How Important is Drive and Empathy?


  1. Drive is generally manifested by intense competitiveness (“I must win!”) and/or an intense insecurity (“I must not lose!”). Drive makes sure that a sales person makes call no. 100 when the first 99 calls resulted in “no”.
  2. Empathy is a thoroughly underrated quality: being able to put themselves in their client’s thought-process enables the sales person to strategically navigate a sale, ensuring that objections are anticipated and addressed before they become destructive. Empathy—as long as it does not become sympathy—is the rudder that helps direct where the engine (or “drive”) is heading. Empathy helps a sales person understand why the first 99 calls resulted in a “no” and evolve their strategy for a better ratio.
  3. “Well-rounded” sales people are considered those who can develop new business from scratch AND can effectively grow accounts year-in, year-out.

There are many sales people without these attributes who have had very successful stints with a single employer. Like poker, there is a luck component to sales. If someone represents a product/service that is basically selling itself, they can be hit in the face with wins. But –again like poker—the very best sales people win again and again and again. If you look for evidence of these attributes in your sales hires, you will certainly be increasing your probability that you get an exceptional long-term employee.

If a sales person shows particular strength in one of these attributes but weakness in the other, they can be successful but generally are not well-rounded enough to aggressively develop new business opportunities while nurturing existing relationships to ensure maximum wallet-share. A person with excessive drive but little empathy will likely be exceptional at making a sale once, but—because they do not truly understand their customer—they will struggle maintaining a healthy long-term relationship. On the other hand, a person with little drive but strong empathy will likely be a client’s best friend, but will struggle actually growing the business or bringing on new clients (they do not like asking for the deal, in fear that the client will find them too pushy).

So what should you be looking for on the resume?

A History of Success

An empathetic sales person will instinctively understand the purpose of a resume: it is a marketing tool to help them get an in-person interview. Therefore, they will ensure that each previous position they held shows not just what they were responsible for doing (e.g. “I was managing 100 accounts in Toronto territory”), but also how well they performed.

On the resume, you should be looking for quantifiable successes that could include:

  1. Where the candidate ranked compared to other sales reps doing the same role (e.g. “I was #1 of 15 sales reps in 2009”)
  2. How they measured towards an assigned quota (e.g. “In 2008 I achieved 115% to quota, in 2009 I achieved 107% to quota”)
  3. Accolades they won (e.g. “I made President’s Club in 2007 and 2009”)
  4. Territory/Account growth (e.g. “I grew this account portfolio from $50,000 in revenue in 2008, to $170,000 in revenue in 2010—340% growth)

Consistent Employment

The rule of thumb is that a productive sales person generally costs a company money in Year 1 (because of hiring costs, training costs, guaranteed income, ramp-up time, etc), starts to make a company money in Year 2, and really becomes an impactful profit centre in Year 3. A poor sales person generally will not exceed 1 year of employment with a company once that company realizes that they are not getting—or are not likely to get—a strong return-on-investment. As such, you should be looking for candidates who have 2+ years of experience with most of their previous employers.

Relevant Experience

There are a LOT of different variances in sales jobs. We do believe that an intelligent candidate with strong drive and empathy can be successful in ANY sales role, but there are ramp-up times to consider. Clearly it makes sense to lean towards someone who has already held a similar sales role. Here are the variances in a candidate’s background to consider:

  1. B2B vs. B2C (often extremely different decision making processes from the customer)
  2. Inside vs. Outside sales (completely different territory management process)
  3. Hunter vs. Farmer (back to those drive and empathy attributes)
  4. Average sales cycle (is it immediate, or is it 2 years—the longer the sales cycle, the more complex the sales process generally is)
  5. Who they sell into (IT department often has different decision making processes than marketing department)
  6. Average sale sizes ($1k sale or $100k sale)
  7. One-time sales vs. recurring revenues
  8. Have they sold for big brands or “no names” (often a big brand can open the door for a rep)
  9. Do they sell to end-users or through channels like retailers or distributors (different decision making processes)

What should you be looking for in your first interview?

What is your initial impression of them?

How do they look and sound—impressive, well prepared? Would they be a good representative of your company? Good sales people generally walk with a sense of purpose and look busy, but well organized. Poor sales people look hesitant and flustered.

Tip: If you have a receptionist, ask them to pay particular attention to the sales person when they arrive for their interview (prior to meeting the hiring manager) and when they leave. An empathetic sales person will generally try to engage the receptionist (without being cheesy and “salesy”) knowing that it is important to make a good, memorable impression to EVERYONE they meet (you never know who influences decisions).

Are they able to build fast rapport?

An interview is a very tenuous and often uncomfortable situation. It is almost exactly the same environment a sales person will encounter when prospecting for a new customer. As such, this is a great opportunity to see how that candidate is able to build rapport (in sales we call this “relate and connect”). Are they over-friendly (e.g. seizing on any photo of you golfing to start stalking about your handicap)? Too relaxed (e.g. sprawling in their seat)? Is it like pulling teeth to get the conversation started? It should be a comfortable and productive conversation.

Does the candidate know where they are in the process—are they selling or buying?

This is another extremely important sign of whether a candidate has empathy. An empathetic candidate will instinctively understand where they are in this “sales process”. If you headhunted them and they are not necessarily looking for a new role, it is understandable that they are in “buying-mode” (i.e. they are looking to see why they should consider working for you). On the other hand, if they applied to the role—or are clearly looking for a job—they should understand that they are in “selling-mode” (i.e. they are focused purely on showing their fit for the role). This does not mean a candidate should not be asking questions in the first interview: it just means they should only ask “safe” questions.

Example of a “safe” first-interview question: “How will you be measuring success in the first year for this role.”

Example of a “bad” first-interview question: “When will I be eligible for a pay raise?”

What decisions have they made and why have they made them?

Working from high school to present day, you should be asking the candidate about every accomplishment and decision they have made in relation to professional growth and achievements. How did they get into sales? Why did they choose that employer? What was their role? How well did they perform it? Why did they leave? How much did they earn? Why are they looking right now?

Look for unexplainable gaps or red flags. If something does not make sense, continue to drill for clarity and keep track of that issue to address later during reference checking.

What are they looking for right now?

It is important to understand as an employer that just because a sales person has been successful in the past, does not mean they will be able to replicate that success for you. Like all people, a sales person wants to feel they are progressing in their career. If you are offering them exactly the same role and compensation plan that they are currently have with a competitor, you must ensure you have a clear understanding of why they would take that role. Do they have the energy and enthusiasm to be successful this time AND to stay for 3+ years?

If they were really exceptional contributors with your competitor (or in a very similar role), you must be able to offer something compelling to bring them over (more money, a better career path, a better sales territory, better products/services, etc). If your offering is directly comparable to their current role and they are still looking to move, this could be a red flag. Why would they make this move? What don’t you know?

Employment must be about win/win. If you feel you are getting a lot more value than you are giving, you must know that it is unsustainable (don’t be surprised if the candidate turns out to be a bust OR quickly leaves for another more enticing opportunity). Ensure that your employment opportunity matches the goals and expectations of your ideal candidate.

Example: 8 months ago, a company hired their dream sales rep. This rep was perfect: extremely engaging, great sales performance and had industry experience. They felt so lucky to have him. Sure, he had made more money in the past. More than this employer could realistically offer. But that rep was looking to move to Vancouver, and this was the best job he could get at the time. They paid for his move, welcomed him on board, enjoyed 6 months of strong sales performance… Fast forward 8 months and that candidate found a better paying opportunity in Vancouver. Bad return on investment that could have been easily avoided.

Would you buy from this candidate?

At the end of your first interview, you need to ask this simple question. If the answer is yes, move them forward. If the answer is no, don’t.