How To Hire Successful Salespeople

Looking to add new reps to your company this year? Seek out people with these characteristics.

Arthur Cooper, the president and CEO of digital marketing firm Optimum7, has over 40 years of sales experience in a variety of industries. Time has passed, business is different, but one thing he believes is still the same. “While the tools and technology of sales have changed, the basic traits of the best people certainly have not,” he says.

Which then begs two questions: What are these traits? And are great salespeople simply born with them? Kathleen Whitburn, a strategic marketing consultant for American Solutions for Business (asi/120075), answers the second question. “Raw traits are genetically and personality driven, but most characteristics are instilled, enhanced and learned from others who have influenced your path in life,” she says. “The key is to understand and utilize them to gain success.”

Now, back to the first question. We polled a list of consultants, authors and ad specialty veterans and asked what traits stand out the most among top salespeople. Here are the eight characteristics they identified.

1. Fierce Ambition
Bruce Ailion, an Atlanta-based realtor and attorney with RE/MAX Town and Country, likes his salespeople to buy large houses and expensive cars. Why? “Some people just want a job and a paycheck,” he says. “Others desire to be the best, to win and to succeed. They are going to produce because they want to keep that house and that car.”

Mike Kunkle, the senior director of sales enablement for consulting firm Brainshark Inc., believes only the most ambitious people are driven every day. “Drive is the fuel for the engine, the spark that ignites them,” he says. “While management can help create the right environment for success, and use rewards and motivation, the drive must already be present in the rep for maximum results.”

Successful sales reps live by the motto, “go hard or go home,” says Adam Honig, co-founder and CEO of Spiro Technologies. “They put their time and effort into closing deals, ultimately putting traditional productivity second to winning.”

2. Willingness to Learn
Early in his sales career, Mike Rodriguez made lots of phone calls and spent countless hours on foot canvassing to dig up leads – almost to a point where he had worn holes in the bottom of his shoes. “I was new to sales, frustrated and broke,” he says. “Then I realized I was looking at things the wrong way. The reason I had holes was precisely because I was working.” The revelation prompted him to want to “get better at sales and buy more shoes.”

Rodriguez recommends salespeople motivate themselves daily, no matter how long they’ve been in the business, by listening to training CDs in the car, watching YouTube videos, taking advantage of online tools and seeking a mentor or hiring a sales coach. In addition to internal sales training calls, Mallory Dempster, a promotional marketing consultant for Top 40 distributor Jack Nadel International (asi/279600), also finds frequent vendor meetings essential to learning more about the product capabilities in order to better sell them.

3. Patience to Listen
Think about it for a second – who is the best listener in the world? Michael Bremmer, CEO of, believes it’s Oprah Winfrey, and it’s not close. “Oprah is the master of listening, and she’s a billionaire,” he says.

Good sales reps talk less and listen more. When interviewing candidates for new sales rep positions at your company, make sure that they ask smart questions, and really listen to what you’re telling them. Also, watch your best reps on sales calls, and gauge how much they’re really hearing what their clients are telling them, says Rodriguez.

“Stop selling too soon and stop providing solutions too early until you understand the client’s pains and needs,” he says. “If you walked into a doctor and he talked at you, didn’t listen and said ‘here’s my diagnosis,’ you would call it malpractice.”

Listening and communicating effectively “helps demonstrate the rep’s level of expertise in their industry, to instill confidence that the client is working with the best in the business and has their best interest at heart,” says Whitburn.

4. Positive Attitude
No matter how much sales reps know about your products or services, it’s difficult to sell anything without the right attitude about work and life. “If they believe in themselves and love what they do, then their energy and passion will emit from their pores. That excitement for success is contagious,” says Whitburn.

Dempster’s energy and passion for music helped her land one of her top clients, a music festival organizer. She was new to the industry, and showed up for the meeting “dressed to the nines” with her factory rep and samples. The eight decision-makers she met with were in their early 20s, wore hoodies and sunglasses and never removed them throughout the meeting. Maybe a little awkward, right?

So how exactly did she win the deal? “They told me the reason they gave me a shot was my energy, and the fact I never let them down,” she says.

5. Empathy
An underrated trait of any great salesperson, according to Kunkle, is empathy. He believes it’s the ability to feel a customer’s pain that leads to a genuine desire to help them. Anything less and the max effort won’t be there. “It’s better to have empathy than to fake it,” he says.

Empathetic people tend to do better at building relationships and engendering trust. It’s this trust that will remain, even when outside pressures like a mixed economy are present.

“Asking questions, building rapport and letting the client know that you care about them can help top sales reps acquire and retain clients even in the face of fierce price and quality competition,” says Amanda Holmes, CEO, Chet Holmes International, a management consulting firm.

6. Tech Savviness
Smart reps use technology to improve their productivity. It’s not a luxury, it’s a must if you want to fulfill your potential. “In the age of SalesForce, LinkedIn, etc., if sales reps want to get traction, they better know their way around technology,” says Marc Haddad, owner and founder of H5 Sports Group. “Gone are the days of attempting to research a prospect by making calls or using spreadsheets to manually chart progress. Thanks to the guys in IT, this and more are available at one’s fingertips.”

Technology has been vital to Haddad’s firm. “We don’t have the budget and resources to outsource,” he notes, so the company takes advantage of the vast information and knowledge available online. One site he recommends is, which offers video tutorials on a variety of business topics.

7. Thick Skin
The world of sales can often feel like a shark tank. Sales stars have to be able to cope with failure and not take rejection personally. “You have to let things roll off your back,” says Dempster. “If you dwell on it, you’re done.”

In order to test a salesperson’s ability to overcome objections, Chet Holmes International always rejects the candidate as the final piece of an interview. “We tell them, sorry, I’m just not hearing superstar,” says Holmes. If the sales rep crumbles, that shows they don’t have what it takes to succeed in sales. If they get up, don’t give in and continue to provide reasons for why they should actually be hired, then they could get a job offer. What they should do is sell themselves. One salesperson responded, “You’re not hearing superstar? Well maybe you’re deaf, because I was the top guy at my last four jobs,” says Holmes.

8. Desire to Engage
Top sales reps genuinely enjoy meeting people, according to Ailion. “If they don’t like people, if they can’t engage with people, then the job is just not for them,” he says. Haddad says that while many salespeople have this trait naturally, it’s a quality that can also be developed and refined. Early in his career, Haddad was a tennis instructor for a Club Med resort. “I was put in uncomfortable situations daily,” he says. “Every week 300-400 new guests arrived, and we had to sit with the guests and start talking.” 

Being conversational with people was a skill he already had, but he believes the  experience honed it. Have new sales rep candidates sit with multiple people at your company before extending a job offer – this way, their social skills can be gauged by people with disparate personalities and outlooks.