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How to Interview Sales Candidates

INTERVIEW EDGE • SEPT 2018

sales candidate interview

No matter how hard we try or how many employees we've interviewed, much less hired — we may still make hiring mistakes. While regrettable, that also makes sense. During a job interview every candidate is at their best — they're focused, engaged, and their energy level is high. Candidates work hard to present their best selves, and there are plenty of available resources to coach them.

That's especially true where candidates for sales positions are concerned. Sales candidates often excel at selling themselves, but that doesn't mean they can successfully sell on behalf of your company.

A candidate may have a solid track record of exceeding sales goals, but will she excel in selling your specific products or services? Unlike in her current role, she may need to take more time to build long-term relationships with customers. Or she may have to generate her own leads. Or her sales quota may be significantly higher than those she grew accustomed to exceeding in the past.

While conventional wisdom says an excellent salesperson can sell almost anything, savvy sales managers drill down to understand the reasons behind a candidate's past success to determine if they will be successful in the future.

Just because a candidate sold well in other environments does not mean they can sell well in your environment.

How will you know?

Create competency benchmarks

Start by clearly defining the required competencies for a successful sales candidate in your organization. This allows you to evaluate each candidate not in comparison to the others but in comparison to your clearly defined competency benchmarks.

Recognize that different sales roles often require different competencies. Are you looking for someone who is self-motivated and can work long hours? Are you looking for a relationship-builder who can forge stronger connections with existing customers? Or possibly you need someone who challenges customers to think differently in order to embrace newer versions of your product.

While credentials, qualifications, and experience are important, don't lose sight of the fact that you should not hire simply to fill a position. You must also hire to achieve a result.

You don't just need a sales director; you need someone who can effectively lead your sales team. You don't just need a salesperson; you need someone who can sell your products and your services while also complementing — and hopefully improving — your company and its culture.

Take the time to determine what successfully meeting your needs looks like. Think about your sales environment and organizational culture. That description will help you clarify the skills and competencies you're looking for.

Then tailor your interviews — and your entire hiring process — so you can find that one person who possesses those required competencies to be able to achieve results in that specific environment.

Ask conversational yet structured interview questions

The best interviews feel like a conversation, helping candidates feel less defensive and more open and candid. Conversational interviews create an environment that feels more natural and less forced. Conversational interviews result in candidates letting down their guards and being more authentic — all of which allows you to get a better sense of whether they are the right fit for the job.

But you also must be prepared to "control" talkative candidates — which salespeople naturally tend to be. Here are some tips from our Advanced Effective Interviewing!ฎ program that can help with talkative candidates:

• State the expected length of your interview.  Provide candidates with a framework that will help them adapt the conversation to fit within that framework.
• Explain the process.  Let candidates know you will ask a number of questions first, and then at the end of the interview they will have an opportunity to ask you any questions.
• State the expected length of response.  Start an interview question with, "In three or four sentences, please tell me about…" Or, "In no more than a minute, describe what you did when…" And don't be concerned that candidates will think you're overly controlling, as most will assume you want to see how quickly and concisely they can make a point. It will also demonstrate whether the candidate is a good listener and follows directions.
• Reset expectations when necessary.  You can say, "We still have several topics I need to cover to get a thorough understanding of your qualifications and fit. Do you mind if we move on?"
• Use directive open-ended questions.  Some candidates can easily spend ten minutes on generic questions like, "Tell me about yourself." Ask open-ended questions, but make sure each question still has a clear focus. For example — "Tell me how your decision to choose a sales career was shaped by an early job experience."

Get past prepared answers

Also keep in mind that sales candidates often come prepared with rehearsed, polished answers to common interview questions. Your goal is to get past canned answers and find out how the individual will really perform on the job.

That's why follow-up questions are so important. Say you ask the candidate to tell you about a time he won back a lost customer. Ask further questions so you can fully understand the situation the candidate describes, determine exactly what the candidate did (and did not do), and find out how things turned out. Requesting specifics and getting the customer's name will likely elevate the authenticity of the answer since there is the possibility of a reference check.

Drill down to get beyond general statements or opinions. Ask for examples, specifics, names, and seek clarity not in an interrogatory way but simply to understand the answer.

You can ask — "Who was that customer?" Then say, "If I called this customer, Suresha Jones, what qualities would she say you have that motivated her to work with you?" Follow-up with, "Give me examples of where you demonstrated those qualities."

Assess sales skills in real time

If you want to evaluate how well candidates think on their feet and how they perform under pressure — an attribute often important for a successful sales pitch — wait until the end of the interview. Remember, candidates are more genuine when they don't feel defensive, so including this step near the end of the interview keeps them genuine longer.

You could ask the candidate to sell a product or service related to your business. Don't ask a candidate to sell you a pen when your company provides cloud-based software solutions.

If you take this approach, decide ahead of time what winning sales strategies looks like. Do you expect the candidate to address your needs, challenges or problems first? Do you expect the candidate to develop a broader sales strategy? If you're unsure, ask yourself this — how would your best salespeople sell you that item?

Understand sales strategies

Another approach to assessing the candidate's sales skill is to ask questions that help you better understand the sales strategies and techniques they have implemented. Here are a number of potential questions to ask:

• What do you do in the way of pre-call strategizing?
• How do you debrief sales calls?
• How do you hold your salespeople accountable?
• How do you qualify proposals and quotes?
• How do you get commitments and decisions?
• What process or formula do you use for selling?
• What are your own beliefs around selling?
• What have you learned about being a customer as a result of being a salesperson?

Ask follow-up questions to get specific examples of how candidates have applied their knowledge. While salespeople are generally also good at selling themselves, their past actions should speak louder than words.

Make decisions based on evidence of competencies

If a candidate has the right education, experience, knowledge, and skills — that's an excellent start.

But the best candidate will also meet the required competencies you benchmarked before you started the interview process. The questions you ask should reveal those competencies, and the best candidates provide solid, repeated examples of those competencies — without you asking for the competencies specifically.

Never settle for a candidate that lacks the required competencies you need. Remember that experience, knowledge, and skills can be gained on the job. But competencies are innate traits that are formed early on and are much harder to learn.

Does hiring sales candidates sound difficult to achieve? It can be — which is why competency-based behavioral interviewing is an important skill every sales manager should master.

After all, your goal isn't to hire the candidate who is "good enough." Your goal is to hire the candidate who truly meets your needs — and who will help drive your business forward.