How to interview sales people

Do you know how to run a water-tight interview process for a sales vacancy? Are you 100% confident that no candidate will pull the wool over your eyes? Do you know how to identify the essential criteria you need (and don’t want) for your sales vacancy? How would you interview and test for each of these criteria? This article – the 2nd in a series of 2 – will take you through a step-by-step process to ensure you only employ the right sales people for you and your business.

Define your Candidate Criteria

Before you can start writing your interview questions and tests you must know what it is your are interviewing for. In the first article in this series – How to Recruit Great Sales People – we take you through a process to do this. Once you have your Candidate Criteira defined, you’re ready to move on.

Interview Questions

Whether or not you are experienced at interviewing sales people you will already be familiar with interview questions. But if you want to be an expert interviewer – able to dig deep and identify the high performers – read on.

Questions to Avoid

Even experienced interviewers can fall into the trap of asking bad or ineffective interview questions. Here are 3 examples of questions that are commonly asked that do now allow the interviewer to gather effective information:

a) Theoretical Questions

eg How do you deal with rejection? This type of question is only likely to give an indicator of a candidate’s imagination or theoretical knowledge. This is not information that will be a reliable indicator of a person’s behaviour.

b) Leading Questions

eg I trust you enjoy a lively and fast paced work environment? Questions like this prompt a yes or no answer. Used in isolation do not really give any real information to the interviewer.

c) Vague Questions

eg What are your strengths and weaknesses? These are bad questions because they are too vague, they are so well known and it’s remarkably easy to come up with a text book answer.

Questions that elicit honest responses

So you know what questions to avoid but what do you use instead? There are 2 types of questioning techniques we recommend:

Behavioural Questions

eg Give me a recent example of when you have had to deal with rejection

A behavioural question is used to produce an example of a behaviour in relation to your assessment criteria. Your candidate should now tell you about a real life example which you then need to explore further to assess behaviour in this situation.

Hanging Questions

eg Tell me about a time when you were given an assignment your didn’t agree with

Hanging questions are critical when interviewing sales people. They are used less frequently because they often go against your natural instincts. There are 2 parts to this question that are important:

  1. You begin with the behavioural part:  “Tell me about a time when…”
  2. Finish with the hanging part “…you were given an assignment you didn’t agree with”

This might not seem challenging, but it is.  Because when most people ask this question, they instinctively want to add six little words that destroy their effectiveness.  i.e. “ Tell me about a time when you were given an assignment you didn’t agree with and how did you solve it?” As soon as you add the extra words, you turn the question into a leading question.  Never hint at the correct answer, always leave the question hanging out there.

Using the S.T.A.R Interviewing Technique

The STAR technique is a very useful tool for probing deeper. It allows the interviewer to funnel down to establish behaviour. It stands for

  • Situation
  • Task
  • Action
  • Result

An example of using the STAR technique is:

SituationQ.  Can you tell me about a time when you worked towards and achieved something that was important for you?
Task  Q. What was the task? How did you plan? What and how did you prioritise?
ActionQ. Tell me what you did? How did that work? Who else was involved?
 ResultQ. Tell me about the outcome? What have you learnt from this? What would you do differently?
S.T.A.R. Interview Technique

High Performer v Lower Performer Traits

Knowing what high performer and lower performer traits are and how to identify them is a game-changer for any employer. It’s particularly useful when interviewing sales people – who by their very nature are very good at selling themselves and ‘talking the talk’.

High Performer Traits
  • Coachability: Talk about wanting to learn and progress, have ability to accept and implement feedback.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Have the ability to understand and manage their own emotions and accurately assess others’ emotions.
  • Self Motivation: Drive to achieve, tenacious and persistence – never give up even when things are really hard.
  • Talk about wanting to be the best they can be for themselves – not for someone else.
  • Solutions Focused
  • Like to be really busy – find it very enjoyable
  • Ability to Prioritise
  • Want to be valued and recognised for what they are capable of
  • Want to Make a Difference
  • Love to learn and progress
  • Tenacity and perseverance
  • Like to be recognised for what they are capable of
Lower Performer Traits
  • Negativity
  • Blame others or circumstances for their mistakes or poor performance
  • Don’t take initiative and only do the bare minimum expected of them
  • Procrastinate and resist change
  • Want to prove to someone else they can do it (i.e. parents, peers, colleagues)
  • Will do what others ask to please them even if not profitable
  • When they are really busy they see it as hard work
  • Talk about wanting to hit or achieve target. Top performers talk about smashing or over-achieving.
  • Busy fool
How to Flush Out High and Lower Performer Traits

There are certain attitudes, values and behaviours that can demonstrate if someone is likely to be a high or low performer. Values are how we decide what to do or spend our time. By understanding someone’s values within the work context will help you to establish: 

  • What is really important to this person, what motivates them?
  • Are they suited to your role? 
  • Are you (the employer) suited to them – can you deliver on their expectations?
  • Do they have top performer competencies/traits?
  • Will the person fit into your team?
How to Elicit Values
  • Ask the question ‘What’s important to you about being / becoming a Sales Person?’ What else?
  • Once you have their reasons ask “What does Value X give you?” or “What do you get from Value X”?
  • Listen to their language and the words they use in their answers and cross check with the high/lower performer traits.

Interview Tasks

Practical interview tests should be included in all interview processes for sales people. They allow you to dig deeper and gain verification that the candidates’ claims are genuine. The type of task you set your interviewee could range from a 5 minute exercise given on the spot to a 20 minute presentation prepared ahead of time. Here are some useful tasks for sales interviews:

Online Tests

Online tests can be used to test a number of skills including personality traits, verbal, numeric, attention to detail, keyboard skills, spelling and grammar. There are wide ranging providers of online test providers – some you will have to pay for and some free of charge.

On the Spot Exercises

You can create exercises for your interviewees to perform ‘on the spot’ at the interview (best used at 2nd or 3rd stages). Examples of on the spot exercises might be:

  • Prioritisation task – you provide your interviewee with a list of real life activities that they might have to carry out in the job and ask them to prioritise them in order of importance – giving reasons for their choices. This test could be combined with a computer skills or Excel test by asking the to complete the task on an Excel spreadsheet.
  • Research task – you provide your candidates with a real life research challenge eg find out the names of the Managing Directors of 5 named businesses. You then give them a computer with internet access and a telephone and a set amount of time. You might want to try out this task on one of your existing strong sales people – to check that it’s realistic but also challenging. This type of task is highly effective at testing persistence, initiative, imagination and research skills – all very desirable attributes for sales people. Make sure you sit and observe the candidate as they complete the task – watch their body language and how they approach it – it will tell you a lot about their general attitude and approach to a challenge.

Presentations are commonly used at 2nd or 3rd stage interviews. You can either set your candidates a presentation brief ahead of time or give them the brief on the spot and an amount of time (eg 30 minutes) to prepare. Presentations can test for multiple elements at once: industry knowledge, Powerpoint skills, communications skills, ability to act on instructions, time management etc.

Planning your Sales Interviews

You should now be ready to plan your interview process for your sales vacancy.

Define how you will test for each criteria

In our previous article we showed you how to define your candidate criteria using this document. If you don’t already have it down load it now:

Defining Your Candidate Criteria - Sales People

In table b) you should have already listed the essential SEARCH criteria for your sales person. Now simply complete the third column of the table deciding how you will test/interview for each criteria. Then repeat the exercise for table d) – your RED FLAG criteria or things you would never hire someone with.

Plan Your Interviews

Now you need to plan your interview process. You need to decide:

  • How many interview stages will you have?
  • Where and how will you hold each interview – telephone, video or face to face?
  • Which criteria will you test at which stage? We recommend reserving tests and tasks for stages 2 or 3.
  • How will you measure each candidate fairly? Will you have a scoring system?
  • Who will be on your interview panel?
Write your Interview Questions

Now you need to write your interview questions/tasks for each stage of your interview process. To get you started here is an example of what you might want to ask at stage one – a telephone screening call:

Telephone Screening Interview Template

Using this template you can then design the rest of your interview process including questions and tests to cover off all your essential criteria. Follow this format and you will find interviewing sales people becomes a systematic process where your hiring decisions will be based on facts and evidence – not gut feel. Good luck.

If you would like to discuss any of the advice in this article please call Julia Pennington for a confidential conversation: 07973 286342

Further Reading:

Be an Outstanding Leader in the Automotive Industry

Conduct a Successful Video Interview

How to write a Job Description

Copeland are UK automotive industry recruiters who help you find industry expert candidates and reduce hiring timesAbove all, we focus on quality over quantity.

To learn whether we are the right agency for you see Why Employers Choose Copeland . Alternatively, If you’re ready to talk get in touch: E [email protected] T 07973 286342

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