Should you hire a sales intern?

A Maryland start-up came up with a unique idea. Lacking funds, the company decided to hire sales interns during the summer rather than a full-time salesperson. Since the co-founder was spending most of her time handling inbound leads, she thought it would be a good idea to hire interns to help. (Note, the co-founder was rarely making any cold or prospecting phone calls. Instead, she was relying on email campaigns or inbound marketing to acquire leads).

internships for sales peopleHowever, the company ran into some problems.  Most of the interns they hired didn’t like doing sales. Quickly bored or turned off by the idea of calling strangers, they began asking for other assignments.  Frustrated, the co-founder would quickly dismiss the insubordinate intern after a few days and begin a new search to hire more interns.

Eventually, she ended up acquiring a hard-core group of sales interns who stayed for the summer. After the Labor Day weekend, she and her partner finally hired their first full-time salesperson.

But let’s back up a bit.

First, should you even consider hiring a sales intern?

Why not? Marketing, law and engineering firms, among others, hire interns all the time. Nonprofit organizations and government agencies hire interns too. So why shouldn’t a company or organization hire sales interns?  Now, I know what you are thinking  – well, isn’t a salesperson supposed to make a long-term commitment to a company. Why waste time hiring and training an intern to do sales, if they are only going to stay during the summer before they return to school?

Good question.

It really depends on what you want your sales intern to actually do.

Of course, you want your intern to steer clear of large prospects that could generate a lot of revenue for your company. But depending on what you’re selling and the industry you are in, what harm can you do by allowing interns to follow-up on initial calls and ask qualifying questions. And what harm can occur if an intern is allowed to do a short demo or webinar of your products and services? With the proper training and oversight, an intern could actually do well and help your company. You are also creating the classic win-win situation – if the intern does well and likes your company, you could be grooming him for a full-time job down the road.

The challenge is finding the right interns to do the job.

But how?

You hire sales interns the same way you hire any intern.

First, you clearly outline the duties and responsibilities of the internship.

Second, you conduct interviews to ensure that you are hiring great students to do the sales internship.

Third, you go through the usual motions of checking references, academic records, etc.

But how do you avoid the mistake the Maryland start-up made when they were going through a high turnover of sales interns?

I would do the following –

fake sales call or practice sales call1). Have the intern make a fake sales call and leave a voicemail. They could be selling any product or service. The key is are they actually following your instructions and how do they sound over the phone.

2). Invite the intern to come in and actually sit in on some sales calls for an hour or so. Let them see and hear how you interact with prospects and clients. Look at their body language. How are they reacting? Are they asking you good questions between calls? Do they show interest or are they just seeking an internship as a resume filler? Are they seeking a sales career or a paycheck to tie them over during the summer?

3). Offer them not just a small base salary but a bonus or small commission for their services. That’s right – real money. I recently met a college professor who complained to me about how many companies kept sending him lengthy emails with long job descriptions for interns – but no pay. No pay!?! I mean, are you kidding? Regardless of whatever type of internship you are trying to fill, pay your interns. While not technically employees, they are not serfs either. Treat them the same way you want your kid should be treated.

4). Does the prospective intern have any sales experience? Telemarketing? Fundraising for his college? Any retail work? Any sales experience can help.

Below are a couple of helpful articles on how to hire interns –

How to Hire Rockstar Interns for Your Small Business, by Jenn Boutwell, VP of Marketing and Strategic Alliances, Sage
Six Steps to Hiring Interns, by Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas

More college graduates than ever are entering sales as a career. Some are doing it because they can’t find work in their field. Others are doing it either as a last resort or a fallback position until they can find “better” jobs. Offering sales internships will allow some students to realize if they have the potential and drive to pursue sales after college. We owe it to them, and our society, to make that reality happen.