I’ve encountered a common question in recent interviews which pertains to the current level of performance from the existing sales team.  This economy is wreaking havoc on many salespeople in terms of their commissions.  Sales candidates are aware of this situation and are diligently asking the question regarding where the current team is performing.  I find it to be a most appropriate question.

The problem often lies within the hiring manager’s response.  It is simply difficult to hide a grossly underperforming sales team.  If the economy is cratering their success, the problem is even more difficult to contain in an answer.  This usually leads to a pseudo-answer that deflects the question.

A prime example – I heard the question asking how the current sales team was performing.  The hiring manager offered this statement back, “Our company revenue is up 8% which isn’t as high as it was the previous year, but it is still growth in this economy.”  A clever answer that went unchallenged by the candidate.  Unfortunately, the company was surviving on existing business that had expanded – not on new customer growth which was the prime directive for this position.

Another common response is quoting the top performer.  “Our top salesperson made $(fill in the blank) last year.”  This is truly a deflection.  What if the other 19 salespeople were all well below quota?  That would tell the candidate more about the state of the sales team than referencing the top performer.

My preferred answer for a hiring manager is to provide a range of performance – our top tier made $X last year, our second tier made $X and our bottom tier made $X.  Some variable of that construction provides good data for the candidate without going too specific.  A strong sales candidate will pursue the information further to clarify it which is simply good qualifying in my opinion.

I have sat through some interviews which have been enlightening in terms of the struggles of hiring managers who do not hire often.  One of the blatant deficiencies I observed was this – a lack of good questions.  Is there anything more important than questions in interviewing an external candidate?  Even an internal candidate.

Here is one instance of what I observed – a rather inexperienced manager asked esoteric questions that left me scratching my head.  The candidate did a good job attempting to answer the question without embarrassing the hiring manager.  One question took almost 2 minutes for the hiring manager to ask!  The question included an analogy, an experience aspect and a hypothetical component…I think.

This interaction was a perfect example of the manager being too clever by half.

The most effective approach is to prepare for each candidate by writing down your questions for that candidate.  If your question takes more than 15-20 seconds to ask, cut it down.  If you choose to use an analogy, test it out on a coworker.  If they struggle with it, rework it (or scrap it).  The most effective questions are direct, succinct and open-ended.  Provide the candidate with the opportunity to navigate to the answer they would like to offer.  Pay attention to the topics they choose – there is much to discern in that information.

Yes, the title is a bit quirky, but it is true.  A significant portion of successful hiring involves being a good detective.  I have always taken that approach when helping our customers find the right salesperson for their position.  To be a good detective, you need to be a bit skeptical.

Sales candidates blow sunshine.  Few have ever missed quota, most state their primary weakness is being a workaholic and all have earned everything they have accomplished.  Right.  In reality, most have missed their sales quota at some point, many have real weaknesses discussing money and handling rejection and most have benefited from somewhere be it marketing, territory, company market share, etc.

Sales hiring is the most difficult hiring in which to succeed in that the candidates have interpersonal skills that disarm hiring managers.  In a way, this is a good thing since you want your salespeople to have this ability when qualifying prospects.  However, the hiring manager needs to focus like a detective during the hiring process.

I’m an old Hill Street Blues fan.  I watched almost every episode of NYPD Blue (it got weird at the end).  Even Magnum PI had some interesting tips.  Here are a few tips based on techniques incorporated by these detectives:

Drill down – do not accept the candidate’s first answer as the complete answer.  Too often I see hiring managers accept theoretical answers to direct questions.  Ask for specific examples and then ask follow-up questions that require more detail from the candidate.  This approach will be most enlightening in regards to understanding if the candidate is being truthful or not.

Interrupt – ok, don’t be a jerk, but interrupt the candidate gently.  The goal here is to shake them out of a canned, memorized response.  Prospects do this in sales calls.  I always do this in an interview.  Interviews should not be easy for sales candidates because selling isn’t easy.  This approach will show you how quick the candidate is on their feet.

Wait – there is nothing quite like an awkward, pregnant pause to add some pressure to a discussion.  Silence is fine as it forces the candidate to work.  Their job is to impress you enough to continue in the hiring process.  Your job is not to make them completely comfortable.  At ease, yes; comfortable, no.  Use silence at times to force the candidate into a longer answer.  This approach will reveal how disciplined they are at controlling a conversation.

These are just a few techniques I incorporate.  Of course, one great tool for guiding you through an interview is a sales assessment.  If you aren’t using any such tool today, please contact us at your earliest convenience.  We’ll show you just what you are missing in making your hiring decision.

This article from Yahoo’s Hot Jobs contains 5 hiring myths designed to help candidates perform better in an interview.  Myth #1 is excellent for the hiring manager:

Myth #1: Be prepared with a list of questions to ask at the close of the interview.

There is some truth in this common piece of advice: You should always be prepared, and that usually includes developing questions related to the job. The myth here is that you must wait until it is “your turn” to speak.

By waiting until the interviewer asks you if you have any questions, “it becomes an interrogation instead of a conversation,” says Greene.

Greene recommends that you think of an interview as a sales call. You are the product and you are selling yourself to the employer. “You can’t be passive in a sales call or you aren’t going to sell your product.”

How true!  We always treat an interview (either phone or in-person) as a sales call.  As a hiring manager for a sales position, the interview is a natural sales situation.  The interview is the perfect opportunity to play the role of the prospect to watch how the sales candidate qualifies and closes you.

This approach, using the interview to see the sales candidate in action, is the foundation for repeatable, successful sales hiring.  Salespeople are naturally good at…selling!  Granted, some are not, but they eventually get broomed.  The problem is that many hiring managers are not adept at being the disinterested prospect in an interview.

Many hiring managers (including many sales managers) are inexperienced interviewers.  Their preparation may consist of nothing more than pulling out a resume 5 min. before the interview and then asking the candidate to walk them through their resume.  This approach reveals nothing more than the candidate’s pre-canned talk about their mostly unverifiable past.  We’re they really the top salesperson?  Did they truly turn around an under-performing territory?  Did they close 50 new accounts?

No, the better approach is to treat the interview as a sales call and put some pressure on the candidate – see how they handle it.  Interrupt them (graciously, of course) and change topics quickly.  Can they move with the discussion?  Question some of their statistics and look for visible signs of emotions.  These unexpected moves knock them off of their script and if you have been in sales you know it is impossible to script a sales call.  Ideally, the candidate can handle your “objections” and respond with good qualifying questions.  Now you can actually see the candidate in action which will reveal more about their abilities than any resume.

Don’t flame me on the title, there is a method to this madness.  I like cliché questions for sales interviews.  There, I admitted it.  Now, I should clarify, I’m not talking about an entire interview of these questions, but rather some strategic ones sprinkled into your question list.

Here is why – if the question is cliché, the candidate should have a sparkling answer.  Their answer may be well-rehearsed – that is fine.  You, as the interviewer, simply need to drill down on their response to get to the unvarnished truth.

However, the catch to this approach is when they don’t have a strong answer.  I am always concerned about candidates who provide weak answers to expected questions.  They should have expected some of these questions and, more importantly, should have prepared for them.  This lack of preparation is often indicative of how they will prepare for an initial meeting with a prospect.

Here is one I often incorporate, “Tell me about a time when you had to go well beyond your normal responsibilities to close a deal.”  Simple, cliché, but here is why it works – I want to hear a good, real example.  I’m looking for what they perceive as being a stretch for their role.  There is much to be learned in their response.

There are many sales prima donnas who have a high maintenance attitude.  Some tasks, in their opinion, are beneath them.  I’m always looking for where they draw the line in that I don’t want a salesperson who tries to do everything themselves either.  There is a happy medium that works for your position.  My experience has shown that smaller companies expect salespeople to do more tasks while larger companies expect more specialization.

Keep those cliché questions handy next time you interview a strong sales candidate.

I come across this often – a company wants to hire a superstar salesperson and the hiring manager’s first instinct is to find a loquacious talker.  Perhaps you have seen this approach too?  Clearly no readers of the Hire Sense would administer this approach in their hiring.


Ok, maybe not.  The point is that smooth talkers are not categorically the best salespeople.  I am appreciative of good communicators, but being good at talking is the lesser part of communication.  Being an active listener is more important.  This fact is often overlooked in sales hiring.

The reason this ability is important is that is supports the foundation of successful selling – qualifying.  Salesopedia.com is featuring an article this week by Kelley Robertson that addresses this point (my bold):

The most common mistake sales people make is to immediately launch into a product presentation or “pitch” when they first meet their prospect. They extol the virtues of what they sell and tell the prospective buyer how good, fast, reliable, inexpensive or easy to use their product is. They talk, talk, and talk hoping they’ll convince the buyer that their product or service is of value.

The problem with this approach is that the “pitch” seldom addresses the issues or concerns of the buyer. Because their needs have not been addressed, there is no compelling reason for them to consider using your machines or to change vendors. If you really want to give prospects a reason to buy from you, you need to give them a reason. One of the most effective ways to do this is to ask a few well thought-out questions to uncover what is important to the prospect.

Exactly right.  One of the more overlooked aspects of a sales interview is to pay attention to a candidate’s questions, both the content and the sequence.  I try to write all of them down in an interview to review them afterwards.  The candidate’s questions in the interview provides a glimpse into their qualifying ability without asking the candidate about it.  It is most important that you, the hiring manager, observe this ability closely both on a phone screen and during a face-to-face interview.

If you (hiring manager) are talking, you’re not interviewing.  I know, simple in concept, but for some it is difficult in practice.  I sat through an interview recently that involved a sales manager who spoke for 75-85% of the time!  The candidate was simply caught in his wake for the entire interview.

My take on the interview was that we learned next to nothing about the candidate and his fit to the position.  He may have been strong – we’ll never know.  What we did learn is the frantic, scattered approach of the sales manager makes for an interview that did not go deep on any topic.

The fault here lies with me in that the sales manager should have been better prepped.  He would do well with a set list of questions and a note reminding him to listen first.  I made the assumption that he knew this and I paid for it in a strong candidate being passed.

It is a good reminder to do the simple things well before moving to the advanced topics.

I about fell out of my chair reading this SellingPower.com article – Interviews Get Comfortable.  A quick excerpt to set the tone:

“It’s your job as an interviewer to make the candidate feel comfortable and it starts from the moment you see that person,” says Barbara Pachter, a speaker, trainer, coach, and author of numerous business books, including The Power of Positive Confrontation (Marlowe & Co., 2006). Pachter does acknowledge that there are times when interviewers put candidates in awkward positions to view reactions, but for the most part they should work to put candidates at ease.

Her suggestions for putting candidates at ease include:

    • Be a gracious host.
    • Ask easy questions
    • Set up the room for comfort.
    • Handle awkward moments properly.
    • Change the environment.

In all fairness, you have to read the article to get an understanding of her approach since there is some nuance to it.  However, in sales successful interview techniques are much different.

My experience has consistently been this:  I learn more about the candidate during the awkward, uncomfortable moments than the smooth, relaxed interactions.  Here’s why – salespeople (even bad ones) tend to have highly refined social interaction skills.

Simply put, they can make themselves appear to be stronger than they actually are.

The key in a successful sales interview is to ask the difficult questions and then use the awkward silence afterwards to compel the candidate to respond.  Silence produces tension and tension removes the candidate’s veneer.  It is at these precise moments that you learn about a candidate’s true sales ability.

I can understand Ms. Pachter’s approach in hiring other positions, but sales is the most difficult position for which to hire.  The better approach is to use an accurate, repeatable process.

This sales-focused article from the Salesopedia.com website discusses the power of telling stories when selling:

Think about it: If you were in the audience for another sales person’s sales presentation, which kind would you rather listen to: one in which the presenter simply recited a list of features and benefits, facts and statistics, or one that included a stimulating, engaging, riveting, or inspiring story about how you helped another customer solve a problem similar to the one with which you’ve been wrestling, or achieved an outcome you’re looking to achieve? Which would move you, and which would bore you? Which would be memorable, and which would be forgettable?

Stories are far more effective than feature/benefit data dumps.I used to work for a sales trainer who is a master of telling an engaging, purposeful story and people remember them.  In fact, one customer went through the training more than 5+ years ago, but he still remembers a very specific story about commoditization.


This approach is also supported by CopyBlogger in this post.  Brian couches the discussion around truth-telling which is clearly relevant in sales (though not as widely practiced).  The take-away:

But if people reject what you say, truth or not, you’re back where you started.

Guys like Buddha and Jesus had this problem.

The solution remains the same.

Tell a story.

The power in the story is the ability to make a direct point indirectly.  When dealing with difficult sales situations, this is a tremendous tool for a salesperson to use.  One other note – the salesperson’s ability to use this tool is evident in a well-structured sales interview.

Behavioral-based interviewing has been the buzz in hiring for the past few years and rightly so.  This technique brings real-world clarity to a sales interview as opposed to theoretical, positional answers.  Selling Power provides a good article to assist you in your interview strategy.

In order to ensure you are using a behavioral-based approach (emphasis mine):

“A lot of people think that they are conducting behavioral-based interviewing when they’re really not,” says Wolf, who defines behavioral-based questions as questions that allow candidates to relate real situations and demonstrate how their strengths and weaknesses are exhibited on the job. “Many times hiring managers are asking theoretical questions, such as, ‘How would you handle this situation?’ Or, ‘If you were faced with this situation, what would you do?’ A behavioral-based question is phrased differently, such as, ‘Can you tell me about a situation where you…’ A true behavioral question may not even be a question. For example, ‘Tell me how you handled a client objection.’ The whole premise that past behavior predicts future behavior falls flat unless you are really getting examples of past behavior.”

I am partial to using a statement as opposed to a question in the interview.  I find this approach focuses the candidate and allows less room for theoretical answers.  Here are a few suggestions from the author:

Wolf shares a few best practices of behavioral-based interviewing to help you garner the most information from your candidates:

  1. Have a valid interview guide. “Start with a job analysis because every question you ask in an interview has to be job relevant,” says Wolf. “Questions have to be linked to the tasks performed on the job – that’s critical. For example, if the job requires the ability to overcome objections, you need to specifically ask about a time when a candidate overcame an objection.
  2. Be familiar with your information. “Just like you wouldn’t go into a sales call without researching the company, don’t go into the interview without some knowledge about the candidate,” says Wolf. Review the resume, check out social networks, and review the candidate’s company Website.
  3. Be a practiced interviewer. Seek training and role-play because interviewing is a skill, says Wolf.

“The most difficult things about doing behavioral-based interviews are balancing the timing and pace of the interview, while managing the experience that the candidate is getting,” says Wolf. “You need to get the information by getting enough detail, but not too much. At the same time, you need to get that detail without making the candidate feel as if you are drilling them – you need to have empathy. It takes a lot of practice and training.”

That last paragraph is filled with wisdom.  If you overdo it the interview becomes something of a scene from a crime drama interrogation.  One thing we always remind our hiring managers – you are selling the candidate also…don’t forget that fact.

However, we always recommend that you model the interview after a sales call.  You can be a little standoffish and disconnected to see how the candidate handles the situation.  The best way to see a salesperson’s talents is to see them selling.  You can model your hiring process after your typical sale to see which candidates can handle the different situations, pressures and processes.

If you need help in this area we would welcome the chance to talk to you about your sales hiring process.