How to Interview Sales Candidates

By Butch Bellah

As a manager, you’ve narrowed your search to a handful of lucky sales candidates you’d like to interview. But, where to start? What to say? Prepare yourself for the interview and know what you want to say about your industry, your company, and the specific job available. A

t the same time you’re interviewing them, they’re interviewing you, and you certainly want to be able to highlight the benefits of your company if you find your next superstar. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, keep a few things in mind as you conduct interviews with candidates:

  • Don’t be too easy on them. Ask hard questions and don’t let them off the hook. If someone is truly going to be one of your top performers, this is the time to find out how he handles pressure. Resist the temptation to be likable and make friends. That’s not what you’re there for.

  • Listen more than you talk. From easy questions like, “Tell me about yourself,” to tougher ones like “Who was the hardest manager you ever worked for and why?” let the candidate do the talking. You’re there to interview him, not vice versa.

  • Remember these are salespeople. Even in an interview a good salesperson asks questions, and it’s a great sign that a candidate asks questions. Gently lead him back through the interview process, but note this is as very positive reaction.

  • Don’t oversell the job. More than once you may see managers or human resources directors feel the need to sell the person on the job. That’s not the purpose of this interview. This interview is for the candidate to sell himself to you. If he gets to a second interview that’s when it’s more appropriate for you to do a bit more selling, but never oversell the job.

  • Discover why they’re looking to change jobs. If a candidate is currently employed, you must ask this question, “Why are you wanting to leave ABC Company?” The reason may be something as simple as the company has been acquired (which is happening a lot these days) and the candidate doesn’t feel comfortable with the direction of the future. Or, it could be he’s padding his resume and is one step ahead of his manager at his current job. Ask the hard questions and get the answer you want before moving forward.

  • Look for gaps in work history. Years ago if someone had more than two jobs in a five-year period, it was a sign of a job-hopper. That’s not the case any longer. More and more today you find people who have moved around more than they used to — partly due to the economy and consolidation in commerce and partly because of the changing landscape of the job.

    If an applicant has any gaps of more than a month, ask about the gap and don’t stop until you’re satisfied with the answer. Many times an applicant leaves out a job he doesn’t want you to know about and creates an unexplained gap. Get a satisfactory explanation of all gaps.

  • Have some standard questions of every candidate. Have some go-to questions you ask in almost every interview. Ask these no matter how the conversation is flowing. It’s okay to write these down. Feel free to use the following questions, but come up with some of your own as well:

    • Tell me about yourself.

    • Who’s the best manager you ever had and why?

    • Who’s the worst manager you ever had and why?

    • What criteria do you use to judge your performance as a salesperson?

    • What is the last good book you read and what did you like about it?

    • Tell about a time when you had to satisfy an upset customer by going the extra mile.

The bottom line to the entire process is this: Would you buy from this person? After all, you’re hiring a salesperson. Ultimately what you really want to know is that if he were selling your product or service would you buy it from him? Remember, the person you’re interviewing wants the job and is likely to do and/or say almost anything to get it — especially if he’s currently unemployed.

Verbal skills, body language, and eye contact are three main areas to note other the actual answers to the questions ask. It comes down to a candidate’s ability to communicate, which is exactly what you’re going to ask him to do as a sales professional. If he can’t do it here, he can’t do it there.