“Hire for attitude and train for skill.”

This is the human resources credo at Southwest Airlines, and it's a philosophy that has helped make the company one of the great American success stories. As such, incorporating Southwest's approach to hiring into your own recruiting strategy can help you when you build your company's sales team.

The most frequent question I am asked during my work with clients is “Do you know a good salesperson that is available for hire?” My answer is always the same: If they are any good, they aren't looking. And if you want good salespeople, don't try stealing them from a competitor. It rarely works. If you want top performers, you must build them.

Casting the Mold

For inexplicable reasons, many sales managers only hire salespeople with industry experience. Moreover, they seek salespeople who possess experience for a specific product category. Window companies seek “window salespeople”; siding companies seek “siding people.” The result is a continual recycling of reps with mediocre track records.

The alternative is to seek out individuals who have the right mental and emotional makeup and then indoctrinate them into a proven sales system.

So just how do you build a salesperson? Numerous LBM dealers throughout the country have found that successful sales teams have a structured approach to molding their talent, and lengthy orientation programs are becoming the industry norm. For example, I know a Northeast dealer of roofing and siding that hires salespeople and puts them through a full year of training before positioning them in the field. A Florida lumberyard puts sales candidates through an 18-month orientation period before they hit the road, while a thriving Atlanta lumberyard created a tiered sales structure that brings salespeople up through the ranks over a period of many months before they become full-fledged account managers.

The key to success begins with a solid sales structure and administrative procedures. During training, the salesperson learns the technical side of the business and how the company processes paperwork and deliveries, along with extensive product knowledge sessions and more. When the company finally places the trainee in the sales role, he or she is prepared. These companies know exactly how they want their salespeople to perform and ensure that each individual has all the technical knowledge needed to do so.

New Recruits

Successful molding, though, begins even earlier, during the recruiting and hiring process.

When screening potential employees, vision is critical. Successful sales organizations know the characteristics they seek in an ideal candidate, and those primary characteristics usually have less to do with business skills and more to do with personal traits. This does not mean that high-quality business skills would disqualify a candidate, but rather asserts that personal traits—e.g. leadership, being a team player—are critical in the evaluation process.

Here are three keys that you should consider when recruiting new sales candidates: