Viewpoint: How to Interview Sales Candidates

Five questions that distinguish top producers from those who struggle

By Paul Falcone February 26, 2019
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​No doubt about it: The sales interview is one of the most challenging evaluations you'll encounter.

"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," said Scott Plum, president and founder of the Minnesota Sales Institute in Minneapolis. "Many salespeople are criticized for selling their business better than doing their business, which means that many of them will sell themselves better during an interview than they'll actually perform on the job."

So where does that leave you as an interviewer with ultimate say over who gets to join your organization?

Because there are no standard questions and answers that assess sales professionals consistently, you'll have to employ a series of questions that will help paint a picture of the individual's manner of doing business—a group of questions that, taken together, will address drive, energy, impulsiveness, discipline and commitment. Patterns and inconsistencies will emerge only when these topics are addressed from several angles.

 

1. How do you rank among other account executives in terms of your production?

Salespeople are typically focused on results. They relish the chase of closing a deal and measure themselves via their peer ranking. Opening your interview with a core question regarding the individual's production sets the tone for the rest of the meeting. Those with the most to offer will challenge you to provide them with even greater responsibilities. They are looking for opportunities in the form of stronger commission payouts or longer-term career management opportunities.

In comparison, those who haven't been able to attain consistent sales may change jobs because they're not making enough money. Excuses and apologies drive candidates from company to company, searching for illusory pay packages that will earn them higher wages.

"The reason why they're not more successful, however, is typically found in their inability to establish rapport, identify a prospect's needs, distinguish features from benefits, overcome objections or, most important, close the deal," said Aziz Badra, CEO and founder of Band of Hands, an on-demand staffing and gig work solutions app in San Diego. "Look for candidates who identify themselves by terms such as the 'leading 10 percent' or the 'top 25th percentile.' Then focus your questioning on how they plan to develop a strategy to get to the next rung of the success ladder."

 

2. What are the two most common objections you face, and how do you overcome them?       

Sounds simple enough, but the key lies in role-playing the candidate's response. It's important to hear how the candidate rebuts common objections. This is an opportunity for the two of you to match wits. The role-play will give you insights into the individual's sophistication and creativity as the two of you measure each other up.

"The first thing you want to observe is how confidently the candidate attacks the objection; the second issue lies in the creativity of the individual's response," Badra said. "If her rebuttals sound like everyone else's in town, there's a chance she hasn't given much thought to what makes her product or service unique."

Once you've gotten a rebuttal, pose a follow-up query as if you were the customer. Does the candidate respond to questions at face value, or does she try to close each response by setting an appointment? How many questions will she field before gaining some type of commitment from you? How does she respond to your requests for unreasonable discounts or service? Just like pictures, on-the-spot role-plays paint a thousand words. Use them to gain valuable insights into the individual's style, character and business savvy.

 

3. Role-play with me, if you will, presenting yourself to me over the phone as a headhunter would. Can you convince me that this "product" you're selling is worth my time?

No, this isn't only an exercise for hiring potential recruiters. It's an exercise to replace a hackneyed interviewing request to "Sell me the pen" or some similar basic exercise.

"The problem with the 'Sell me the pen' scenario is that it's so overused that candidates come to expect it and prepare themselves to sell pens better than they sell their actual products," Plum said.

The traditional "pen" query has stood the test of time because it forces job candidates to distinguish between the object's features and benefits; to overcome any objections that you, the pretend prospective buyer, could raise; and, most important, to close you on the purchase. After all, if they can sell something as mundane as a pen and make it sound exciting, they should be able to sell anything, right? Not always.

Tweak the question to ask candidates to sell themselves to you instead and look to see if they can weave into the conversation their strengths and limitations as well as what makes them stand out among their peers.

"Because of the intimacy of the subject, most candidates are doubly challenged in providing role-play answers that mesh well with their interview responses. That extra dimension of accountability often adds some circumspection to candidates' otherwise bold responses and makes overcoming objections and closing you on the hire a tougher challenge," Badra said.

Finally, the close in this scenario lies in setting up the interview. See how aggressively the individual overcomes your objections and gets you to commit to meeting with a top producer if only on an exploratory basis. It's an exercise that will shed lots of light onto candidates' self-esteem and their ability to present a product they're not naturally inclined to sell.

 

4. Tell me about the last time you failed to meet quota. How many times did that happen over the past year, and what plan of action did you take to get back on track?

You'll always read on a candidate's resume about exceeded quotas and top production awards. However, you won't find out about the hiccups in the individual's production unless you ask. Failing to meet quota is nothing to be ashamed of if you're a salesperson. It's happened to everyone—a lot. "Racehorses"—performance-driven, short-term-minded people—work in sprints. "Plow horses"—consistent billers—provide you with a consistent return but rarely win the Kentucky Derby. The brand of salesperson you desire is up to you.

If the candidate responds that there were no problems making quota, follow up by asking, "How much does your production vary from month to month?" Learn about production changes that might indicate significant rises and falls (even though the falls never went below the quota threshold). Remember, asking candidates to volunteer shortcomings will provide you with a blueprint for future direction and focus.

 

5. With no undue flattery, grade me on how well I'm conducting this interview. What can you tell me about my sales and management style on the basis of the questions I'm asking you?

People-reading skills are critical to any salesperson's success. Because these skills can't be taught by training, each candidate needs to have a fairly well-defined ability to recognize a stranger's personality and business style on the spot. Without that innate ability to adapt to another person's communication quirks, establishing rapport remains difficult and sales opportunities will be missed. After all, prospects shouldn't have to adapt themselves to the salesperson's style. The salesperson is responsible for breaking through communication barriers and immediately establishing common ground.

Since the candidate needs to gauge your values as a manager to answer this question, save this query until the latter half of the interview. Note the kinds of words the interviewee uses to describe you: Saying "You're a really nice guy and you like your job" is a cop-out because it's so superficial. Push the candidate further by asking for specifics regarding your management and sales styles:

  • "What would it be like working for me?"
  • "Where do you think I'd have the least amount of patience?"
  • "Tell me where I ranked as a salesperson when I was on the floor."

A candidate should be able to tell a lot about an interviewer by his attention to detail, his follow-up queries and his questioning techniques. The tidiness of the office, degrees on the wall or photos on the desk can provide additional indicators to get the conversation going. All of these clues should serve to generate firm responses from even the most reluctant candidates. Their answers won't necessarily be correct, but there should be a logical basis for them.

One size may not fit all when it comes to evaluating salespeople and account executives. One thing's for sure, though: The interview is your gateway, and no matter how many tests you administer or references you check, nothing can replace the immediate impression and rapport that the sales interview generates.

Paul Falcone is a frequent contributor to SHRM.org and is the author of a new third edition of his best-selling book, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire (Amacom/Harper Collins Leadership, 2018).

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