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How to hire the A Team enterprise sales guys May 2, 2014

Posted by Bernard Lunn in Deal-making, Enterprise Sales.
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This is # 8 in a serialized book called Enterprise Sales for the Digital Age, delivered here as 11 blog posts. You can get value from each in isolation, but if you really need to understand enterprise sales, reading the whole series is worthwhile.   You can buy an improved version, neatly printed and bound, for $6 from Amazon.  

Note: a version of this post has already been published on ReadWrite.


This is a guide for tech founders of enterprise software startups looking for outside sales guys who will generate $millions annually. This is not for big old vendors or inside sales.

Here are 9 things to look for to find the A Team sales guys:

1. Track record. This is easy with sales guys, you can see how much they sold in past years, but don’t make the mistake of being too metrics driven. Selling a hot product for a big brand in a booming market is relatively easy compared to breaking into a new market for an unknown startup. More importantly, being too metrics driven can blind you to the other attributes. Would you hire a developer simply on how many lines of code they deliver?

2. Passion. Call it conviction if you prefer, but I like the word passion in this context because entrepreneurs talk about the need for passion (for good reason, passion is what sustains you through the tough times). Yet too many entrepreneurs think, when it comes to sales, that they should hire cynical mercenaries who can “sell ice-cream to eskimos”. That may work for big old vendors, but it fails in startups where smart, innovative customers smell the BS and where the team building between developers and sales, based on mutual trust and shared interests, is key to success.

3. Integrity. Here is a bit of timeless wisdom from Warren Buffet. He advises that, when hiring, look for brains, energy, and integrity; but if the people you find don’t have integrity, the other two qualities will kill you. Sorry, there is no magic trick for spotting intgrity. Sure, do background checks, but also be human, trust your instincts.

4. Intelligence. Enterprise sales using disruptive technology is complex, it needs intelligence to understand the nuances of the enterprise needs and how they relate to a rapidly evolving technology. 

5. Empathy. The ability to relate to other people at a human level is essential to sales. This is not a technique, it is a human quality that is probably a mix of genetics and early childhood learning.

6. Great questions. The great sales guys are not looking for a job, they are looking for great products to sell. Do their questions to you reveal an understanding of the dynamics of your market? Are they prepared, have they done their research? Are the questions boilerplate or specific to what you do? What they ask in an interview will indicate what they will ask on a sales call; which segues to point # 7.

7. Listening. Great sales people have two ears and one mouth. If you listen well (really attentively with great questions) the prospect will reveal the key driver for the sale; the rest is easy.

8. Energy. The road is long and hard, you need physical energy. Hire sportsmen who know how to endure pain to win and know that discipline (eg in diet) matters.

9. Ambition. Call it drive if you like. Mix with passion. What is it that makes you bounce out the next day after a crushing defeat?

That’s your checklist. How do you make sure you get these A Team players?

1. Invest your time. Hiring is your most important job. Take the time to interview a lot of candidates; cast a wide net. As a side benefit, interviewing a lot of smart people is a great way to learn more about your market. Spend a lot of face-to-face time with the candidates on your short list. Meet with references (note, meet, not email or phone). Meet with family and friends. 

2. Don’t compromise to “fill a slot”. It may allow you to check that box, but it will create 10 more boxes to check if you get it wrong. Don’t be afraid to delay until you get the best possible person.

3. Use the three months onboarding wisely. All that talk about taking your time can lead to analysis paralysis and speed is of the essence in a startup. Most headunters will give you a three month money back guaranty and a three month probation period in an offer is quite normal. You don’t want to make a hiring mistake, but you have three months to spot if you have made a mistake and then course correct without too high a cost.

4. Focus hard on building a win/win compensation plan. That is, a win for the company and a win for the employee. This is hard to do right. Even good compensation plans get gamed, which is why Buffet’s advice about integrity is so critical. Be generous… but also demanding.

Next post in series.

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