Q What qualities and backgrounds should you look for when hiring salespeople?

Shajahan Merchant
Founder
Intellectual Capital Services
New York City

Your natural instincts are going to pull you toward more experienced candidates. That's a mistake. Personality matters a lot more than background. In fact, I think that prior selling experience is a handicap sometimes. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, especially when it comes to teamwork.

We use a team selling approach--one salesperson gets the commission for a suit and another helps with accessories. We try to create a culture of "you help me, I'll help you." But experienced salespeople tend to be reluctant to have their sale contaminated by anyone else. They treat their expertise as proprietary, controlling the information given to the customer and their colleagues. They also tend to be too formal when customers really just want an honest opinion on how they look.

I think you make the best hires when you give your managers a lot of leeway to make hiring decisions. Our managers understand what a good salesperson is like because we promote exclusively from our sales floor.

Tell your managers to look for three things: hunger, likability, and honesty. Likability is hard to define but it's easy to sense. We look for someone who is extroverted, the kind of person who is going to interview the customer and try to understand his lifestyle. It's harder to tell if someone is hungry. You'd be amazed how many people in sales are satisfied with being average. When you're interviewing someone, ask him if he's comfortable working on commission. If he says no, you're swimming upstream, and he's probably not going to work out. Honesty is the hardest to determine. Watch out for candidates whose answers seem pat or calculated.

Hiring for personality is a crapshoot. You're going to be wrong a lot. But any business that hires salespeople has to be comfortable with turnover. When you hire, explain that you expect results within a given time frame. We typically expect to see continuous improvement for three or four months. The point is to quickly get rid of people who can't produce. I've never been good at firing--it's one of the most difficult things to do in business. But if you don't fire poor performers, you'll be holding your other people back. My advice is to let someone go on a Monday so they can start looking for a job Tuesday. You don't want them sitting there all weekend getting upset.

George Zimmer is CEO of Men's Wearhouse (NYSE:MW), a $1.9 billion clothing company he started in 1973.