nothing about surgical staplers, nothing about surgery, nothing about medicine, and nothing about doctors, nurses, and hospitals. Yet they hired me, not for what I knew (or didn't know), but for who I was. And in six weeks of training, I had sufficient knowledge to walk into the operating rooms of the biggest hospitals in the state and provide technical assistance to the surgical team.

Now, I can think of no other situation where knowledge was as critical as that one. And six weeks previous to that I had none of the necessary knowledge. Yet I became very successful for that company in spite of my lack of product and industry knowledge.

Here's the key to spotting and hiring a superstar salesperson. Don't be sidetracked by what he/she knows relative to products or industries, and don't be blinded by how he or she looks. Instead, concentrate on who he/she is.

These six qualities of character that mark superstar salespeople of any industry all describe who they are, not what they know.

Let's consider each one.

The first on my list may surprise you. INTEGRITY.

That's right. Integrity. According to the dictionary, integrity is "uprightness of character, probity ( virtue tested and confirmed), honesty."

I believe that this "tested uprightness and honesty" ought to be the first quality we look for in salespeople. From time immemorial, people have appreciated and wanted to deal with honest people. That holds true today.

Put yourself in the place of your potential customer. Or, look at your behavior when you are the buyer, not the seller. Don't you appreciate an honest vendor? Aren't you drawn to the supplier who you know will treat you honestly and fairly? Fast talkers will come and go. Hard closers will get some business and create some ill will, experts in product knowledge will help us understand, but the thing that draws us to do business with a person, more than anything else, is that person's integrity. We know that we will be dealt with fairly and honestly.

So, if it's integrity to which we are attracted when we are purchasing something, doesn't it make sense that our customers and prospects will also be drawn to a person of integrity? That's the first, and most important reason for looking for integrity in our future salespeople.

But there are some other more selfish reasons, too. For instance, if you hire someone of integrity, you can feel certain that person will deal with you, as his/her employer, with integrity also. And that means that you can expect honest representation of your product and company, that you won't have to worry about shoddy or corrupt dealing ruining your reputation, and that your concerns for bribery or unethical maneuvers are gone.

So, the salesperson with integrity has a quality that draws people to him, and that makes your jobs as managers much easier.

The second quality that every successful salesperson needs is a HIGH ENERGY LEVEL.

Whether we like it or not, it is still true, and probably always will be, that sales is, to a large degree, a numbers game. Every sales person must see a certain number of people in order to sell one. Or, he must call on an account a certain number of times before he begins to do business with it.

So, the element of quantity is very important to a successful sales person. Given two salespeople of equal skills, experience, intelligence, product knowledge, etc., the one who works the hardest will be more successful.

There is no substitute for hard work. And in sales, hard work is often defined by quantity of effort. Sometimes, the difference between one sales person being successful and another being unsuccessful comes down to quantity of sales efforts. And, the quality of character that is at the foundation of hard work, of high quantity efforts, is the quality of HIGH ENERGY LEVEL.

We are all different in our metabolism and physical make up. Some of us are content to lay around every Sunday afternoon and watch sports on TV, while others are out painting the house, jogging, or golfing. The difference is energy level. Some of us just have a lot of energy to burn. And that energy often translates itself into our work.

The high energy person is the one who will make that first call a breakfast meeting at 7:30, and schedule a sales call at 4:30 the same day. While the low energy person will make his first call at 8:45, the last at 3:00, and won't make it out of the office past noon on Friday.

One word of caution. It's certainly possible that a high energy person will direct his excess energy into avenues other than his/her work on your behalf. For example, one high energy person might put in his forty hours, and then invest another 20 - 30 hours in an outside interest like coaching children's sports, church work, etc. So it is possible for that energy to be directed outside of the job. But, without that high energy level to begin with, there is no possibility of it being directed toward work. The first step, then, is to spot the high energy person. The second step is to help him/her direct that energy toward work.

The best way to predict how great will be the volume of sales calls made by your prospective salesperson is to rate his/her existing energy level. The higher the energy level, the more likely the person is to make more sales calls. And, to some degree, more sales calls mean more sales.

Here's an example. I was called to work with a client's salesperson who wasn't producing to the degree that the client wanted. My client felt that the salesperson had everything necessary to succeed. In his opinion, that meant a great deal of product knowledge, a motivation to be successful, and a manner that made him easy to talk with. But the numbers weren't there.

I was engaged to identify the problem. I spent one day with the salesperson, and the answer was obvious. Low energy. The salesman started late in the morning, lingered over every movement, and stretched every call out twice as long as it should have been. He stopped for three breaks during the day, took a long lunch, and ended early. All together, his low energy level meant that he actually managed about half of the sales calls he should have been making. The result? An unproductive salesperson, and a costly investment for my client.

So, HIGH ENERGY LEVEL, is one of the foundational qualities of the successful sales person.

The third quality necessary for superstar success in sales is the ABILITY AND PROPENSITY TO LEARN.

I'm not talking strictly about acquiring knowledge in the sense that one learns in school. For the successful salesperson, the ability to learn means the ability to evaluate a situation, and then to modify or make adjustments in his/her behavior as a result.

In today's environment, there are a number of areas in which a good salesperson must continually be inquiring, learning, and changing his/her behavior.

The first of these is his/her own sales skills. Sales is an area of endeavor where a person is never as good as he/she could be. There is always some skill that can be learned or enhanced. The successful salesperson never considers himself or herself to have arrived, but is constantly looking for ways to refine and enhance his/her sales skills. It's a lifetime learning process.

Then there is product knowledge. In addition to sales skills, today's fast-paced technology means that new products, new applications, and new technologies are entering the market at record rates. To keep up with all of this, the salesperson needs to be able to quickly understand the technical nature of new products.

But most importantly, the salesperson must learn how to change his behavior to meet the needs, drives, and personalities of his customers. The successful salesperson is a chameleon. He/she changes his behavior and, to some extent, his personality, to meet the ways in which different customers want him to behave. It is the ultimate business application of the golden rule: Do unto others that which you would have them do unto you.

The operative rule for a salesperson is this: Treat others the way they want to be treated. This means, first, being perceptive to the way different people want to be treated, and, second, adapting their behavior to that expectation.

That takes the ability and propensity to learn. That takes people who can be perceptive, who can think about their past actions and the responses those actions stimulated, and then change and adapt those actions.

Picture the mouse in a maze. The mouse who can learn from his actions only bumps into the dead end once or twice. The next time he tries turning to the right to avoid the brick wall in his path. While the mouse who can't learn drives again directly into the wall blocking his path.

That ability to assess a situation, to consider the affects of his behavior, and to change that behavior based upon the personalities and intricacies of each situation, requires the ability to learn.

And that's the third characteristic of the successful salesperson.

Number four on the list of necessary qualities is the ABILITY TO BUILD POSITIVE BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS. Sales is, more than anything else, the activity of developing relationships with quantities of people which result in those people trusting the salesperson, feeling positive feelings about him/her, and believing the things he/she says.

So, the successful salesperson is the individual who can quickly build trusting relationships with all sorts of people. That requires empathy, the ability to listen, perceptiveness, and the ability to mold himself/herself into the kind of person the prospect needs.

Those are relationship-building skills. And the most successful salespeople are relationship builders.

I often have eliminated prospective salespeople during an interview when they interrupted me too many times, or weren't sensitive to what I was communicating to them during the interview. If they weren't good at building a relationship with me, they certainly were not going to be able to build relationships with customers.

A side thought -- many of the most successful salespeople I have known have had negative personal relationships. Sometimes salespeople can readily build business relationships which turn into friendships, but are unable to build strong relationships in their personal lives. On the other hand, some people who have very strong personal relationships with their spouses, children, and friends, are unable or unwilling to build good business relationships. The characteristic that defines a superstar salesperson is the specific ability to build good business relationships.

Your job, as a prospective employer, is to find that ability to build those kind of relationships -- to build trust, to have people feel that the salesperson is personally interested in them, to have people believe in them and in what they're saying. That is one of the abilities which sets apart the mediocre from the great salespeople.


Psychologists have long known that people tend to live up to their image of themselves. We all understand that.

Every one of us can think of individuals in our own lives who have lots of ability and potential, but who never live up to that potential because of their poor self-image.

Somewhere, usually in their childhood, they developed a poor self-image, and began to think of themselves as incompetent, unable, or unworthy. This view of themselves colors all of their actions as an adult, and they live out a self-fulfilling interior prophecy.

That psychological truth of human behavior applies to salespeople also. It's just that it is sometimes more subtle and hard to assess.

For example, we've all heard stories about the $20,000 and the $60,000 salesperson. Put a salesperson who has made $20,000 into a territory that produced $60,000 in commissions, and he'll eventually bring it down to $20,000. Put the $60,000 salesperson in a territory that produced only $20,000 of income, and he'll eventually bring it up to $60,000.

While this example may be a little extreme, the point it illustrates is, nevertheless, true. Salespeople tend to live up to (or down to) their image of themselves.

I remember one of the first salespeople I hired. He had everything -- intelligence, experience, ability to create profitable business relationships, and even some appropriate product knowledge and experience. And, he had been in a couple of unfortunate situations in his past jobs, and needed the financial success that came with the opportunity I was offering. I saw that as providing the necessary motivation to succeed.

But, what I hadn't counted on was his self-image. While he had all the necessary ingredients, and while he had reason to be motivated and work very hard, he also had an image of himself as a failure -- someone who could never shake that bad luck and economic hardship that he saw as his lot in life. He found a way to fail. And, within six months, the territory was vacant again.

Remember, while self image can be changed, it's a long and difficult process with no guarantee. So, like so many other traits, it's much easier to hire someone with a positive self-image of success, then it is to create that in a person after he/she's been hired.

The sixth and final quality is the most difficult to spot, and the quality which drives all the others to optimum use -- PERSONAL MOTIVATION.

The best salespeople all have within them a drive to excel.

All of us are motivated at one time or another by different things. And as sales managers and business owners we're aware of the need to motivate our employees, especially our salespeople. So we provide money, trips, bonuses, recognition of all types, fringe benefits, profit sharing, stability and security, involvement in decision-making, etc., as exterior means of motivation. By "exterior" I mean motivation that comes from outside the person, that is directed or provided by someone or something else. And, depending on the person and the circumstances, all of these work to some degree or another.

But that's not the kind of motivation I'm talking about. The star salespeople are relatively unaffected by the presence or absence of any of these exterior factors. Their motivation, their reasons for getting up at 5 AM instead of 6:30, for making that extra call at 4:30 on Friday afternoon, for taking that sales training class on Tuesday evenings, for thinking about that little account that nobody else wants, etc., is an interior, personal drive to succeed, to be the best, to excel.

The best salespeople are beyond the reach of all these programs of exterior motivation because they march to the beat of an internal drum, an inherent hunger for success no matter what the circumstances.

It's that internal motivation that lights the fire that distills all the other qualities. And that drive to succeed is far more potent than any of the other qualities. Given a strong internal motivation, I believe that sooner or later the individual who is driven to success will succeed. It's only a matter of time.

Now, couple that internal drive with an ability to learn, an image of success and achievement, a high energy level, personal integrity, and add the ability to create strong business relationships, and you have the ingredients of a superstar salesperson.

One additional thought. I have been writing about these qualities as if they exist in an either/or mode. Either they have integrity or they don't. Either they have the ability to learn or they don't. The truth is that, as with any quality of character, these are resident within a person in various degrees. It's not a matter of having these qualities, its a question of to what degree they have them.

One of the best ways to judge this is to make up a simple 0 to 10 scale for each of these six qualities. Then rate your prospects along that line in each of the areas. For example, You might rank one prospect a 7 in integrity, a 5 in energy level, a 6 in ability to learn, a 10 in relationship building, and a 4 in personal motivation. This will give you some way to compare your perceptions of a number of prospects, while keeping you focused on these important qualities.

And should you find a perfect 10, hold onto your hat, because he/she's going to make it interesting and profitable.

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