Key Points:

According to the figures from Statistics New Zealand's 2006 Census, 186,057 New Zealanders were employed in sales roles as of March last year. That's almost one tenth of the total workforce and includes all categories of sales representatives, such as territory managers, account managers and business development managers, plus agents, retail salespeople, telesales staff and sales support workers.

That's a lot of salespeople, even without taking into account salespeople from the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, those in sales management positions, and the unofficial salespeople of nearly every small business - the business owners themselves - who aren't included in the figure above.

It would be fair to say that most businesses rely on at least one salesperson, if not a team of salespeople, to seek out new opportunities, solve their customers' problems, and ultimately grow their customer and revenue base.

Yet, despite the importance of salespeople to our businesses and economy, most employers still have absolutely no idea about how to hire successful salespeople.

A quick search of vacancies on job website brings up over 1600 situations vacant ads for New Zealand's sales job seekers to trawl through, almost 1100 of them in Auckland alone. With so many vacancies for top salespeople to choose from, employers are lucky if they attract the calibre of applicants they're hoping for.

But in addition to the fierce competition for New Zealand's top sellers, by far the greatest challenge employers face is the task of determining which applicants can and will sell, and which applicants are just good at selling themselves.

While the costs of poor hiring decisions have been well documented, hiring the wrong salespeople is especially costly. This is because in addition to the increase in overheads associated with hiring new staff, the business also relies on the salespeople it has hired to bring in the revenue to cover those overheads.

This makes hiring successful salespeople not only one of management's biggest responsibilities, but also one of its biggest headaches.

So why is picking good salespeople so difficult and what can businesses do to improve their chances of success?

First, being able to identify good salespeople requires that the hirer has some expertise in what it takes to succeed in sales. This is not the case in many companies, with salespeople being hired by decision-makers who have never sold a thing in their lives, let alone taken the time to study professional selling and what it takes to be successful.

This scenario is especially common in small businesses, where the business owners often come from technical backgrounds and are the brains behind the products or services the business is selling. Unfortunately, though, selling requires much more than technical expertise or knowledge of a product, so it's essential that business owners and managers ensure that the person hiring the salespeople for their company is the most qualified person to do so, especially if it's not them.

Second, the real qualities and characteristics required for success in sales are all intangible and therefore cannot be seen or represented on a CV.

When you read situations vacant ads for sales positions, you'll find most employers looking for things like, "enthusiasm", a "high level of self-motivation" and "a passion for dealing with people".

While these are all excellent things to look for, many employers make the mistake of ruling out potential suitors before they've even spoken to them, based purely on the information in their CV.

The fact is, though, the things that do appear in CVs, such as academic qualifications, age, industry knowledge and even the number of years of experience in similar roles, are all poor predictors of future sales performance and are generally of little use as recruitment criteria for salespeople.

Employers must take the time to examine whether their recruitment processes are conducive to finding these people, or whether they are missing out on potentially excellent salespeople because they are being excluded on the basis of irrelevant criteria - the recruitment equivalent of judging books by their covers.

The third reason why it's so difficult to predict which salespeople will succeed, and perhaps the most difficult to address, is that the number one determinant of success in selling, an optimistic and resilient attitude, is incredibly hard to assess until you've actually gone ahead and hired someone.

It's important to note here that by "optimistic attitude" we're not just talking about positive, wishful thinking, or the cocky predictions of future success that many salespeople are prone to making, but a much deeper, more internal kind of optimism. The kind of optimism required to thrive under pressure and bounce back from rejection and disappointment again and again, until they reach their goals.

Jamie Ford, director of Auckland's Foresight Institute and an authority on the relationship between optimism and sales performance, puts it this way: "Professional selling is an incredibly tough occupation, with salespeople hearing far more 'noes' than 'yesses'. In selling terms they fail far more often than they succeed, so an optimistic outlook is essential for long-term success."

Given that most employers make their hiring decisions based on no more than a couple of hours' worth of interviews and a gut feeling, it's little surprise that many new salespeople's lack of resilience isn't exposed until the going gets tough and they're asked to perform.

For this reason, employers need to ensure that they do as much as possible to test their applicants' resilience before they get them on board.

This is a tough ask given that the current market also requires them to do as much as they can to attract the people they're looking for, and move faster than the competition to secure the applicants they're interested in.

Who knows, maybe Donald Trump really is on to something with the 16-week recruitment strategy he employs in his hit TV show The Apprentice.

* Richard Liew is a director of Rev Limited, an Auckland and Wellington sales recruitment and consulting firm .