Careers advice

What do employers look for in sales candidates? Insights from a sales director

Insider insights from Trade Me's Matt Tolich.

Sales is one of those professions that comes with a heap of stereotypes. But, there’s a lot more to being a successful salesperson than a way with words and a competitive edge (though those things can help too!).

So, what do employers actually look for?

To give you the inside track, we spoke to Trade Me’s very own Matt Tolich. As Sales Director for Trade Me Jobs, and having previously held senior sales roles across high profile NZ and Australian businesses, Matt’s done his fair share of hiring sales staff. He has some great tips on how to make yourself stand out as an applicant.

1. What soft skills do you look for in someone applying to be part of your team?

“Being a great listener is really important. Often, sales people have the gift of the gab, but I don’t really look for that, it can almost put me off. I look for someone who can articulate really great questions, can understand someone’s business, have empathy for their client and understand their struggles. They then need to be able absorb all that information, so they can provide a great solution to the customer based on our product.

On top of that, energy is also really important in sales, you’ve got to be driven. You’ve also got to have a bit of a money focus – ultimately, we’re chasing revenue.”

2. Is there anything a candidate absolutely should or should not include on a cover letter/CV?

“I often read CVs that say ‘I consistently hit my targets’. This is great to call out, but it’s important to specify what your targets were, how much you beat them by, and what that meant for the business in terms of how much revenue you were responsible for. It’s also good to know how you achieved that result. In other words, have some hard facts and figures in there.

When it comes writing cover letters, long fluffy ones are a big no-no. You want them to be really short and sharp, with details such as how many accounts you’ve looked after, how much revenue you’ve generated and a little bit about yourself.”

Make your CV sharp, to the point, and get some real facts and figures in there.

3. Do you have any questions you particularly like asking at interview?

“I always ask ‘What’s the worst job you’ve ever had’. Sales can be really tough, so, if someone’s had a hard job previously, this can give them the necessary resilience for dealing with the grind of being let down over and over, or missing out on big deals.

Another one I like to ask is ‘What is your ‘work on’. I.e. what are you not good at, where do you need to improve? This is a really good one for self awareness. And because sales people are trying to sell themselves the whole time, this question really shows vulnerability.

The answer I hate here is when people try to flip a negative into a positive, by giving a really good trait. My advice is to be honest. If you say something like “I’m not good at time management, so I use workflow tools like Trello to help” you're showing self awareness, and also a desire to grow and improve.

4. Do you set tasks as part of your interview process? If so, what do they involve?

“Yep, I do. Usually the task would be to create a presentation on a 100 day plan – i.e. what would you do in your first 100 days in our business. Ideally, their presentation will show:

  • How they’d dissect our portfolios
  • How they’d get to know the client.
  • How they’d upskill to get familiar with our industry and products.
  • Their desired outcome for that 100 day strategy plan – where would they want to be in terms of their relationships with the team, clients etc.

We’d also throw in something like: ‘We need to increase client adoption of our depth products by X%, how are you going to do this?’. This gives us a good idea of how they’ll go about trying to achieve their KPIs, as well as our core business objectives.

This process is a lot to do with the presentation itself.. The content isn’t as important, as they don’t know our business, we’re really looking for the thinking behind what they propose and the processes they’ve gone through to reach those conclusions.”

Matt's interview tasks are designed to test how a candidate thinks.

5. How important is the team fit to you when you hire, and what can a candidate do to demonstrate they’d be a good team player?

“It’s really important, sales is a team sport. Especially if one person is going through a rough patch with clients, you need to know the other people on the team will be there to help pick them up.

I think the best way candidates can show they’d be a team player is by talking about the relationships they currently have in their roles. For example, how they spend time with the team, how they share knowledge with them, or how they’ve taken on tasks beyond their job description that benefit the group. For example, if they’ve picked up analytics monitoring for the team.

What can concern me here are people who, in the interview, talk about how toxic their previous work environment was. Of course, people can go through that, which is a shame, but bashing your old workplace or boss isn’t a good look. Also, if you were part of that culture, why weren’t you able to flip it?”.

6. What might raise a red flag to you about a candidate in an interview?

The big one for me is being aware of how much you’re talking. In sales, your job is to communicate. So, if you’re sitting there, not reading the room and just talking to a scripted point you want to get across, to me, that means you can’t sell. Keep your answers short and sharp, don’t try to oversell it.