What Is the Most Important Skill to Look For In a Salesperson?

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

The ability to learn quickly is the most important skill a sales person can have.

I have participated in many discussions about what exactly is the most important skill in sales, and concurrently, how to interview for that skill. 

As a disclaimer, the opinions expressed here are solely my own, but that opinion is based on more than 30 years of sales management, during which time I have interviewed and hired several hundred sales people. During the first 15 years of my career as a sales manager, my interviewing and hiring practices were fairly routine, and in hindsight, less effective than I would have liked, if effectiveness is based on the success and longevity of the hire.

For the past 15 years, my hires tended to be more effective as salespeople in that they generate more revenue quickly and more consistently, and requiring less training and management time, and from a very subjective perspective, are more pleasant and easier for me to manage. And in my opinion, it all comes down to one skill. 

So, what is the skill that I value most in a new sales hire? The ability to learn quickly. 

Related Article: Hire Smarter: The Shift in Thinking for Hiring Sales Talent

lightbulb and money

Of course, I expect the basic competencies in a hire. But beyond that, most sales professionals and managers that I've interviewed tend to have very different lists of skills, most of which are immeasurable when it comes to what their success might look like in my role.

In my previous article on Business.com, I asserted that only candidates that demonstrate a compelling phone presence and solid, relevant writing ability should move on to a face-to-face interview. I will repeat here that every sales person needs to exhibit a compelling phone presence and be able to communicate a clear story while creating a sense of urgency, or overcoming the routine status quo.

But beyond that, how would you screen a candidate for the ability to learns quickly? The first thing is to notice what the candidate does ineffectively. Do so by assessing the following:

  • In the area of closing. Did they ask for the job? Do they understand the hiring process?
  • In probing. Did they ask for information that's vital to their understanding the viability of their own candidacy and the likelihood that they would be successful in the performance of the job?
  • In establishing a need or fully understanding a stated need. Are they proactive in asking why does this position exists? Is it because of expansion, replacement or new direction? 

As an interview winds down, I ask the candidate if they have any questions. Most of the time they don’t, or the questions themselves might be trite. But a good candidate will ask questions, and good ones, to which I typically address with more questions of my own.

Related Article: Born to Sell: Do You Have Sales Personality?


This is when I ask them any, or all, of the following questions (if they have not already asked them of me):

  1. Who else besides me is involved in the hiring process?
  2. What is my role in the hiring process?
  3. How many candidates are in serious contention?
  4. Where do I stand relative to the other candidates?
  5. Under what conditions would you feel great about making me a job offer right now?

As you might imagine, this is can confuse candidates, and that's what it's meant to do. The most frequent answer from candidates is “I don’t know.” When I ask the candidate why they don’t know, they frequently tell me “because I did not tell them.”

The true gems will acknowledge that the reason they don’t know is because they never asked me. I would have been very willing to share the answers to these questions.

At this point, I tell the candidate that they will have a second interview with one of my associates, and if they leave that interview the same way they have just left this one, they will not get a job offer. The next interview may happen immediately if my associate (who has been trained to screen for “learns quickly”) is available, or at another time in the near future.

After that interview, my associate and I confer as to the amount of learning that may or may not have taken place with that particular candidate, and if we’d like to eliminate or further their hiring.

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