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ABCs of Hiring Recent Grads for Sales

Posted by Matt Bertuzzi on Thu, Mar 21, 2013

The other day, I was talking to a friend who leads a team of sales development reps (outbound prospectors).

She was mentioning how tight the market is for reps with 1-2 years of experience. To paraphrase her predicament:

I need reps who are senior enough that they can & will do the job. But who are junior enough to unlearn bad habits before they calcify.

I asked, “Have you looked at hiring recent grads?” As it just so happens, we are in the thick of career fair season for many colleges & universities.

She asked if I had any tips. My reply: nope.

So over the last few days I’ve been giving it some thought and wanted to share what I’ve come up with.

Hiring Recent Grads: what doesn’t work

First, the bad. Much of our traditional questions, at least as they relate to selling, are ineffective. “Tell me about a time you pitched an idea to a peer group” is very different from “tell me about the last time you booked a meeting from an outbound call.” [Side note: here’s a great audio interview with Kevin Gaither on his philosophy for interviewing.]

What this means is that you have to ask different questions to get you to the same results.

Next, the ugly. I’ve seen and (ahem) been guilty of making a few ‘go’ decisions based on little more than the candidate being:

  • Assertive
  • Tall
  • Having played sports in College

I’m not sure where that heuristic comes from, but when I think about the best sellers I know – few fit that mold.

Hiring Recent Grads: what could work

Now, the good. I recently finished Dan Pink’s new book To Sell Is Human. I absolutely loved his outsider’s perspective on selling.

What I found most interesting were Pink’s new ABCs of selling:

  • Attunement – can they take someone else’s perspective?
  • Buoyancy – can they stay afloat in an ‘ocean of rejection’?
  • Clarity – can they help others identify problems they didn’t realize they had?

He highlights these traits as the 3 essential qualities that define a modern-day seller (ie someone who spends their days trying to persuade / influence / move others)

Does your recent grad possess the new ABCs?

Here are a few thoughts / questions you can build off to find out.


  • Share with the candidate what you’re looking for in a new hire. Then ask: What can you bring to our team? Really listen to their response. Did they hear what you are looking for? Are they able see things from your perspective and to tailor their reply?
  • Next, bring in a 3rd person just to listen to this part. Give the candidate your version of your company's pitch and then have them give it back to you. After the fact, ask the 3rd person how similar they were. Is the candidate able to match/mirror/mimic on the fly?

The ability to listen, think on one’s feet, and ‘attune’ are critical for selling. So make sure they aren’t they type of person who is so focused on their perspective that they talking past everyone else.


  • Ask: I know interviews are high-stress situations. How did you mentally prepare for today?
    You’ll want to see if they are more self-pumping: “I am a machine! I will crush this!” or more self-questioning: “Can I do this? Yes. I’ve done things like this before. I need to make sure that I…” According to Pink, you are looking for the latter.
  • Also ask: Can you share a specific time you faced rejection? Why do think you were rejected? Listen for how they explain. Do they view the setback as external or personal? Temporary or permanent? 
  • Follow up with: How did you rebound? Tell me about the next time you faced a similar situation.

The way they have thought through past rejections is probably a good indicator or how they’ll handle future ones. If they view past stumble as personal failings ("I blew it big time") or permanent conditions ("I’m just lousy at this"), they might not be built for the game of sales.


  • Ask: Did you write a thesis? What was the central idea? (Or tell me about the last paper you wrote) Are they able to take their wealth of knowledge and communicate it to a layperson? Was it interesting and engaging?
  • Ask: What was the most interesting class you took? Why might I, a Sales Manager, find it interesting? Do they speak to the essence of the thing? 

Selling is about boiling down complex things (a $100K software solution) into simple things (here’s what you're doing wrong and here's why you should give me 5 more minutes of your time).

But it’s also about provoking, teaching, and leading buyers. If they are able to persuade you that perhaps 19th century Russian lit is something you’d enjoy – you are talking to a salesperson. 

Net Net

Hiring recent college grads is not for the faint of heart. Identifying raw talent without the cushion of a  track record of success takes time, a well thought-out process, and, frankly, guts.

I hope this gives you an idea or two for identifying your next sales superstar. If you have any tips, advice, or questions to share, I’d love to hear them.

Find Matt on Twitter and Google+ 
Photo credit:
Bradford College Graduation


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My favorite tip for hiring recent college grads is to have them shadow someone doing the job at the end of the interview. The candidate thinks that the interview is over so they lower their guard. Later the person they shadowed will either say, "They were very engaged, hire them" or "They didn't care - they are looking for a job." You get valuable information either way.

posted @ Thursday, March 21, 2013 7:00 AM by Steve Richard

Steve, I LOVE IT. Such an awesome point. Thanks for sharing.

posted @ Thursday, March 21, 2013 7:16 AM by Matt Bertuzzi

Some of the best sales people were young and inexperienced, yet, humble, confident and enthusiastic.  
I try to remember at all times, someone took a chance on me for my first sales gig...I am obligated to do the same when the situation allows! Nothing better than running into someone you hired years ago who tells you how much they appreciate you giving them a chance to have a remarkable career. That's the true payoff of doing what we do.

posted @ Thursday, March 21, 2013 8:44 AM by Dan Murphy

Great post Matt, and excellent idea Steve! 
I also suggest looking into the many schools that now offer degrees or certificates in sales. They get real life experience as class projects, and intern with companies. I personally can vouch for Ohio U, Northern Illinois, and Kansas State.

posted @ Thursday, March 21, 2013 8:49 AM by Art Sobczak

I have hired from the Ohio U, Ohio State and the University of Dayton mentioned by Art. What I discovered is that they come mentally prepared to accept the rigors of the sales process. My people were focused on new customer acquisition and all of the accompanying cold call rejection that comes with it. We sold a complex array of legal products from software to printed books, legal services and online research subscriptions. They had to learn the products and the language of the law. 
The graduates from OU, UD and OSU ramped up in twice the time it took for those not having any sales training in their college studies. Moreover, they simply had no fear of getting on the phones and driving business.  
I would add that those college grads that participated in sports at any level better understood the application of continual skill development as they progressed in their career. I was not searching for best athletes. I was hiring those that believed in purposeful skill development applied everyday which led to improved perfomance. My best new college grads with an athletic experience (even competitive ball room dancing) reviewed their results daily, tracked their own metrics and adjusted their selling based upon that feedback and the feedback of their manager. 
For anyone that wants to build a high performance outbound team ... start building a relationship with the 56 US colleges that now offer a sales certificate as part of their curriculum.

posted @ Thursday, March 21, 2013 9:28 AM by Rex Caswell

Given what we do, I'm a huge proponent of recent college graduates for sales roles. For me, the biggest reason that a raw talented graduate fails is in the disconnect after the hire.  
Due to how graduates are learning in school and college, they respond best to being given the information in bite size chunks and then learning through repetition - constant repetition. 
A lot of the times the training and infrastructure might not be there and if it is, it's not implemented consistently.  
I've never understood going for someone with the 6 months to 2 years experience over a recent grad. They know exactly what to say to get a sales role, cost a lot more, come with preconceptions and bad habits and have normally burned out on being proactive. 
great article though!

posted @ Thursday, March 21, 2013 11:41 AM by Tim Smyth

Hi Matt, I think I want to go with assertive, tall, played sports in College, because it's easier to find and hire them - I'm just kidding! There are really no shortcuts in hiring people specially recent grads if we want them to grow and stay longer with our company - - like a decade or more. Dan's new book mentioned specifics that would take a bit of work for us when hiring recent grads, but it will definitely pay-off in the long run because these are good guidelines in hiring the right people. Thanks for the post!

posted @ Saturday, March 23, 2013 10:30 PM by Ayeen Benoza

@Ayeen, you had me for 1 second there. 
Huge thanks to everyone for the comments. Tons for me to think about.

posted @ Monday, March 25, 2013 12:03 PM by Matt Bertuzzi

Excellent thoughts Matt - I just shot this over to a local start up that hires grads (along with the resume of a soon to be college graduate). We had this conversation when I visited them a couple of weeks ago - and yes, we joked about companies that are attracted to the tall sporty candidates almost exclusively (although it's no joke!) 

posted @ Wednesday, March 27, 2013 4:26 PM by Kathy Tito

Matt, this is a timely article for my group and it resonated with others here as well. Do you (or anyone reading this) know of other resources on hiring recent grads? 

posted @ Friday, April 05, 2013 3:12 PM by Ed Wolf

@Ed Wolf - I'm actually headed to the AA-ISP Leadership Summit this week. I'll make sure to ask around and share what I find/learn.

posted @ Monday, April 08, 2013 7:44 AM by Matt Bertuzzi

College-grad resources aren't exactly all they're cracked up to be. It's an online consistency that overshadows the hype. I love this free market! 
Once again, Matt you're on point.

posted @ Wednesday, April 24, 2013 2:36 PM by Mark Washington

The most amazing part about this story is "She asked if I had any tips. My reply: nope." This is excellent information.

posted @ Sunday, August 11, 2013 10:54 AM by Leonie Wallace

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