How Can You Find Great Sales Candidates?

Maybe you’ve heard the old joke about the salesperson and his boss: “How many orders did you get today?” the boss asks. “Two!” the salesperson replies. “They were ‘Get out’ and ‘Stay out!’ ”

Sales can be a tough way to make a living. People are rarely hoping to hear from a salesperson. The profession is the butt of jokes even worse than the one above. And yet, if it weren’t for the work done by salespeople, many of us would ultimately have little to nothing in the way of take-home pay.

It may be a cliché, but it’s also true: good salespeople are worth their weight in gold. Good salespeople are also difficult to find, and that’s where Michael Ferguson hopes to come in.

He’s the founder and CEO of Rainmakers Inc., which bills itself as the first career marketplace just for salespeople.

Ferguson, who’s founded several other startups in addition to Rainmakers, points to his own experience recruiting and hiring salespeople as a formative moment. Finding the right salespeople was critical to success, and yet the process for connecting and engaging with them was scattershot and inefficient, he says.

“We’re in a candidate-driven market, so companies need to move quickly,” says Ferguson.

Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Ferguson is based, the demand for salespeople far outpaces that for tech talent, he says. “A quick search on a major job board shows there are 65,000 sales jobs vs. 20,000 programmer openings.”

Good salespeople are likely to have offers from several interested organizations, says Ferguson. This means it’s critical to have an accurate understanding of the market to avoid potentially alienating a candidate with a lowball offer, he says.

I recently spoke with Ferguson to learn more about his company and what it does.

What led you to start Rainmakers?

I’ve worked in sales and I’ve hired salespeople. It’s an important role—sales is the only role that directly generates revenue. There are a lot of salespeople—20 million in the U.S. alone, and they switch jobs at twice the rate of other occupations. It’s a challenging role to fill. Sales isn’t just about finding the best candidate, but finding the right candidate. It’s all about what you’re selling, who you’re selling to, the verticals, the industry, types of deals, etc. You also need diverse candidates. I don’t think the standard tools that are out there provide this data, so companies end up wasting a lot of time looking for salespeople. And it’s frustrating on the candidate side as well. They’re in high demand and getting a lot of inbound requests from LinkedIn, but they want to know about the opportunities that are right for them. They want to know what type of selling the job involves: Is it transactional, is it relationship-based? They want to know whether they’d be a good culture fit with your company and what type of sales team you’re trying to build. We want to make it easier for companies to see sales candidates’ profiles and approach them only if they know what they want. There are a lot of sourcing and recruiting tools out there, but none that are really focused on salespeople.

What distinguishes a great salesperson from a merely good, or average, one?

It’s a combination of their performance along with things like emotional intelligence. A good salesperson is able to really understand the customer, feel their pain points and then explain to them how the solution they’re selling can help address those pain points. Another important piece is diversity and gender diversity—that’s a high priority, as well.

What do you tend to look for when you’re evaluating candidates for sales positions?

You start with the baseline—”We’re looking for someone who has this kind of sales style”—along with an understanding of whichever market you’re trying to sell into. From there you move on to culture. Our style is more collaborative, so we look for team players with high emotional IQ who really care about customers. We want people who are well spoken, who are driven and competitive but without massive egos. We have our own screen in which we use questions to suss out the 10 traits we’re looking for in candidates, rate them on that and assign them a score. You also learn a lot from how candidates talk about prior successes: As in, “I got a great sale” as opposed to “I helped this client understand the solution and how it could help them.” Sales is front-line work, talking to customers, so it’s really important that your business brand is well represented. You want high quality, high integrity people.

What are some common misperceptions about salespeople?

People often have that used-car salesman stereotype in the back of their heads, yet the modern salesperson is intelligent, highly educated, analytical and data driven. They are sophisticated individuals. So organizations need to provide the kind of training, resources and community to help those people flourish. There are organizations that want that hard-driving salesperson, but it’s really about the individual organization and what they’re looking for.

What role should recruiters play in getting a sales candidate interested in a prospective employer?

The recruiter is important because that’s usually the first person you talk to from a company and that really sets the tone, and is so important in establishing your employer brand. A mistake we often see companies making is assigning a junior recruiter to interview a passive candidate for a senior-level sales position. Recruiting is like the dating process—you have to sell the candidate on the company early on and explain why they’d be a good fit. So, having a low-level recruiter do an initial screen is, I think, a big mistake. You want someone who can explain to the candidate the sort of training the company has in place, its growth potential—these things are very important for sales candidates.

What are some common mistakes recruiters make when trying to engage sales candidates?

Not having a senior manager, or at least another salesperson, jump on the phone to do the initial call. By the time you bring a candidate onto the call, you should already know whether they’re a decent fit. So, the initial call should be about getting them more excited about the opportunity and taking it from there. They should be spending their time building relationships with the best candidates rather than doing cold sourcing. There are tools for doing the basic screening stuff, so get these folks into the pipeline and then spend time building those relationships.

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