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But when hiring sales reps, business owners make a common mistake: They hire people just like them, those with ‘product knowledge.’

Fuse/Thinkstock

As companies grow, founders and owners tend to juggle key roles. They do some of them well, some of them they learn, and others – such as sales – are often passed on to employees who can do it better. The key is to hire the right individuals, and that's the tough part.

A lot of owners don't really understand selling, having built their businesses on their expertise in a given trade, service or technology. They usually achieve sales success through a combination of product knowledge, passion and energy. With all due respect, most of them ride a wave of enthusiasm rather than sales ability.

But when hiring sales reps, they make a common mistake: They hire people just like them, those with "product knowledge." They also assume these reps will have the same levels of passion and the energy. If that were the case, they would have probably started their own businesses rather than work for other people.

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Most people think it's hard to teach someone all the ins and outs of a product, and that sales success is based on personality and natural selling skills. If business owners can find hires who are "personable" and who know and can talk freely about products, they think they've found the right sellers. They will even hire someone who has never sold – for example a customer care person or a service rep working for a competitor in the same vertical – but who has what they consider the right attributes.

Product people can be good company, but they add little to the mix. There isn't much that business owners can teach new reps when they themselves know little about selling, which leaves them talking about products. If they hire great sales people, owners can teach them about the products.

Another hiring mistake can result when smaller firms cannot afford both sales and marketing people, so they hire one person to handle both. While it can work, it has to be done right – you will rarely get the perfect fit in one person. Hiring someone fresh with a marketing diploma might be fine for the marketing side of the job, but sales will fail because that's not what the person was trained to do.

The other challenge is the recruitment and interview process. Smaller businesses lack recruiting experience, and, again, they tend to ask product questions, not sales questions. When candidates nail the product questions, owners feel they have their rep. Owners should instead describe the hurdles they have faced in the course of selling – issues over pricing, unavoidable missed deadlines, misunderstood expectations, and being played off a competitor, to list just a few examples.

Once they itemize the challenges, risks and obstacles to selling the product, they should formulate questions that speak to the experience, such as: "When has a client asked you for additional options during negotiations?" The goal is to learn whether candidates have actually encountered the scenarios, how they managed or responded to them, what they learned, and how they approached things differently as a result.

By asking questions related to sales situations you can learn a lot. If candidates give you the same example with the same prospect for every scenario, you have a clue. On the other hand, if they can give you examples that relate to the questions, if they can talk about mistakes and what they have done differently since, then you not only have people who have been there, you know they are open to learning, growing and doing what it takes to win.

Go to your best customers and ask what frustrates them about sellers, then formulate questions based on the responses. Satisfying client expectations is never a bad thing, and hearing their input will provide you with better reps.

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When you need to run lean and mean, it's important not only to have the right ingredients, but the right proportions for maximum outcome.

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