Finding Great Account Executives
How can you find great salespeople?
Great salespeople never have to apply for a job. They receive unsolicited job offers and old bosses stay in touch. Great salespeople are passive candidates, meaning they are not being proactive about changing positions, which means you need a strategy to cater to that demographic vs. using tools like job boards.
I don’t recommend hiring an agency (most work for multiple clients, and might not bring the best candidates to you first) or relying on internal corporate recruiting (most are unused to aggressive cold-sourcing). To generate strong candidates yourself.
- Leverage the Search capability within LinkedIn to source a list of qualified candidates – play with filters like zip code, job title (sales, AE), school, company (identify local companies with large sales teams and quality training programs).
- Screen the search results using details from the candidate’s LinkedIn profile – look for indicators of sales excellence (e.g. president’s club), longevity at former employers (especially telling in a competitive environment that weeds out poor performers), school and major
- Engage with prescreened candidates – if you have a mutual connection, ask for an introduction. If not, find or guess the individual’s corporate email and send a note. Check out a sample message
- Find candidates through your team: the “forced referral” – connect via LinkedIn with all of your sales team members, including recent hires. For each person, go through their connections to pick out local salespeople, then set a meeting (for new hires, once they’ve been on the job a few months) to ask which are top performers, and which they’d be willing to provide introductions for.
What “type” of AE should you look for?
Types of product exposure – different sales reps have experience with different size deals (enterprise vs. SMB), different levels of product complexity, and different industries. Be thoughtful about which context is most important for success at your company, and seek out alignment with that context in candidates’ previous experience.
Types of company growth stage experience – sales orgs, expectations, and support differ significantly at different stage companies. An AE who was successful selling a product at an established tech giant, whose brand every prospect already knew, with the lots of sales ops and enablement support might not be the right fit for an early startup hire.
What’s on the scorecard?
Five traits of great salespeople:
- Coachability – the ability to absorb and apply coaching
- Curiosity – the ability to understand a potential customers’ context though effective questioning and listening
- Prior Success – a history of top performance or remarkable achievement
- Intelligence – the ability to learn complex concepts quickly and communicate those concepts in an easy-to-understand manner
- Work Ethic – proactively pursing the company mission with a high degree of energy and daily activity
Other characteristics to consider for your company’s scorecard (keep it to <10 total): Every company’s formula will be different, other characteristics to evaluate might include preparation, curiosity, competitiveness, adaptability, domain experience, passion, brevity, rapport building, voice quality, technical aptitude, objection handling, convincing, needs identification, closing ability
How can you test candidates?
Use a role-playing exercise that models your buyer context. At HubSpot the setup would be for the hiring manager to play the role of VP of marketing at a software startup who had become a lead assigned to the candidate. The role play will be for the opening call, with the candidate doing light discovery and setting an appointment to discuss needs further.
Once the role play is complete, ask the candidate to self-assess, “Great work, how do you think you did?”. This helps you see how reflective the candidate is, hopefully giving specifics about what they thought they did well, and where they thought they could have improved.
Next, give a little coaching, say something like “In every interview I provide one area of positive feedback and one area of improvement.” The positive feedback strikes a warmer tone to prevent the candidate from believing they’re bombing and freezing up. The constructive feedback allows you to assess whether they can absorb and apply coaching. While you’re giving the feedback, watch to see whether they’re glassy-eyed or taking notes and asking questions. Then, ask the candidate to re-do the role play, applying the coaching. Almost no one nails it immediately on that second try, but look for effort.
Great salespeople quickly gain trust and educate potential customers through the questions they ask. Testing for this begins as soon as you meet the candidate in the lobby—do they start with a question? Have they researched your background in order to reference an observation?
The second test happens during the coachability role-play. Does the candidate lead with great questions, or just “show up and throw up”, regurgitated a canned spiel? Does the candidate ask to uncover specific areas the prospect cares about?
For Prior Success
A history of top performance or remarkable achievement (within and outside sales) indicates passion and competitive drive.
For experienced AEs, ask questions, like:
- When you were an AE at XYZ, how many account executives were there at the company?
- Where did you rank?
- What metric was that ranking based on (bookings, attainment)?
- And that rank is based on the last quarter or all of last year?
- And your references will verify that performance?
For candidates from small organizations, or new to sales:
- Check other activities, like academic performance, class rank, and test scores, and extra-curriculars
- Check how the candidate performed vs. peers in their current/former non-sales role
Not every sales team needs intelligent salespeople, but the ability to learn quickly is especially valuable in fast-growing companies and evolving industries. One way to test for intelligence is to start training during the interview process. I might send training materials on concepts relevant to the product/industry after the first phone screen and ask the candidate to learn them. Then, I would reference the materials during the role-play. When I asked about those concepts in the role of the buyer, I’d be able to assess how well the candidate understood the concepts, and how well they were able to package and communicate them back.
For work ethic
Work ethic can be difficult to assess early on, but observing behaviors during the interview process can be helpful. Did the candidate quickly return phone calls? Did they drive the interview process, or get dragged along?
Behavioral questions can also be helpful:
- Please tell me about your typical work day or work week.
- What are some of your must-do activities?
Common pitfalls to avoid
- Beware big-company salespeople in early hires – this type may not be set up to succeed in a less structured environment. This person is used to weeks of training, well-groomed pitch decks, and formulated sales methodologies.
- Don’t hire just one first AE; hire 2 or 3 – in the early days of building your sales organization, it can be tricky to determine whether a lack of success is a systemic problem, or an individual problem with a single sales people. If you hire multiple and all of them struggle, it’s likely a bigger issue; if only one struggles, it could be an issue with that individual.