The following is a guest post by Inside Sales trainer, Danna Zakai.

Salespeople are such an important entity within a company, that their level of performance can have a huge impact on the company’s success, or even its existence! So when it comes to hiring them, employers aren’t satisfied with salespeople who are just “OK”; they look for loyal, hardworking, motivated, top performing “sharks”. But how do you identify the sharks? How can employers make sure they’re hiring the true “guns”?

Once you’ve got a candidate for a Sales role sitting in front of you at a job interview, failing to ask the right questions can result in either a “bad match” (presuming you hire him and he isn’t really a shark) or a missed opportunity (presuming you didn’t hire him because you failed to identify him as a shark).

In a startup, especially in its early stages, it’s usually the founders who do the hiring, but they don’t necessarily have experience in selling. They might think they do, because they closed a few deals to get the ball rolling, but they have never actually worked in Sales; they’ve never managed a sales funnel or qualified leads month after month. So if their focus has never been purely on sales, how can they know what motivates a good salesperson? How do they know which aspects of the job – no matter how small – are likely to have a massive impact?

If you’ve never worked in Sales yourself, how do you know what questions to ask and what you should be looking for in a great salesperson?

Just as it’s sometimes difficult to predict whether someone will be good at their job in any industry, the same goes for a salesperson. But if you know what questions to ask and which details to look out for before you hire them, you’ll be better able to understand the candidate and identify behavior that’s a clear warning to stay away.

Here are some guidelines to consider when interviewing a salesperson for your startup:

1) Before you start interviewing, you must understand what the position entails so you can provide an accurate job description.
If it’s Inside Sales, that means your salesperson will work mostly inside the office, most likely on the phone, so you must align this expectation to your search and the candidate must understand that this is a big part of the job.

People who are new to Sales – even if they are eager to succeed – are sometimes turned off by the idea of making 50-100 calls per day. One of the reasons for this is that this aspect of the job reminds them of the annoying cold calls they sometimes receive themselves from people they don’t particularly want to speak to trying to sell them things they don’t really need.

Your job when interviewing someone for your sales team is to explain that your product or solution is sophisticated and unique, and brings a great deal of value to your customers. A typical day won’t be about calling random people to annoy them, but rather about speaking with interesting businesses who potentially stand to succeed thanks to your product. A candidate who understand this challenge and is up to the task will probably excel as a salesperson because they’ll approach the job with a commitment to help your customers do better.

2) The first step in the interview should be a phone call.
Speak to your candidates on the phone before you meet with them. If it’s a job that’s mainly done on the phone – the voice, intonation, pace and personality are all important, and much of this can be misread or overlooked in a face-to-face meeting.

When you speak with a candidate on the phone, ask yourself: Do I enjoy speaking with him? Does he annoy me, or do I want more of him? Is his voice pleasant, is his language professional yet warm and friendly? Do I feel a certain connection with him? Does he seem to “get me”? Is he clear? Does he sound intelligent and knowledgeable? Does he beat around the bush, wear me out and make me want to end the call ASAP, or is he interesting and provides me with value? Is talking to this candidate a good use of my time?

Your salesperson should be professional with a touch of both charm and chutzpah. All of these qualities will be felt by your leads and customers.

3) What questions does your candidate ask you? Does he ask questions at all?
A good candidate will want to know about the product, about competitors, about your pricing structures, about the team, about your marketing materials, and of course – about the leads.

Obviously Sales, like any other profession, is quantifiable by the revenue or value generated by the salesperson, so you must be clear about the salary, bonuses and benefits (and by the way, it’s worth your while be generous, especially with the commission structure). However, a candidate who asks over and over again about the money, what car he’s going to get (if you provide one), vacation days, business trips and lunches with customers – rather than about the actual work and goals – should raise an alarm bell about his true focus and priorities.

The questions that a candidate asks can reveal a lot about his approach towards sales. The ideal candidate for a Sales role in a startup should demonstrate through the questions he asks whether he understands that his job is part of a collective effort to build something as a company, and whether or not he’s up to the task.

4) How does the candidate sell himself?
Notice how the candidate sells himself, before, on and after the interview. Does he ask the right questions, is he engaging and proactive, does he know about your product and company, does he follow up after the interview? The level of effort demonstrated by a candidate to sell himself if often a great indication of the level off effort he’ll strive for when managing his sales.

5) Does the candidate fit into your company’s DNA, or the DNA you hope to create?
You’re going to spend long hours with this person, and so are your colleagues and future colleagues, so you need to ask yourself: Do I enjoy this person’s presence?

A salesperson should bring a positive energy into the room, should have creative ideas, helpful insights, and an infectious spark in his eyes.

If he’s junior – he should be trainable and manageable. If he’s already been selling for a while – it’s sometimes ok to have a “lone wolf” who is less of a team player, but brings results, and doesn’t annoy, bully or disrupt his colleagues.

6) Does the candidate bring results… or excuses?
This can sometimes be seen at the interview stage: Is he on time for your calls and meetings? Does he do what he says in regards to a demo you scheduled, references you asked for, or a contract you ask to be sent back to you?

If he is late, doesn’t show up or always has an excuse (and a very convincing one too) – this might be an indication of the way he will handle your customers too. Any company, especially a startup – can’t afford this type of behavior. You need a salesperson you can trust, and so do your customers.

7) Is the candidate “all in”?
Sales is a demanding job. Your salespeople must be dedicated, hardworking and respond quickly to their customers. Yes, a work-life balance is important, otherwise they will burn out fast, but they need to make this job a high priority, so make sure you set all of the expectations clearly and that they understand those expectations before the contract is signed (by both of you). This is an important step for both sides, and it will prevent a lose-lose situation.

8) Junior or senior?
There are advantages to both, and this subject deserves a post of its own, so I’ll just say this: Many startups want the best salespeople in the industry. That’s understandable, but just remember that every superstar salesperson was once a junior with no experience, so if you’re hiring a junior, make sure you train him, and train him well. And bear in mind that what a junior lacks in experience can sometimes be made up for in boundless energy and a hunger to succeed.

If you consider these guidelines when the time comes for you to hire a salesperson (again, a topic worthy of its own post), you’ll be in a better position to identify true sales sharks and choose wisely. The last thing you want is high turnover of salespeople, which will exhaust you, your company resources and your customers.

And two final tips: First, you may want to involve a colleague and possibly even your investors in the interview process, just to make sure that your impression of the candidate is echoed by someone else as well. Also, they may have more experience in hiring than you do so their insights may be valuable. And second, be generous when it comes to compensation. A well-motivated salesperson is one who will generally bring in more leads and secure more sales.

NOTE: Throughout this post I have sometimes referred to a salesperson as a “he” in order to simplify the phrasing, but of course these references apply to women too. Indeed, some of the best salespeople I have met are in fact female sharks 🙂

More posts by Danna Zakai:
8 Tips that ANYONE can use to boost their Salesmanship
6 elements of a well-crafted sales pitch
Why TRUST is the ultimate key to making a sale (plus 9 tips on how to create and maintain it)
Why Salespeople MUST understand prospective clients (and how to structure a winning Sales call)