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How to Become Perfect in Hiring Top-Producing Salespeople with Dr. Christopher Croner

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

This interview is a transcript from Inter:views, Cracking The Entrepreneurship Code, with Dr. Christopher Croner, Principal, SalesDrive LLC. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Christopher Croner, Principal, SalesDrive LLC

Salespeople are critical to a business’s success, but many entrepreneurs make hiring mistakes. They select candidates based on how well they interview but often end up with people who don't work out in the field. Hiring people who are passionate about your product and organization, who will stay with you over the long term, and who have a high level of technical expertise is essential.

The key to picking a successful sales candidate is not just ensuring they interview well--it's personality traits. So, what personality traits are shared among the best performers?

Christopher Croner, Ph.D., is a Principal with SalesDrive, a cutting-edge sales management consulting firm. He developed the SalesDrive assessment system, including the Drive Model of salesperson motivation. Using this system, he has helped numerous companies to hire and develop top-performing salespeople.

I often hear entrepreneurs saying I'm not good at sales, I don't understand what selling is about; I'm not good at convincing people. Tell us, what is selling for you?

In one sense, it's the active exchanging of goods or services for another item of value, money, but that's one side of it. But it's also the art of communicating; as my business partner, Richard Abraham, would say, anyone who communicates for a living is selling. So again, if you're communicating an idea and getting someone to accept that idea, you're also selling.

So, it's a broad term, but whether exchanging an item for something else of value or communicating an idea, it takes a certain amount of certainty and the value you have to convey. And it's having that certainty and that nerve to go out and do that effectively. And I think that leads to those who are more successful in sales having the success that they do.

It's that sense of, I'm going to go out, I'm going to communicate the value of this item that I have, and I'm going to therefore succeed in exchanging it for something else of value. And we're going to do that effectively. And again, when done consistently, that is the lifeblood of any company, especially for an entrepreneur.

You're talking about a certain amount of certainty to have. Is that one of the common issues you see when it comes to recruiting salespeople, a lack of certainty?

It certainly can be. Yes. Again, one of the challenges that salespeople often have, or that business owners have, particularly entrepreneurs when they're starting out, is they're working with candidates who look great in the interview and express certainty because they want that job. You know, they communicate things very well, but thereafter, they may not have that certainty that one needs, for example, when doing an activity like cold calling. If you ask your salesperson to get on the phone and make those cold calls, call someone, essentially get the door slammed in their face, and sometimes have to knock on the next door with that much more certainty and passion, and conviction.

Psychologically, that's an exceptional person who can do that and have that resilience. So that's part of that certainty, being able to be knocked down and then stand up again and say no; that was one example, but I know that I'm a 50% shooter. I know that the next shot is definitely going to go in. So that's that certainty, that sense of, I know what I have is of value. I know it's just a matter of communicating that to enough people. The law, large numbers will win the day.

What are the common patterns you see companies or your clients having when it comes to recruiting salespeople?

They start out with the attitude of what it is that leads somebody to succeed in sales. And if you ask the average person what it is that leads somebody to succeed in sales; they're going to say things like, oh, the person needs the gift of gap, or they need to be persuasive. They need to have excellent relationship skills. Or, when I'm interviewing someone, I want somebody who will be likable. So, what do they do? They do the best they can. They sit down with a candidate; they talk with them about their previous experience; the candidate has their canned speech, then the hiring manager wants to determine whether the person is going to be likable or whether they're going to have good relationships skills, or whether they know how to sell well.

Whether they can sell is very different than whether they will sell. And most often during the interview, someone can probably do their best to determine whether that candidate can sell, you know, sell me this pencil, you know, they do the best that they can, but they don't determine whether they really will. So that candidate sits down, says all the right things in the interview, and sometimes the best sale you ever see out of that person is during the interview process. Then six months thereafter, a year thereafter, you're left asking, wait a minute, what happened to that person whom I interviewed? Where did that person go? And that's the challenge.

The biggest challenge they come to us with is that one of the questions they'll be asked at the beginning of a call is what led you to call us? What led you to have that interest in sales assessments? And they'll say, well, we've made some mistakes. And those mistakes fall into that same pattern again and again, the person looks great in the interview, and again, the entrepreneur's doing their best to pick somebody out who will be successful in that role.

Unfortunately, the match isn't there because that salesperson just doesn't have those underlying, non-teachable characteristics. And again, as an entrepreneur, when you're hiring your salesperson, especially your very first salesperson, you're putting all your hopes and dreams into that one individual that is probably one of, if not the most critical hire you'll ever make, is in that first person.

So, it's absolutely worth spending the amount of time you need to find the individual who's going to be a good match for that role and not to be too enamored, for example, with somebody with a great experience. That's another classic mistake oftentimes entrepreneurs will make, is they'll look for a salesperson, they'll find somebody with a great sale resume, somebody who's been successful, let's say, a huge company who's selling the product that is similar to the one that we're selling as an entrepreneur.

And so, it can be very tempting to say, okay, this person's had all this great experience at this huge company. Surely, they must have had world-class sales training. Therefore, surely, they'll bear that same degree of success for us. But the key question is, what really led to their success? Was it always their own effort, or was it really the fact that in some cases, they had all that brain recognition and collateral material, they're really kind of opening the doors to them, making it much more accessible? Instead, finding someone with experience, maybe two to three years of relevant experience at a similarly sized company, can be better. So, they've had sales 101, especially if you don't have the opportunity to train them, they've dealt with the inherent challenges when they don't necessarily have all the advantages of a large company, and they've done that successfully.

Another element that can cause that struggle, or make it even more challenging, is if you have a relatively new product. Let's say you as an entrepreneur has developed a new product, something that says it has a longer sales cycle, takes a while to move from that first call to the close and requires an establishment of trust, or as a concept that perhaps your clients or your prospects aren't necessarily going to be as familiar with. Now you have a situation where you really need an evangelist. And in that situation, you're always better at finding an individual. We can talk about how to do that, but finding an individual who has the background, who has done that successfully, who has been an evangelist before, and has those three non-teachable traits underneath the service that are essential as a hunter, that combination of that experience, that background, and those non-teachable traits show they have the knowledge. They have the passion to execute that knowledge. Those are the challenges that entrepreneurs typically face when hiring salespeople. And that is what I've found to be one of the best ways to get around it.

In your book, you're talking about David Beckham's drive. Can you tell us what that drive is and how it relates to salespeople?

In terms of David Beckham, we often talk about his drive in some ways related to one of the characteristics we look at optimism at the age of 13; David Beckham's coach told him that he was too small to play football for England. And if you think about any coach saying that to an athlete, that can be very painful. If you think about the age of 13, someone who's a trusted authority says that to you; that can be especially painful because that's like being stricken down by someone whom you look to as an authority figure. And in many cases, people would go home, and they'd be hurt by that crushed and say, okay, well, maybe this isn't a career for me.

And now that had to be a big moment of decision, that person, you know, am I going to take this word and say, okay, I'm going to go off and do something else, or am I going to double down? Will I take this as a challenge instead of a permanent rejection? And he took it as a challenge. He took that negativity and said, no, I'm going to prove that I can do this. I'm going to prove that I can play football for England. And rather than a setback, that became a hunger for him, that became part of his drive, that hunger.

And you see that pattern a lot. You see it in athletes like Michael Jordan; I think he didn't make the varsity team his sophomore year. So, he had to go to junior varsity. And rather than, again, many people would be impressed with going into junior varsity, but he said, no, I want to make varsity. And because he couldn't do that, that became his fuel.

It's that mentality of, okay, I'm going to get knocked down, but I won't let that hurt me. I'm not going to let that be the thing that stops me. I'm going to let that fuel me. And if you think about it, that's an exceptional person. As I mentioned, the person who is in sales can get knocked down, stand up again, and knock on that next door; that's a very rare trait.

When it comes to sales, that's often the challenge people have because it's often natural for a prospect to want to say no. Because, again, they don't know you. They don't know the product. They will be resistant in many cases to what you're bringing forth. And as a salesperson, it can be very tempting, particularly when you're starting out to hear that no and think, okay, well, that's it. This is a permanent no. Whereas someone with a slightly different mindset can take that no, and come back and say, well, how about now? So that's one of the things that the most successful salespeople can do, stand up, dust themselves off, return to that same prospect, and keep trying again and again till they can communicate the value successfully to that person.

Can you give us one or two examples of practical things that entrepreneurs can do to find the drive in people?

Number one is identifying what does it mean? We know the drive is essential. What does it mean for a salesperson to be driven? As I mentioned, looking at the research that's been conducted over the last 85, 90, and 100 years now, as well as our own work, we find there are three key non-teachable characteristics that tend to lead to success. Time and time again, particularly for a hunter, someone must go out and bring in new accounts.

The first one is what we call the need for achievement. That's the person who wants to do well simply for the sake of doing well, who's constantly focused on setting the bar high, jumping over that, putting it higher again the next time, and pursuing, and this is important, excellence just for the sake of excellence, that characteristic need for achievement. People have to wake up every morning and make it happen. There's nobody standing over them watching them, particularly, as you can imagine, as companies have to hire and bring people on board who work remotely; they can't stand over their shoulders all day.

The second piece is competitiveness. The competitive salesperson we find really wants to do two things. Number one, they want to be the best on their team. They constantly compare their performance to their peers because they need to know how they stack up. But number two, they want to win that prospect over from their point of view because, to them psychologically, that sale is kind of like a contest of wills.

And then the third piece is optimism, the salesperson's sense of certainty that they will succeed and their resilience to remain persistent when facing the inevitable rejection that, again, a salesperson has to deal with.

We find it's those three characteristics, then all together need for achievement, competitiveness, and optimism, that psychologically creates sort of the perfect storm. And collectively, we refer to those three characteristics as drive. Therefore, during your interview, you want to keep in mind the best predictor of future behavior is previous behavior in the past to the age of 21 and 22 there's not much we can really do to change the person's overall level of drive. It's kind of either it's there, or it's not.

Candidates will fake that very well. We find that drive is the most difficult trait to assess in an interview and the easiest for a candidate to fake. So, during the interview, you want to ensure you're always asking the candidate about behavior they've engaged in the past at work that reflects these characteristics we would like them to show for us. So, for example, when it comes to need for achievement, one of my favorite questions is, tell me about the most remarkable professional goal you've ever accomplished. Really have the person flesh that goal out and describe it for you. Then you can reflect back to them, and you've got to be proud of that. How do you tend to top it again? The person high in need for achievement has the plan to top it, and they're excited about the opportunity to tell you about it. Or what kinds of sacrifices have you had to make to be successful? What does that person consider to be a sacrifice? Was it maybe they had to work a couple of weekends last year, or was it something more substantial?

Now, compare that to the kinds of sacrifices you've seen your top performers have to make over time. Or we talked about optimism, you know, with David Beckham. Tell me about a time when you were persistent, even though everyone else around you gave up. Now tell me about another time, just giving those consistent examples. Tell me about the last time you were competitive at work. What did that look like to you? If you just asked the candidate broadly, tell me about the last time you were competitive; often, they'll bring up a situation, maybe at the gym a couple of days before, perhaps they were running around the track, and someone started to laugh at them. So they had to run a little bit faster. We always ask you to bring that back to the world of work. What did that really look like at work? And again, we're looking for a candidate that relishes competitions, where even if there's no formal competition, they will try to make one. They need to know how they stack up, if you will, compared to their peers.

Those are the sorts of consistent questions to ask in the interview, considering these are the three traits to look for. And then the best predictor of future behavior is previous behavior.

You are an entrepreneur yourself. What does it mean for you to be an entrepreneur?

Number one, your destiny is in your own hands. That's critical. That's what I enjoy the most. There's nobody else you're beholding to other than your ambition. At the same time, I think it's the most rewarding career path for someone who wants the freedom to find out how much they can achieve through their own planning, through their own execution, and through their own perseverance.

It also means, I think, importantly, being comfortable with uncertainty; to me, this was the thing that I struggled with most. Being comfortable with the uncertainty inherent in being an entrepreneur. So how do you get around that uncertainty? The lack of structure is great and can be terrifying, especially when you're first starting.

So, one of the ways to deal with that, I found effectively, is to have systems in place. Consistent systems are in place to get you the goals that you want so that you can execute those systems. So rather than sitting down each day without a specific plan, having a plan every day, going in with your written goals for that day, and then breaking those down into a consistent system, rather than just winging anything. Just having a constant process in place for everything that you do. Every call you make, every email that you do, every time you sit down, so you're never wasting time, you're consistently executing on a system. I find the more systems you can put in place to realize your goals, the more effectively you can cut through any sense or concern you may have with uncertainty because you both have added the structure for yourself.

Can you share some lessons you've learned throughout your entrepreneurial journey?

I think one of the biggest ones is, and I've heard, I believe Darren Hardy mentioned this. He's a great mentor to entrepreneurs. When you're setting a solid goal and have the top of the mountain that you've set yourself to climb, it can be tempting at the top of the staircase to stare at the top of the mountain and go, wow, it is so high. Stare at the top of that staircase. Wow, that's such a big climb. How am I going to do that? Well, rather than focusing too much on the top of the staircase, focus on the next step. Just that one step. You know, it's a lot of steps to get to the top of the stairs, but you can do one step. You can do one thing that day, focus on that, and then do that the next day, the next day, and the next day. And before you know it, you're at the top.

Number two, again, as I mentioned, break your goals down into consistent systems, daily routines, and habits.

And number three, and this is really important, cultivate an attitude of service and everything that you do when you cultivate an attitude of service, you know, I do that as much as possible with my clients. How can I best be of service to you? When I cultivate that service attitude and encourage anyone else to do the same thing, it puts me in the right mindset to give as much value as possible. And when you give as much value as possible to your clients, you will naturally stand out from everyone else as a service provider whom your client may be considering because you are the one who's giving that consistent value, who's taking that servant attitude, who realizes that it is your privilege to be of service to that person.

I help entrepreneurs stop being the bottleneck in their businesses. So, when was the last time you were the bottleneck? What happened?

One of the challenges for me is the art of delegation. Being able to delegate things to others. I always tend to want to do all the research for a given project myself. I think one of the challenges I personally have is, as someone who started out on the academic side, I get interested in all the details. I get interested in curiosity for its own sake. And so, I'll begin to research something and get stuck in it; that's an exciting idea; how does that relate to this other thing?

You can start spending a lot of time researching an idea and perfecting it rather than delegating it to someone who might be a little bit more mercenary and saying, okay, let's look at this concept, this new say marketing initiative that we want to do; what can we do in terms of making that efficient in terms of gathering the research for it rather than broadly looking at, all the concepts related to say, what would persuade someone effectively, or what's the entire history of marketing around XYZ concept? I think when I start researching something, I can often get fascinated for its own sake.

Now, the benefit to that is that's what led us at the beginning to produce the drive model. That was really the breakthrough that we had that gave us our business idea. You know, what is it that there are so many tests out there? What is it that we could use to differentiate our own assessment? Well, we look at something no one else does, drive. How do we identify that? And it was from months and months of identifying the key characteristics, then testing for them for years, that we really identified and sharpened those up.

So that curiosity has helped me out, but it can sometimes get in my own way. So, it's all about delegating effectively and not getting too wrapped up. I can do that in my spare time.

Now, if you take all your experience as an entrepreneur and before that, what is the one particular recommendation you would give to any entrepreneurs to help them succeed?

Relative to what we said before, keeping that student's mindset, never stop learning. I think that keeps you aware of what other people have done well, their challenges, and how they've overcome them. Sometimes, as an entrepreneur, we talk about that uncertainty; it can feel like you're the first person that's ever dealt with this set of challenges that you're having. No one's ever done this before.

But people have dealt with challenges very similar to those you are dealing with. So, keeping up with a peer group of some kind simultaneously, keeping that student's attitude, you know, you never know it all; you're never there; you can always learn more.

So, keep that willingness to learn and study as much as possible. And there are so many resources out there, but when you keep that mindset, you end up naturally seeking out the wisdom of the people who have made it through or who have done what you've done successfully, or at least in some way, and can give you a roadmap.

And that roadmap, when someone hands you a roadmap, that gives you the confidence to persevere. When you see other people doing well and succeeding in some area, it can give you the confidence to exert that little extra effort as well. When you have a peer group, when you have other people who you can see who is succeeding, that naturally, psychologically, that can spur you on as well, not only to know that yes, you should persevere but also to give you that inspiration to look at, okay, who else has succeeded in this area? What other ideas can I get? How can I seek out a roadmap?

Keep that mindset, be willing to learn, and have a peer group that can help give you the energy to continue to maintain that optimism. Even when challenges are tough, when we look at somebody who is thriving as a salesperson, particularly with optimism, you're typically looking for someone who, even on their darkest day, knows they will be successful.


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