How to Assess Sales Candidates

BY C. Lee Smith
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Plenty of people work in sales, but not so many people have formal college-​level education and training in the field. Do you have a good way to assess sales candidates when they apply for your open positions? Is assessment important? You bet. We live in a world where 50% of the workforce will be involved in a sales job at some point in their careers. Regardless of education and training, if you want to have the best salespeople working effectively in the positions that best suit them, you need to use sales assessment tests during your hiring process.

Hiring for Fit

Sales managers consistently experience significant turnover in their departments. We all know this turnover is expensive and demoralizing. And the department’s culture suffers when good people leave. In the Voice of the Sales Manager survey produced by SalesFuel, the typical sales manager noted they experience a 37% turnover rate every year.

One reason people leave is because sales managers don’t hire for fit when they onboard sales reps. Interviews won’t give you what you need, but a formal sales assessment test will. Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson cover a lot of ground in their book, The Challenger Sale. You know what position you’re hiring for, but did you know that your candidates can fall into one of five broad sales professional categories? This knowledge can help you determine whether candidates will fit into your open position. Here are the categories identified by Dixon and Adamson:

  • Relationship builder — These reps develop strong connections with prospects and buyers
  • Problem solver — These detail-​oriented folks respond quickly to issues
  • Hard worker — They don’t give up easily
  • Lone wolf — They work every prospect as they see fit and don’t take direction well
  • Challenger — They look at the world differently and push the customer

For best results, hiring managers should also consider their company’s selling culture and the selling environment their new reps will encounter. In a low-​complexity selling environment, hard workers make up 26% of high performers, according to Dixon and Adamson. These folks, always ready to go the extra mile, do well when they are selling to an existing customer or when they work in an industry that doesn’t require in-​depth technical or scientific knowledge. They will work tirelessly, but not necessarily creatively or aggressively, to get the job done.

Prior to 2000, relationship builders and hard workers succeeded in the low-​complexity business environment. The sales reps developed leads, qualified their prospects by using standard criteria, and invested the time needed to close the deal. 

Now, we’re operating in a post-​recession economy. Sales professionals must be able to prioritize a complicated workload, understand the corporate vision and understand the business issues faced by their clients. In today’s B2B world, sales reps who are tasked with landing new business often encounter a high-​complexity selling environment.

Prospects may be operating in an industry that’s constantly being disrupted by new technology. These prospects may be large public companies that will be laser-​focused on value when making a purchase decision. Successful reps must track multiple targets. According to Dixon and Adamson, 54% of high performers in these environments have the Challenger profile.

What Challengers Do Differently

Challengers will not spend time building relationships. Back in the day, a relationship builder was quick to serve customers, but that is not always the most profitable sales strategy.

Dixon and Adamson explain that Challengers possess three qualities: “teach for differentiation,” “tailor the message for resonance” and “take control.” What exactly do these qualities encompass? 


In the teaching aspect, Challenger reps must be coached and educated about the issues a business owner who operates in a specific industry vertical faces on a regular basis. For example, a company that’s selling taxi services to businesses may be struggling to compete against the likes of Uber and Lyft. A Challenger rep will be able to speak intelligently about what’s happening in the industry and ask the owner if they’ve heard about the latest developments. The ‘teaching’ process doesn’t end there. The rep usually will explain how the prospect can change an aspect of their business to better compete.


When it’s time to ‘tailor’ their message, the rep will already know what the prospect believes is the most important factor in the buying decision. In a highly complex selling environment, the rep uses discovery skills to learn what each member on the buying team values. Challenger reps speak to the concerns of each of those individuals and they move the prospect down the sales funnel.

Taking Control

The final quality of the Challenger rep may be the most difficult to perform successfully: taking control. The most successful Challengers sense how far they can push a prospect during negotiations and closing. This part of the selling process is particularly treacherous. After all, nearly 40% of business owners who participated in SalesFuel’s Selling to SMBs survey reported that the top behavior they disliked from sales reps is being repeatedly pushed to make a purchase before they’re ready.

In the world of solution selling, the Challenger rep will avoid giving price discounts and will instead offer other valued features. They’ll encourage the prospect to consider the rapid changes in the marketplace as a way to speed up the sales process without bullying.

Assess Sales Candidates

Not all of your positions need to be filled with Challenger reps. But when you’re looking for this kind of rep, you need to screen for the right behavioral aspects. Good sales assessment tests will include questions that reveal an individual’s natural tendencies for sales aptitude and the type of sales position they are best suited for.

If your pool of candidates doesn’t contain any natural Challenger reps, don’t worry. You won’t have to assess sales candidates all over again. Dixon and Adamson point out that proper training and coaching will help you improve the skills of your reps. In those cases, review the results of the assessments your candidates have taken and look for individuals who score high for coachability. Sales professionals who are willing to learn can and will improve themselves and the bottom line.