Mike Murphy

A good friend once confided that he had constructed “a mediocre sales career from being a nice guy and taking people out to lunch.” Somehow, I think there must be a lot more to being successful in sales than that for my friend is now in charge of a sizable chunk of a large sales organization.

The bottom line in selling always seems to come down to - well, to the bottom line. The routes salespeople choose to get there are as varied as the creative expenditures on their expense reports.

Following are a few lessons learned about identifying and managing salespeople. At a high point in my career, I became quite adept at interviewing for sales positions (meaning I was out of work for a long time), and have even hired a goodly number of salespeople in previous lifetimes. Therefore, use these lessons at your own peril.


Finding the right person to hire is tough enough for any position in a company, but finding a good or great salesperson is even more critically important to the success of most companies.

My first career job interview was with a gentleman who wanted me to sell underwear. Really. Fruit of the Loom tighty whities. I guess the more experienced salespeople handled the boxer line, which wasn’t nearly as stylish as it is today. The VP of tighty whities tells me to stand up, take off my shirt, and hand it to him. As I stand half-nude before a gargantuan man who sells men’s underwear, he begins to expertly define the features and benefits of my shirt, from the double-stitched cuffs and seams to the plastic resin used in the buttons, and the number of threads per square inch. After about five minutes of more-than-anyone-could-possibly-ever-want-to-know about a piece of clothing, he threw the shirt at me and told me to sell it back to him.

Years later, I described a Hunt’s catsup bottle to the nth degree to a prospective salesperson, slid it across the table, and told him to sell it back to me. He is now a district manager with a large restaurant chain, and still uses the catsup bottle technique to this day.

Explain. Demonstrate. Repeat.

If a prospective salesperson can demonstrate, under pressure, the ability to distinguish between features and benefits, that person may have a chance at being successful.


Having miserably failed several psychological hiring tests, and one polygraph, I have my doubts about the accuracy and validity of these hiring tools. Call me skeptical, but it seems that relying upon one’s own intuition or gut-check usually works quite well. Doesn’t it?

The reality certainly lay somewhere between the academic testing and the handshake-you’re-hired approach. Had it not been for the intuition of my first boss in the publishing business, I never would have made it through the front door. After taking a psyche test, the tester recommended me as a no-hire. The boss, however, said the test result played into his employee talent pool exceptionally well - I was just what he needed - a misfit on the Island of Misfit Toys. He shared with me that during the interview process he wasn’t sure if I was the right guy, but the testing solidified his decision. Go figure.


A wise mentor once told me, “ … Do what you get paid for.” So, perhaps it is wise to measure an employee’s success by what the person should be getting paid for - the operative word being “should.” Strangely enough, most salespeople find that between 20 to 40 percent of their time is spent on actual selling, 60 percent other stuff, and up to 20 percent goofing off. The other stuff might be windshield time, weekly expense reports, call reports, sales planning, competitive research, writing proposals, getting credit approvals, promoting miscellaneous company programs, and a host of other assignments that can come down from the boss at any time.

For the most part, “other stuff” and “other assignments” are usually nonpaying gigs. All are relatively important and must be done, but the actual selling time is the only thing that contributes to the bottom line. Therefore, going back to the entire passage from my sage mentor, “Think about what you were hired to do. Remember, they won’t fire you for being late with an expense report, but don’t miss your sales quota. Do what you get paid for.”

As a manager, one might discover that the salesperson who can keep up with all the job description requirements is not necessarily the person who delivers near top performance every year.

Publication date:10/05/2009