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What to look for when hiring a great salesperson

For inspiration and instruction, let’s look to the animal kingdom.

Paul Surtees Aug 11, 2017

Sales make – and break – businesses.

Despite the stereotypes perpetuated by iconic sales gurus in movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, no two salespeople are the same. Salespeople are complex animals who eat what they kill. And great sales teams are diverse ecosystems that can sustain different types of species, enabling them to thrive for the greater good.

So, what to look for when hiring a new salesperson? What to avoid? For inspiration and instruction, let’s look to the animal kingdom.


It’s tempting to think that all salespeople should be like rhinos – thick-skinned, aggressive, charging forward towards their targets. There’s a place for those qualities in direct selling contexts, but different sales domains require different approaches. Someone selling on an enterprise level might be more akin to an orca – thoughtful, communicative and patient, with a killer instinct for closing the big deal.


Another quality to look out for in a salesperson is curiosity. Apes are constantly testing the environment around them, learning what is useful, dangerous and important. Over thousands of years, this experimental approach has led them to evolve into Homo sapiens. Curiosity is a useful trait in sales, too. It leads to better knowledge of the customer, innovation and optimisation. By hiring curious people, you accelerate your ability to learn and grow as a business. Like apes, many salespeople wear their heart on their sleeves, expressing their frustration or excitement on noisy client calls and exuberant internal emails. But a little bit of chest beating can be a good thing in business, helping to motivate and inspire other employees.


Some qualities are less desirable. In fact, they can be harmful to the success of your sales effort. Parrots are famous for their uncanny ability to imitate the human voice, and in business, it’s tempting to confuse the ability to regurgitate ideas and spout corporate jargon as a sign of intelligence and ability. And like the Macaw, which can live for up to 45 years, salespeople who tell their managers what they want to hear can prove to be very durable. But imitating the work of others is easy – creating new ideas and communicating them effectively and honestly is hard.


Beware, too, salespeople who possess the elusive quality of charm, but lack the track record to back it up. The weasel’s razor-sharp mind, lithe physicality and Machiavellian tendencies make it a superlative hunter, whose intelligence compensates for a somewhat lacklustre work ethic. The same is true for some salespeople. When interviewing and hiring charismatic candidates, probe them on past performance. What have they delivered for former employers? What can they deliver for you and your team going forward? Charm is great, but new hires must be able to back it up with results.

Lions, Bears & Wolves

Energy is also important when it comes to sales teams. Lions have earned a reputation as early risers, but they tend to flag in the afternoon. Bears are slower to start the day, but soon warm up and remain productive until the evening. Wolves sleep through the daylight hours and rise to hunt after dark. Clearly these are stereotypes, but they do help to highlight the power of diversity within teams. All three animal species are supreme hunters, but they achieve their goals in different ways. Depending on the size and scope of your sales team, you might want to consider blending professionals with these different traits in order to create a sales effort that is sustained throughout the working day, week and year.

Ultimately, sales teams are social environments in which different characters must work together for the good of the company. Animals are complex creatures that often exhibit conflicting and contradictory qualities. So too are employees. When building your sales team you should resist the (perfectly natural) tendency to pigeonhole candidates as being introverted or extroverted, aggressive or shy, geeky or charismatic. Try to see past these simplifications to get a nuanced view of the candidate’s personality. You might be surprised by what you find.


For example, sloths are synonymous with laziness, but their perceived lack of get-up-and-go is actually an ingenious form of self-defence that helps them avoiding being spotted by predators. These creatures are masters of survival – in fact, their family tree diverged from other mammals some 75-80 million years ago, when South America was still joined to Africa. Which means they must be doing something right. So, when hiring, consider the humble sloth. Remember, it’s not always the loudest, brightest and most energetic sales people who deliver the best results, or who stick around the longest.

Business is an evolutionary process – less survival of the fittest, more survival of the adaptive. The species that survive and thrive are those that adapt to their surroundings and learn to coexist in harmony. This diversity is just as important within sales teams as it is within the animal kingdom. Just as predators keep ecosystems in balance and benefit agriculture, water resources and forestry, so too salespeople play a key role in the functioning of any business ecosystem, creating revenue that filters down to bottom lines, supporting other vital corporate functions.

So, the next to time your thinking of making a hire for your sales effort, you might want to consider this article. After all, it’s a jungle out there.

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