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How Your Traits List Affects Your Hiring

It takes a lot of guts to tell Harvard you think they are wrong.

But that’s exactly what I was doing through the aughts as I was developing my own hiring philosophy. In the late 90’s I read the Harvard Business Essentials book Hiring and Keeping the Best People. Like all the other business books on hiring, it said the most important thing to hire for was experience.

Except I had one problem with that statement …

You can have decades of experience in retail sales and still suck at it.

Hiring and the Potter's Wheel Book Cover
Since I didn’t like the books I was reading on hiring, I wrote my own!

I knew salespeople in retail. I had hired people with several years of “experience.” I had worked with retail salespeople at the stores I visited frequently. Some were good. Some still sucked.

The reason they sucked is because so few retailers have any type of formal training or continuing education for their team. Experience alone does not teach you what you need to be successful as a retail salesperson. College doesn’t prepare you for retail sales either.

The skills you need to be successful at retail sales are those traits we identified yesterday.

  • Engaging
  • Friendly
  • Caring
  • Knowledgeable
  • Creative
  • Problem-Solver
  • Determined

Two of those traits are teachable (Knowledge and Problem-Solving). The other five, however, are not. The first key to being successful at retail is what your new hires already bring to the table in the way of the non-teachable traits.

The fastest way to raise the bar of customer service in your store is to fire every salesperson who isn’t Engaging, Friendly, Caring, Creative, and Determined, and start over. Add your Core Values to that list and go hire people who have those non-teachable traits. You’ll have the foundation for a rock star staff in no time.


How do you identify those non-teachable traits? Through the interview process. Let’s call it a “process” rather than just an interview because it is far more than just simple questions and answers.

I always went up front to greet applicants and walk them back to my office. The walk back gave me an early glimpse into how friendly and engaging they might be. Sure, many were nervous, but just the act of walking and talking not only calmed their nerves—which made the rest of the interview go better—and it also got me the chance to view them in a less formal setting. If possible I would introduce them to staff along the way and see how they interacted.

In the interview I asked questions only about what they did, not what they thought or believed. My favorite questions started with …

“Tell me about a time when …”

  • Tell me about a time when you were the most creative on the job. What did you do? How was it received?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond what was expected of you? What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you made friends with a customer. How did it happen? Are you still friends now?

When you ask questions about actual events in their life you get more authentic answers, not something they think you want to hear. You also gain better insight. You learn what they consider to be “above and beyond” or “creative” on the job.

When I switched my hiring process over to focusing on non-teachable traits instead of experience and actions instead of beliefs, I found the results changed dramatically for the better. None of that was in the Harvard Business Essentials book.

Experience plays a role only when that experience is “better” than the experience you are offering. Then again, if you are running your business correctly, there won’t be anyone else offering a better experience, better training, or better work environment. So don’t worry about experience. Hire for character traits and fit (Core Values). You can teach them the rest.

Sorry, Harvard, but from my experience and the experience of so many other retailers, you’re wrong.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS You’ll still need to have Knowledgeable people who know how to solve your customers’ problems. Those are the teachable traits. Knowledge is simply learning all the features and benefits of the products you sell (as well as the products your competitors sell). Problem-solving is simply the process of turning a customer into a relationship into a sale into an evangelist for your store (The Ultimate Selling Workshop). 

PPS It takes a lot of guts to write your own book on hiring when it flies directly in the face of all the other hiring books out there. I did that back in 2008 and it got rave reviews. I still have a few copies left if you’d like to read it. (Sorry, only hardcover, no electronic versions.)

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