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11 Timeless Tips for Interviewing a Sales Candidate

When I was a VP of sales, I had no training in hiring.  I was lucky enough to hire some winners who contributed to my company’s (and my) success.  But I also hired too many of those reps who were good enough to sell me during the interview but couldn’t sell enough of our software to make their numbers.

Here are 11 timeless tips I wish I’d had twenty years ago.  These will enable you to improve your interviewing effectiveness, resulting in fewer mis-hires:

  1. Make sure you know what you are looking for.  Create a profile.  First, you’ll need to evaluate the requirements for that position. What are the market, customer, and competitive pressures? What skills (e.g. communication, business, industry knowledge, prospecting, competitive) and personal traits (e.g. intelligence, integrity, tenacity, optimism) are required for success in that specific job? Put time into this.  Getting the profile right is the most important step.

  2. Prepare your questions in advance. If you’ve followed tip #1, you’ll know what skills and personal traits are required for success in this job at this time. The questions you design should result in the candidate recounting their actual behavior and thoughts during selling situations rather than surreptitiously relating concepts, theories, or what they wished they would have said and done. You must include questions for every critical skill and trait.

  3. Remain objective during the interview.  This is hard for most of us. To interview effectively you’ll need to stay dispassionate the way a doctor might when reading your EKG or taking your medical history. One mistake many interviewers make is getting emotionally involved with the candidate, overlooking even the most blatant weaknesses.

  4. Trust but verify. By the time the candidate is in front of you they should have been screened by a recruiter, an admin or HR person, and had their resume vetted. Perhaps they’ve even been interviewed on the phone. Major incompatibilities and issues will have been identified. So there has to be a basic level of trust by this point, or you’d be wasting your time.  With that being said, you’ll need to verify that what the candidate is telling you is the truth.  

  5. Don’t lead the candidate.  Another mistake interviewers make is to telegraph or lead the candidate in the direction they expect the answers to go. For example, I can ask a candidate what sales process they prefer. I can also ask them how they go about pursuing an opportunity. The questions will likely result in two different answers. If I want to know if a candidate uses a sales process, the first question is useless. They’ll say yes. If I ask the second question and they respond, “…and I use a formal planning process…” it’s likely they do. See the difference?

  6. Push back. Don’t just nod and agree. Choose something the candidate says and respond with, “I don’t know if I agree with that,” and see what happens. Do they back down? Get aggressive? Or professionally ask specifically what did you disagree with. This is a very telling technique.

  7. Take notes. The dullest of pencils is far better than the sharpest of memories. Don’t worry about what the candidate thinks when you say, “Hold on a second, I just want to jot down a few notes.” Capture things like demeanor, communication skills, physical tendencies (like nervousness), eye contact, and sincerity. A few minutes of silence here and there isn’t wasted time if you are recording your thoughts, observations, and even specifically what the candidate said.

  8. Solicit peoples’ names. When a candidate describes how they sold seven million dollars worth of widgets to the Acme Company, ask who the real buyer was. There are a number of reasons I do this, but the most important is so later, when it’s time to check references, you can ask for permission to call those people.  If it turns out that you know someone the candidate mentions, keep it to yourself. Later you can decide if you want to call that person as a “blind” reference.

  9. Deliver powerful messages. You’re not only “buying” when interviewing, but you need to do some selling as well, especially with those great sales reps you’d love to hire.  Make certain you have spent time in advance on how to effectively positioning your company, the opportunity, the candidate’s responsibilities, the upside and the challenges. Also make sure you have prepared compelling responses to potential objections.  And by the way, the positioning and messages from everyone on your team should be the same.

  10. Practice. You should always be interviewing prospective candidates, even if you don’t have an open headcount. You’ll meet people at meetings, trade shows, conferences, social situations, bidders conferences, job fairs, in customers’ reception areas, and in the hotel fitness room.  Work on your interviewing skills so that when you manage to get a real winner into your office to fill a critical sales position, you’ll be at your best.

  11. Give the candidate feedback. If the candidate asks for feedback, don’t hesitate to tell them how they did. (If they don’t ask, that’s a bad sign.)  If they did well, but there are more steps to your process, share that with them.   If you intend to interview a candidate again, don’t share with them what you considered to be weak areas.  They’ll spend time creating the illusion that they aren’t weak in those areas for the next interview and you won’t be able to get an accurate assessment of their capabilities in those areas.

Interviewing is a skill.  Take the time to learn to be a great interviewer.  If you are anything less, your company, your position, your reputation, and your net worth are at risk.


3 Responses

  1. Dave,
    I enjoyed your article. Yes, you must “solicit names” and contacts because that is the best way to tell if the candidate calls on “C” Level executives or middle managers.
    Thanks for the article.

  2. Dave:

    Another good article about hiring Sales Reps. These 11 tips are certainly worthwhile as a great starting point for the hiring cycle. I think, though, that the Sales Rep hiring process has a lot more complexity to it.

    Take, for instance, the Buy/Sell activities that get perpetuated in industry today. The candidate prepares to “Sell” themselves to the hiring manager, and the hiring manager reacts like they are “Buying”. If the candidate sells themselves well, the hiring manager is pre-disposed to believe that they will perform well when in the territory.The same is true for the hiring manager’s need to “Sell” the opportunity to the perspective new hire. Too often the candidate treats the hiring cycle as a ‘sales’ cycle; a job to be won. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    While both parties need to have a positive impression, this ‘selling’ inevitably means that neither person is concentrating on the true aspects of “fit”. It is the hiring manager’s responsiblity to lead the interview in such a way as to explore the fit for both parties. This means moving away from questions/discussions focusing on situations that can be sold, by asking relevant behavior-based questions.

    You stated that as a VP of Sales you had not been trained on how to hire, and you most certainly were not alone. Training of this type is available today and was never more important.

    Good list.


  3. Great post Dave – I just added a link and a couple of other thoughts re proof on our blog. We leverage a lot of your practices as well and they work. Thanks for sharing.

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