Are You Hiring People Wired For Sales?

Peter Smith, executive vice president of brand development at diamond manufacturer Leo Schachter & Co., has some hard news for hiring managers: You can’t train a salesperson whose brain isn’t already wired for selling. 

The jewelry-industry veteran, whose past gigs include sales and operations stints for Tiffany & Co. and Hearts on Fire, recently penned a book on the subject, Hiring Squirrels: 12 Essential Interview Questions to Uncover Great Retail Sales Talent, to help retailers suss out candidates who possess the innate ability to sell.

We asked Smith to share some of his best tips for staffing up smartly.

JCK: Why did you want to write this book? 

Peter Smith: I did work with Caliper Talent Management over a five-year period—testing sales professionals within retail stores. What we found is 58 percent of people working retail shouldn’t be in any sales job. We’re really talking about people whose fundamental wiring is at odds with the wiring needed to be successful in sales.

JCK: What are some common mistakes hiring managers make when choosing candidates?

Smith: Putting too much emphasis on pedigree and experience. The great misnomer is “I should get someone with experience.” The great myth is that we can train people who aren’t wired for sales. And the reality is that we cannot. You cannot train drive, empathy, and resilience—the three traits you need to be a good salesperson.

Managers usually sit down and make safe hires—people they like and get along with. And the very people who move the bar and who are the most persuasive make you a little uncomfortable.

JCK: Tell me more about the three traits inherent in good salespeople.

Smith: Whatever the person has done in their life, whatever education they do or don’t have, if they have drive, they have a very important and essential ingredient to be successful in sales. That’s not something you can train. Empathy is also critical. If you cannot listen, you’re not going to be very successful in sales. It’s an absolute essential characteristic in sales. 

The third is resilience. Statistically speaking, you’re going to hear more rejection than acceptance in sales. I had occasion to fire someone around 10 years ago, and I was so frustrated at having to go that route because he had all the appearances of what we understood to be the right tools—a solid work ethic, experience. I thought, Why isn’t he getting it? I understood 10 years later, when we were playing golf and he was beating himself up about how he was playing, that he didn’t have the resilience for sales. When I’d go out on the sales floor at Tiffany and there would be a customer there, I’d see him stacking Rolex watches behind the counter. He was doing anything he could not to sell. I often talk about Ted Williams in his best season of major league baseball—he failed six out of 10 times when he went to bat. What defines him and great salespeople is the expectation that they’ll get a hit every time. They don’t like to hear rejection, but great salespeople do not define themselves by hearing “no.” They understand it. They use it as a learning exercise.

Courtesy Peter Smith

Hiring expert and retail veteran Peter Smith

JCK: How can managers ferret out these traits during the interview process?

Smith: Look closely at the résumé. Is it real, and does it accurately reflect his or her experience? Even though I’m a strong advocate of hiring people without experience, what in that résumé indicates they will be good for what I’m looking for? Look at bartenders and schoolteachers. Statistically, about one in four people in the general populace have wiring for sales. 

Also, consider your culture. At the end of the day, they still have to work in your culture. If you’re looking to change your environment to much more of a performance-driven culture, but your compensation rewards mediocrity and it’s more important to you that everyone gets along, seeking to change the dynamic of your personnel is at odds with how you live. You need to understand that.

One question in the book is “Tell me why you’d be good in sales?” What you want to hear back is not “Because I like people.” You want to hear, “There’s a certain competitiveness in me.”


JCK Magazine Editor