How to Hire Staff With That Killer Sales Instinct

As a retail manager, would you ever hire someone you wouldn’t want to have anything to do with socially? If your answer is “no,” your sales team may be lacking in killer instincts.

Cultivating a high-performing sales team starts with hiring—and many retail experts say likability ranks too high on the hierarchy of qualities that make up a superstar sales associate.

Assembling a team for reasons other than high performance—including previous experience and general amiability—is a common mistake in retailing, says Peter Smith, author of the hiring how-to book Hiring Squirrels: 12 Essential Interview Questions to Uncover Great Retail Sales Talent. “And the idea that a manager can flip a switch and turn that team into a high-performing unit is simply not realistic,” he says.

“The interview process needs to be one of the first things to change if you want to develop a high-performing team,” he adds. “You have to look for [personal] wiring—drive, empathy, and resilience—and place far less emphasis on experience and likability.” Why? Great salespeople, says Smith, “very often march to the beat of their own drummer. While it’s essential that toxic or unethical behaviors not be tolerated, retail managers should be prepared to deal with some baggage in managing high performers. They are self-driven.”

What if your existing team is largely ineffectual at closing?

Sales trainer/speaker Todd Cohen (Everyone’s in Sales) says rebuilding your sales force from the floor up is usually the only way to ­eventually ­foster a high-performance culture. “The people who are tired and lazy and complacent—you don’t fix those people,” Cohen asserts. “There are two ways you can change culture: internally, which is hard and expensive, or you import it. You decide the kind of person you want…and you start rebuilding.”

Layoffs are unpleasant, but “survival is brutal,” says Cohen. “Aunt Jenny has worked here for 40 years, but her complaining is not going to work. Plus, she hasn’t sold anything in six months.”

Cohen says the key to creating an on-fire sales team is inclusiveness—not just focusing on the golden guys and gals working the showroom floor.

“The accountant, the guy replacing the watch batteries—those people are not allowed to say, ‘Sales? Yeah, not my job.’ They have to understand that every single thing they do, whether they have contact with clients or not, influences the client’s decision to walk into that store. The jeweler in the back who’s a bit of a weirdo? If he fixes a ring and the client is happy, he’s in sales. If the bill’s wrong and the accountant fixes it, the accountant—by not acting like the cable or phone company and actually doing the right thing—aided the sale.”

The top person at the company, Cohen says, “has to live that [ideal] every day. It’s an attitude.”

Smith says there’s often a disconnect between managers looking to build a high-performance team and the understanding that great salespeople are highly valuable.

Owners, he says, must offer compensation—“base, commission, bonuses, etcetera”—that favors high performers. Retention of talent is key in retail, and less-than-appropriate pay structures only serve to drive away star sellers.

“The best salespeople deliver better results,” says Smith, “and they should be compensated accordingly.”


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