The sales interview is one of the most challenging for HR and hiring managers to do well. Your task is all the more difficult because salespeople are skilled at saying all the right things and landing on their feet in cold-call situations—which is exactly what your interview represents to them. Developing clear-cut questions that assess sales professionals consistently is a worthwhile effort with a significant return on investment. Focusing on the individual’s manner of doing business—especially at the prospecting, overcoming objections and closing stages—is a great place to start.
Consumers, Customers and Clients
“Every type of sale at every company on the planet has its unique features and complexities, depending on the type of sale being made and the audience targeted,” said Scott Plum, president and founder of the Minnesota Sales Institute in the Greater Minneapolis–St. Paul area. “It’s difficult to craft a one-size-fits-all approach to sales interviewing and candidate selection, which is why it’s so important that you build a select set of questions that is unique to your organization and industry.”
But there are some general questions that can help you get started. One key question, for example, that lends itself well to candidates with prior sales experience might be:
How do you rank competitively among other account executives in terms of your production?
“Salespeople are typically bottom-line types who relish the chase of closing a deal and who measure themselves via their peer ranking,” Plum said. “Those with the most to offer will challenge you to provide them with higher commissions when revenue goals and other objectives are achieved.”
In comparison, those who haven’t attained consistent sales often change jobs because they’re not making enough money. The reason they’re not more successful is typically due to their inability to establish rapport, identify a prospect’s needs, distinguish features from benefits, overcome objections or, most important, close the deal. Therefore, your mission is to locate each individual’s self-assessed shortcomings to determine whether you can build on those areas and help the individual grow to a higher level of success.
In response to this question, candidates often rank themselves according to percentages and quartiles. Obviously, those who rank at the top have no difficulty sharing those achievements with you. With these candidates, most of your interview will be spent discussing how the top producer got there, stays there and plans to climb to the next rung on the success ladder.
Salespeople who do not reach acceptable performance benchmarks often immediately volunteer reasons why their numbers were not higher. Sometimes excuses are acceptable; other times, they may have little merit. According to Plum, “Every conversation includes a sale, and only you know what separates excellence from mediocrity in your field.” However, your primary focus in dealing with individuals who rank themselves in the bottom half of their peer group should be to identify the patterns of their results. Short-term tenures with similar types of companies usually spell inconsistent performance. Proceed with caution.
“Remember, however, that many aspects of sales performance and leadership can be trained and developed, and in tight markets marked by labor scarcity, [try] looking for training potential—not just immediate past results,” Plum said.
What are the two most common objections you face, and how do you deal with them?
It’s important to hear how a candidate rebuts common objections, such as, “We don’t need your product” or “We’re happy with our current provider.”
According to Eve Nasby, president of Band of Hands, a workforce mechanics platform in San Diego that helps companies hire a screened W2 workforce, “The first thing you want to observe is how confidently the candidate attacks the objection. Persuasion plays a big role, after all, in establishing rapport with new accounts. The second issue lies in the creativity of the individual’s response. If her rebuttals sound like everyone else’s, there’s a chance she hasn’t given much thought to what makes her product or service unique.” Therefore, beware of candidates who fall back on hackneyed responses like these:
- “I bet we could offer more competitive rates than your current provider.”
- “Change is good. Why not give me a chance to show you what I can do?”
Such trite comebacks typically don’t result in new business. “Instead, look for responses that reveal creative insights and go beyond the obvious,” Nasby said. “People who leverage their backgrounds or education to a customer’s advantage maintain an edge in the client-development arena.”
Similarly, those who put the customer before the sale build goodwill and credibility. Many salespeople do little to understand their clients’ businesses, so, depending on the type of sale your company engages in, look for candidates who do. “Salespeople who present their services on a problem-to-solution level and who show patience and goodwill in the sales process turn prospects on,” Nasby said. There’s no sales pitch, and, even more important, the salesperson shows a commitment to building long-term relationships. “Sophisticated, relationship-driven salespeople will consistently outperform transaction-driven, buckshot types who see no further than this month’s billing log,” she said.
How would you define your closing style?
If there is one area in sales where people fail, it’s often their inability to persuade a prospect to take a recommended course of action. That’s because the art of closing is difficult to teach and often stems from innate personality traits. As a result, people either a) close prospects aggressively by repetitively asking for the sale and wearing the prospect down emotionally or b) make a logical case for why customers would want the product and then induce customers to “close themselves.”
Both styles work. There are too many fields of sales to isolate one closing style as
the optimal manner for doing business. Although top producers usually fall into the aggressive closers group, many successful salespeople are gentle persuaders as well (especially when dealing with more-sophisticated clientele). The brand of closer you want will ultimately depend on your product line and corporate culture. To find out more, ask candidates to grade their closing skills on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being very aggressive and 1 being fairly benign and gentle. Other questions to determine an individual’s closing style include:
- Tell me about the last difficult sales negotiation you experienced and a mistake you may have made that lost the sale. What did you learn from the experience?
- When is the last time you chose to stick to your guns and lose a sale? How do you determine when it’s prudent to walk away from a deal?
- Realistically assessing your style, do you find that you sometimes hesitate to ask for a sale? If so, what circumstances or kinds of people hold you back?
More Questions for Consideration
A simple Google search of “interviewing questions to ask sales candidates” will proffer additional suggestions for your consideration. However, as you might expect, some questions work a lot better than others. Look to some of the questions that follow to tailor your interview and selection queries, depending on the type of sale, customer and prior experience that you require from candidates under consideration:
- Could you please outline your sales strategy for us?
- What is the sales process that you generally follow?
- What’s the biggest sales success you’ve had in your career up to now?
- Please distinguish the
quantity of sales from the
profitability per sale.
- Can you give me an example of your ability to structure high-point deals?
- What’s the size of your average sale, and how could you have gotten more mileage out of it by selling more add-on products or configuring your markup differently?
- How many times did you fail to meet quota this past year, and what did you do to get back on track?
- How much does your production vary from month to month?
- What do you think are the most critical sales metrics for this position?
- Could you try to pitch our own product to us?
Sales interviews and candidate selection will no doubt pose many of the greatest challenges your organization faces. But one stellar hire can make an immediate impact on the bottom line. Likewise, fostering and developing talent over time leads to concrete results that can be replicated and celebrated. With every great challenge comes great reward. Building your sales interviewing and selection strategy will always be your first and best place to start.
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a regular contributor to SHRM Online. He is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles and author of 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees; 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems; 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire; 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews; The Performance Appraisal Toolkit; and 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees (HarperCollins Leadership, SHRM and AMACOM Books).