There comes a time in every entrepreneur's business life when it's time to hire a sales rep. If you follow these seven simple rules, you're more likely to end up hiring somebody who can help your company increase its sales.

1. Examine your sales process. If you're ready to hire somebody to sell, you've probably already acquired some customers. While some of that business may have come from previous business contacts, you've probably got some idea of what it takes, in terms of expertise and skill set, to sell your offering. Make a list of what's required. Edit out the biz-blab (e.g. "high energy") so that you have specifics like "knowledge of manufacturing processes" or "experience selling to large corporations."

2. Interview your existing customers. Incredibly, many entrepreneurs hire salespeople without asking their customers how they want vendors to sell to them. The more you find out about the environment in which your sales rep will be selling, the better you'll be able to decide whether a particular candidate is right for the job. And by the way: Your customers will be complimented and pleased that you bothered to ask.

3. Write a concise job description. Using what you've learned from steps 1 and 2, write a job description. Make it specific, not general. Some examples:

  • "The job requires interaction with these customer types: [IT director, etc...]."
  • "The job requires telephone cold calling, generating at least 10 sales leads a day."
  • "The job requires the ability to build a network of customer advocates."

Your goal here is to define the job clearly, without biz-blab and jargon.

4. Devise a reasonable compensation plan. Probably the biggest mistake that small business owners make when hiring salespeople is underestimating the amount of effort it's going to take to sell their offerings. If you truly believe (as many entrepreneurs do) that your product or service will "sell itself," then you probably shouldn't be thinking about hiring a salesperson--not because you don't need one, but because you're fooling yourself.

5. Use your own network. Now that you've got your concise job description, contact everyone you know who might know somebody who has those characteristics. In fact, the process of writing the job description may have brought somebody to mind. A personal referral from a colleague is much more likely to yield a great candidate than somebody who answers an advertisement.

6. Contact your local business school. While not all business schools t have sales courses or programs, they're becoming more popular. "The graduates from such programs have an incredibly high success rate compared to other kinds of sales new hires and are often exposed to a broader range of business concepts," says Howard Stevens, CEO of Chally Worldwide. If you're interested in which schools have such programs, check out the University Sales Education Foundation.

7. Run your ads. If steps 5 and 6 have come up blank, then you're stuck running ads on job boards and industry publications. However, since you wrote a very specific job description, you're less likely to get deluged with plain-wrap resumes from every Tom, Dick and Mary who's "highly motivated" and "success driven." The forethought you've put into the process will help you focus on who's a likely candidate and who's just sending out resume spam.

8. Interview to determine character. When you call somebody in for an interview, you already know (from your description and the response) that they've got the basic attributes you need. Now your primary job is to assess character. "Try to find employees whose personal experience illustrates the kind of resilience that will help them shrug off the inevitable disappointments that are part of any career in sales," advises Gerhard Gschwandtner, publisher of SellingPower magazine.

9. Do your due diligence. Unless you're hiring somebody with no prior sales experience, the interview should cover how much the candidate sold in his or her previous position. Ask the candidate about compensation for those sales--even ask to examine the candidate's W-2 form. Try to find somebody who worked with the candidate in the past, other than the "references" that he or she provided. (Hint: Use LinkedIn.) If you find any inconsistencies, disqualify the candidate.

10. Hire conditionally, on a trial period. The truth is that you don't really know if a sales professional is going to work out until after they've attempted to sell for you. Large companies always have formal trial periods for sales reps, but smaller firms may not be accustomed to thinking about hiring in this way. Make sure that you have precise (i.e. numerical) measurements for what constitutes success.

Finally, two warnings:

  • Avoid the "show me how you sell by selling me on the idea of hiring you" charade. Unless you're hiring the salesperson to be a headhunter, the exercise is completely meaningless, and most of today's sales jobs don't involve on-the-spot "sales pitches" anyway.
  • Avoid hiring from a direct competitor. If you think such a candidate will bring his customers along with him, think again. He's been telling his customers that his current product is the best. If he switches to you, they'll realize he was lying.