I once knew a guy who’d been pretty successful in the development department of a professional orchestra company. He had a professorial, upper-crust air to him, and it was easy to imagine him plying dowagers for donations over tea.

His next job was in agricultural sales. You’d think it would be a disaster. He wasn’t the type to share a chaw over a fence or get his hands dirty changing a tractor tire. But somehow it didn’t matter. Farmers loved him – soft hands, tweed jacket and all.

My blue-blood acquaintance turned out to be really good at understanding what was important to his agricultural customers. But the truth is, I never would have predicted it.

I’ve seen it go the other way, too: Friendly, down-to-earth, empathetic folks who were completely disastrous in sales. People with spectacular resumes and references who turned out to be complete duds.

And try as I might, I just can’t come up with a profile of what makes a successful sales rep. The only way to know is by what they’ve done. Not what they say they’ve done. Not what’s on their resume. But what they’ve really been able to accomplish on the front lines, working one-on-one with customers.

So if you’re hiring reps, how can you tell the real thing from the impostors? One way is by asking them questions that can only be answered by someone who’s been there. Don’t settle for generalities. Ask nitty-gritty process questions: “How many cold calls did you make in a typical week? What percentage led to an appointment? What were the most common objections you encountered? How did you respond?” Real salespeople will have no problem telling you exactly what they did. Impostors will retreat into generalities, or trip over their own stories.


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