Recently on a podcast, I was asked a common, but complicated, question.  The question was this: “What do you look for in a salesman?”  There were three of us on the panel, and we each had three very different answers.  The first answer came from a product specialist, and it was not surprising that her answer went something like this:

“I look for someone with product knowledge.  With all the changing technology and complex offerings, today’s salespeople need to know his or her product inside and out.”

Fortunately, the camera was not on me as she spoke or they would have seen me wince.  It continues to baffle me that so many companies still don’t understand that the fastest new hire sales candidates to wash out are almost always the product specialists.  Oh yes, they sure do know their product, but far too often, that product knowledge is leaned on way too hard.  As a result, the simple act of being quiet, asking questions, and listening to the customer, are lost.  Also lost is an actual connection with the customer, and often because of that, the sale is lost too.

The second answer came from a recruiter, and his answer went something like this:

“When I’m looking for a candidate to fill a position for a customer, I’m listening for a strong voice, I’m looking for a sharp look, and I’m hoping for a personality that’s outgoing.”

This time, I wasn’t quite as lucky and the camera caught me blowing out my cheeks a bit.  Are we still really going to base a hiring on appearance and personality? Many of the greatest salespeople to ever roam this earth had quite unremarkable appearances and personalities – as surprising as that might be.  These people became successful based on factors such as their work ethic and determination, characteristics that are much more important than looks and personality.

Then it was my turn to answer the question.  Maybe it was because I was a little annoyed by the answers I had just heard, or maybe it was due to my frustration with having heard the same answers I hear every time the question is asked, but I was not quite as polished as I typically try to be.  As a result, my answer went like this:

“I’d look for someone who can take a punch.”

Now it was the moderator’s turn to look a little baffled, and he winced.  He asked me to elaborate, and I was more than happy to.

“Mike Tyson once said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ Everyone can sell until they’ve not just been told, ‘no,’ but told so in a brutal and humiliating manner.  No amount of product knowledge, personality, or appearance will spare you from this knockdown, but if you want to see if you are hiring the right person, take a good look at what happens next.”

Look, I’d like to hire someone with product knowledge, but product knowledge is not an indicator of success.  I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve worked with companies and found the top salespeople had zero product knowledge when hired.  What they did have was actual sales experience, which not everyone can learn in a classroom or from a book.  Some people take a few days, and some take a few weeks, but almost anyone can acquire product knowledge.

Ben Feldman: The best salesman – ever

As for personality and appearance, I suppose it would be nice if we all looked like a young Alec Baldwin, but appearance and personality are not indicators of success.  Take a moment to read about the great Ben Feldman if you don’t believe me.

If you have been in sales for a while, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  It so happens that this message doesn’t just pertain to sales.  In business and in life, some get knocked down, crawl to the corner, and throw in their towels. Others get back up, dust themselves off, and defiantly wave at their opponents with a wry smile as if to say, “Is that all you’ve got?”  As Vince Lombardi once said:

“It’s not whether you get knocked down.  It’s whether you get back up.”

That’s the kind of person I want on my team – someone who isn’t afraid to get in the ring, take a punch in the mouth, get knocked down, get back up… and keep fighting!


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