Interview Questions for Sales Managers

In November's newsletter, I answered a question from a sales leader concerned about having worked for three different companies over the past five years. My advice ran the gamut from speaking with reps he'd previously managed to taking a sales management assessment to determine his strengths and challenges.

Sales leaders also need to give serious thought to the interview process. Many (though not all) of the issues they struggle with once on the job might have been uncovered during these conversations. 

My suggestions focus on five key areas: current sales force, hiring process, departmental procedures, career development and the direct supervisor's management style.  

Here are questions you should consider asking:

Hiring Process

  • Could you describe your company's hiring process for sales reps?
  • Are candidates asked to take a pre-hire sales assessment?
  • Do they meet executives from other departments?
  • Do the current sales reps get an opportunity to interview the candidates?

Departmental Procedures

  • Can you tell me about the new hire orientation program for sales reps?
  • Do new reps receive any formal sales training?
  • Is the company affiliated with any type of formal sales training program?
  • Do the reps receive on-going sales skills training?
  • Is there a career path for salespeople (Senior Sales Rep; Key / National Accounts)?
  • Does the company sponsor sales contests?
  • Is there a President's Club?
  • Does the company have a performance improvement plan or warning process?

Current Salesforce

  • Can you tell me about the current tenure and level of experience on the sales staff?
  • How many of the reps are currently at or above quota?
  • What is their greatest strength as a group?
  • What do you think makes the top performers excel?
  • How many reps are below quota?
  • Of those below quota, how many are on written warning?
  • For what period of time have they been on warning?

Career Development

  • Tell me about the new hire orientation program for managers.
  • Does the company provide on-going coaching / training?
  • What is the budget for joining sales leadership groups / off-site meetings?
  • How and how often am I evaluated?

Management Style

  • What level of involvement do you have with the sales organization?
  • How often would you and I meet one-on-one?
  • Which sales reports are critical to you?
  • How would you describe your leadership style?
  • What would be your ideal working relationship with the sales leader?
  • If you are not satisfied with a direct report's performance in a particular area, how do you have that conversation?

Positive Signs

When a company has a proven hiring methodology, annual President's Club, or formal probation process, executives answer questions about those topics in some detail. They're proud of those programs and want candidates to understand they'd be coming to work for a proactive, sales-oriented organization with structure and formality. Sales leadership candidates should view this as a positive sign.

Questionable Statements

If you get a lot of, "Er, um well we never actually put reps on probation and um well, there's really no training program per se, but we're looking for someone to come in and, you know, do that type of thing ... uh," ask questions like:

"It seems like you want the next sales leader to create a new hire orientation program (or President's Club, formal warning plan, hiring process etc.) for the sales department."

  • Can you tell me about any recent initiatives or policy changes involving the sales department?
  • What is the approval process like?
  • If I did want to make some changes that affected the sales department, how would that work?
  • What kind of support would I receive?
  • What type of budget would I have to address the issue?
  • Who would I work most closely with?

Organizations serious about hiring a leader to enact positive change take inquiries like these seriously and answer in some detail. They've given the matter a lot of thought.
Vague responses should bring into question how much support you'll receive once you've accepted the job.

Final Thoughts

Job interviews are an imperfect art. Always have been, always will be. Asking the right questions, and listening closely to the verbal and non-verbal responses, helps you and the organization determine whether or not you're the type of sales leader they've been looking for - or filling the empty slot for the next 18 - 24 months.

Best wishes to all of my readers.
Enjoy the holidays!
     - Suzanne

Best Practices for Inside Sales

A reader writes, " I am the CEO of a traditional, non-technical company. The sales staff consists of six reps covering a four-state region. For several years, I've considered hiring an inside salesperson to call on accounts below a certain dollar volume and to prospect for new business as well. What can I do to ensure the success of this new position?"

You're wise to think this through. Inside sales positions now involve a lot more than a script and a list of accounts. To answer your question, I spoke with two colleagues, Trish Bertuzzi, President of The Bridge Group, Inc. and author of The Sales Development Playbook and Victoria Nessen, President and founder of NK&A Marketing.

CRM System

Both Trish and Victoria mentioned this first. Trish says, "Invest in a CRM with the ability to track the entire sales process and to measure success and failure. One hundred percent you have to have it. It's a critical success factor."  

Victoria adds, "Managers and company executives need to be able to see where each contact is in the sales process."

Sales Process

Prior to hiring, Victoria advises companies to map out the sales process and create the marketing materials salespeople will need. 

Trish agrees, "Be able to completely articulate the entire sales process. Even if you hire experienced reps, lay it out by stages:  pre-call planning, introduction, objections, outreach, and buyer personae. Give them a playbook and a roadmap."

Lead Gen Campaign

"The company leader and marketing department need to decide who they want to go after," says Victoria, "What's the series of communications that go out to prepare the customer for the inside salesperson's call?" She then suggests that inside salespeople be provided with tailored scripts for actions taken by the prospect such as:

  • Opened email
  • Downloaded white paper
  • Read blog
  • Completed survey

Hiring

"Never hire just one rep, always hire two," says Trish. "You have a 50/50 shot of making a good hire out of the gate.  There's a high burn-out rate in the profession. One rep has no one to talk to or ask, 'What's working? What are you doing?'"

Goals

Victoria suggests implementing a scoring system to track and evaluate the rep's progress. Attach points to outreach efforts:  proactive phone calls to decisions maker: four points, sending introductory emails: 2 points, contacting a survey responder or white paper downloader: 1 point.  "Assign weekly and monthly point quotas," she adds.

Final Thoughts

In addition to the suggestions made by Trish and Victoria, you'll need to: write a job description, develop an on-boarding plan, assign territories and accounts, set minimum performance standards, and create a suite of sales reports, sales contests and performance reviews tailored specifically to the inside team.   

Companies utilizing both field and inside salespeople properly maximize their outreach potential. Take the time to put together a comprehensive inside sales plan, rather than just "putting someone on the phone." Everyone benefits.

Hiring from Another Industry

A reader writes, "Recently I interviewed a candidate for an open sales position.  She has a well-documented history of exceeding quota, and has taken several respected sales training courses. I think she'd fit in well with the sales staff.

"The problem - her past two positions were in completely different industries from our company. I have concerns about her ability to make the transition. What can I do to minimize the risk if I offer her a job?"

Many people enter the workforce with little or no experience in the field they end up employed in. Somehow, they learn what they need to know. Just as many change careers at some point - successfully making the switch to another vocation. So, we know it can be done.

You want to know if this specific candidate has what it takes to succeed. Making this determination comes down to their innate skills and abilities, as well as the responses to questions you ask during the interview process.

Get Curious

See how much thought the candidate has put into this change by posing questions such as:

  • Your previous experience is in the industries of X and Y. What do you see as the similarities between the market my company serves and your previous two positions?
  • What do you see as the differences?
  • Tell me what you know about how we compare with our competition?

Motivation

Making a career change or transitioning into another industry takes some get up and go. Find out how much effort the candidate will put into it. Questions could include:

  • When you switched from Company X to Company Y what did you do, outside of the company sponsored new hire orientation, to learn the new product or service?
  • How long did it take before you felt like you knew the product / service well?
  • Did you have a hard time learning about any particular facet of the product or service?
  • When you struggle to learn something, how do you go about getting the assistance you need?
  • If we offered no training whatsoever, how would you go educate yourself about our company's product or service?
  • What's something you do really well that you taught yourself?

Gauge how realistic they are about the time and work involved.

Utilizing Assessments

Which skills (hard and soft) does a rep need to succeed in your industry? Have them take one or more assessments to determine whether they have the necessary ones. For career or industry changers, I would especially want to know about their abilities in the areas of: 

  • Creative Thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Self-starting

Do Some Homework

Before hiring this or any other rep making a change, talk to your sales staff. Ask them about their learning curve with your product or service. Find out: 

  • How long it took them to become comfortably knowledgeable
  • What they found the easiest / most difficult aspect to master
  • If they have any suggestions about improving the orientation process

Final Thoughts

Hiring someone from a different industry has advantages. They don't have a lot of preconceived assumptions about what will and won't work and what can and cannot be done.  Most bring a fresh perspective. 

Stay away from candidates, no matter how successful in another industry, who make vague statements about changing industries such as: 

  • "I need a new challenge."
  • "Your product sounds interesting."
  • "I learn new things really easily."

Those answers are insufficient. 

During the interview process, the rep should make a strong case for themselves, their understanding of the new industry, the work involved in learning all the new information, and how they see themselves adding value to the group.

Majoring in Sales

Between 13 and 23 million people have sales jobs in the United States. For many years, none of the 2000+ four year public and private colleges in this country offered sales as a major. Curious as to why, I began to look into the matter. 

According to Dr. Terry Loe, Ph.D., professor at Kennesaw State University and one of the founders of the National Collegiate Sales Competition (NCSC), "This was because sales was seen as more of a vocation than a profession by the academic community. Published research is the currency to help colleges develop a curriculum. While research began as early as the 1940's, there's been more of a concentrated effort over the last 50 years."

"Attitudes began to change with the greater availability of formalized research. In the mid-eighties, Baylor University started a sales center, then Northern Illinois University followed suit a few years later."

Dr. Loe says, "Today, approximately 150 colleges and universities have some kind of a sales curriculum and 45 have a dedicated sales center. When people see it taught at the university level, it builds credibility for the profession."

To learn more, I spoke to Robert Nadeau, a Professor at Plymouth State University, and the founder and Director of the University's Professional Sales Program.  

What is your own sales / sales management background?

As a kid, I had a knack for fundraisers - UNICEF, Dollars for Scholars, Boy Scouts - but I didn't know what it was. Post-college, I was a management trainee for McDonald's and then went to work for Liberty Mutual for 25 years.  As the Regional Operations Manager for Liberty Mutual, I oversaw five operations managers who led 36 front-line sales and service managers who in turn supervised over 500 employees.  

How did you first find out about colleges with professional sales programs?

While at Liberty Mutual, I researched different area colleges to affiliate with to hire sales reps. At the time, the closest school with any kind of professional sales program was UConn. Liberty Mutual became a corporate sponsor and the results were phenomenal.  

We hired 8 - 10 interns per year and offered 4 or 5 a full time job upon graduation.

What was your role in Plymouth States' Professional Sales Program?

I was starting to formulate a second career game plan, thinking down the road I'll do this (teaching). So I started adjuncting one night a week - teaching a sales management class - and loved it. I approached the dean about creating a sales program and had his full support.  We went through the process of creating a formalized program.

What advantages do students coming out of a program like Plymouth State's have?

When students receive a degree in professional sales, it sets them apart from many of the other graduates and job applicants. With 120 hours of classroom time, that equates to 3 weeks or more of professional training. This doesn't even include homework assignments and special projects they complete.

Our program helps them discover incredible opportunities.  I have 8 - 10 speakers come in each semester - one was an executive from a medical company. A student, minoring in biology, was all excited about this company. She could sell and work for an organization whose product interested her. It was a connection to a job she didn't even know existed prior to this.

Most importantly, many are offered jobs before graduation.

What are the concerns of today's sales program graduates?

The students ask, "Can I really do this?"  They wonder about their ability to sell away from academia. If they do poorly on a school assignment, they don't get an A. They know the real world consequences are different.

What should employers know about Millennials?  What do they need?  What are they looking for in a job or career?

Millennials represent 30% of the workforce today and that number will climb as more baby boomers retire. I want to debunk a myth:  they aren't lazy and they do not have a poor work ethic. But they do need to be properly guided and motivated. Most are independent thinkers who need to understand more of the "why."

On the personal side, they have a real concern with work life balance. Millennials want to make a difference and give back through civic activities. They need their voices to be heard.

What do employers tell you they need from the graduates?

This generation struggles with communication skills.  Employers ask, "Can you please teach them how to make a phone call?" In my class we work on the basics:  having a conversation, making eye contact, and networking.  My students make out-going sales calls to develop leads for corporate sponsors. I teach them the proper way to shake some one's hand - the old fashioned stuff.

Learn more about the National Collegiate Sales Competition as well as Plymouth State University's Professional Sales Program.

Vetting an Internal Candidate for the Sales VP Role

Last month a reader inquired about potentially promoting their current sales manager to VP of Sales. They wondered about the risks involved.

Together with my colleague Stan Davis of Standish Executive Search, I provided information about the difference between the two jobs to help them make the decision including:

  • Sales Managers - have direct supervisory responsibilities such as problem solving, running meetings and disciplinary issues.
  • Vice Presidents of Sales - take part in the leadership of the company through influencing people, enacting change, and developing and deploying talent.

Determining a sales manager's readiness and suitability for the VP role requires planning and asking impactful questions - of both the candidate and yourself.

Don't Hand Them the Job

Forget about your sales manager's tenure with the company. Disregard successes in their current role. These factors qualify them for consideration. Interview this employee for the job. Handle the process the same as if you were hiring from the outside. Hold multiple interviews over a period of weeks.

Think it Over

Prior to starting the dialogue with an internal candidate ask yourself these questions:

  • How will I structure the interview process?
  • What questions will I ask?
  • Will I have them take an assessment to determine their appropriateness for the role?
  • What questions will I ask the reps they currently manage?
  • What questions will I ask other executives in the company?
  • Which combination of factors will I use to make the final decision?
  • How will I handle the situation if I realize they aren't right for the job?
  • What will I do if they accept the job and it doesn't work out?

Answer the questions. Plan ahead. Doing so will increase your confidence level in the selection process.

Consider Other Applicants

Speak to outside candidates - especially if this role represents a new position for the company. It always helps to have multiple applicants to compare and contrast.

Bring in candidates currently in the role of VP of Sales that you know through industry or professional contacts. Speak with a recruiter to learn about other qualified individuals.  

How do outside candidates respond to your questions? Do their responses differ greatly from those of the internal candidate? If so, how? As outsiders, how might their perspective differ? Do they make up for lack of familiarity with your business with a deep understanding of the role?

If you know you need a VP of Sales and you conclude the internal candidate isn't quite ready or qualified, you have other contenders to consider.

Interview Questions

Determining a candidate's fit for the VP position involves asking the right questions. What's appropriate for this level position? Stan Davis suggests questions like these:  

  • If you could structure this job any way, how would you structure it?
  • How do you get the best and the most from people?  Please give some examples of how that's worked in the past.
  • When people fell short of the potential you expected, what did you do to turn that around? Where you couldn't turn it around, what might have made a difference?
  • If the company was launching a new product, what would you do operationally to ensure the success of that product?
  • Was there a time when you created a plan and then put it into place? What was the outcome?
  • Have you ever mentored and developed a promising employee? How did you go about that?
  • If a salesperson really messed up with a valued customer, what course of action would you take to rectify that situation?

Stan adds, "Sales managers are accustomed to keeping score through dollar volume, pieces and parts, and profitability. These questions help determine their ability to evolve from that mindset to one of leadership."

Decision Time

Whether you offer the position to an internal or external candidate, ask yourself:

  • What sort of training / coaching / professional development will I offer them?
  • What goals will I set for their first 90 days?

Final Thoughts

Hiring internal candidates can be tempting.  It sometimes represents the easier choice.  Other employees see you promote from within.  After close inspection, though, the in-house applicant might be underqualified or not quite ready.  Take the time needed to make the right decision for the employee and the company.

Put the Ball in Their Court - Sales Interview Techniques

In light of March madness, it seems appropriate to think about your job interview techniques in terms of effective offensive and defensive moves. Best way to start? Put the ball in the job applicant's court.  This month's guest author, Attorney Helene Horn Figman, is an employment law attorney who provides legal counsel to small and mid-sized businesses. She writes:

Start with the job description. Present a copy to the applicant and have one in front of you. Go through the description, discussing the requirements of the position. During this review, ask open ended questions, allowing the prospective employee to share information about his or her work style as it relates to the job functions. Using the job description ensures that you are asking all applicants the same questions and having each prospective employee review the functions of the open position. Do not ask personal questions; questions should all directly relate to the requirements of the job.

You can, for example, point to the hours set forth in the description and ask if the individual can work those hours. You can also state a requirement, such as, "Our sales managers often hold team meetings on Thursdays at 4:30 p.m. and that is a requirement of this job." However, there are questions that will clearly get you in "foul trouble," such as whether someone has childcare issues in the afternoon or has difficulty getting up in the morning (which might indicate a health issue). You can ask, "In previous jobs, do you find that you called upon your customers in the afternoon? Were morning appointments more successful for you? In what way?"  List this advice under playing good defense against discrimination claims.

On the other hand, don't be afraid to play a little offense either. For example, if you only ask questions with a yes or no answer it is not going to be very useful. If you ask a question like, "Did you meet your sales goals at your last position?" most candidates will say yes. Okay. Yes, he met his goals. But what did you really learn? In the alternative, ask him about the types of sales goals that were in effect at his two most recent employers. Then follow with a three-point shot: ask whether those goals were related to company numbers, individual sales or team efforts. Then engage the applicant in a discussion as to whether he or she would have revised the calculation of those goals and what suggestions he would have in making the goals tied to his own sales, and why.

In this age of neutral references, it is unlikely that you will learn much from your "scouting report," i.e., an applicant's references from prior employers. You will receive a confirmation of the title of the position held, the duration of employment, and sometimes the salary. The applicant is usually under some confidentiality or proprietary agreement and cannot discuss specifics of accounts and sales. However, you can ask the applicant if she has any e-mails or letters from her former supervisor praising her for exceeding her last year's sales goals. Just make sure that ALL other information (names of accounts; amount of commission, etc.) is redacted to avoid any issue of impropriety (more foul territory).

Be creative and know the rules. Play the interview game like a winner and you may end up with another star on your team.

Learn More about Your Sales Candidates

A reader writes, "Many of my fellow business owners ask sales candidates to take a pre-employment assessment at some point during the interview process. My research indicates these tools range in price from $90 to $300 per assessment. If I assess 5 candidates, I'm spending $450 to $1500 dollars. How do I justify this expenditure?"

The time and money involved in hiring a salesperson seems daunting. Add to that the cost of a high-quality assessment and the expenses continue to increase. Let's look at the cost of a bad hire who stays with your organization for one year. Does money spent up front on assessments make sense?

The ROI

This is a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned. You can look at it a couple of different ways.

First, let's say you pay reps $150,000 per year in salary, commission, bonus, and benefits. And in that first year you pay 20% to a recruiter for sourcing a candidate for you. That's $180,000 first-year expense for you. The $1,500 assessment cost represents less than 1% of the costs of that salesperson for their first year, and greatly reduces your business risk in hiring them.

Here's another way to look at it. Let's say that your salesperson's quota for their first year is $1.5 million. If they perform at 100% of plan, that's all well and good. But let's say you hire someone who has one area of weakness that's readily diagnosed by an assessment but undetectable by you. The cost of the assessments, $1,500 / $1,500,000 represents 0.1% of the salesperson's annual quota. Put another way, if the assessment identifies only a single area that will help a salesperson close just 0.1% more business against their quota, the assessment pays for itself. And in my experience the issues typically found are much more significant than that.

The Diagnostic Benefit

Let's take an example of a new hire. Out of the gate, the new salesperson starts off strong, easily setting up meetings with decision makers. She keeps good records, uses your CRM system as well as or better than any tenured rep, with up-to-date notes and reports done correctly and turned in on time.

Mid-way through the year, you realize she struggles with getting decision-makers to agree to second meetings or product demonstrations. This translates into lighter sales forecast and not very many closed sales. Though the rep regularly calls on her current accounts, she loses business to the competition.

Assessment Results

A reliable assessment might have told you this candidate excelled at setting up appointments. Once in front of decision-makers, however, she shies away from asking strong questions. This rep tried to move the sale along on the strength of her personality instead of relying on a strong methodology.

That same inability to ask questions hurts her with current customers as well. She isn't able to uncover new opportunities -- leaving room for the competition to make inroads.

Surprising Benefit

Managers often have a fixed idea of who they'd like to hire for an open position. Seeing assessment results occasionally causes them to change their mind. The manager in this scenario wanted to (and did) hire a traditional salesperson. But he'd long been considering hiring a business development rep as well -- someone who would speak to and set appointments with decision-makers for other outside salespeople.

Since he'd never come across a qualified candidate, he stopped pursuing that approach. But based on an assessment, although he might have passed on this rep for the territory position, he might have had some interest in them for the business development position instead.

That scenario would be a win for both parties. The manager offers this candidate a position she's more suited for, and he unexpectedly fills a position.  

The Wrong Hire

When a sales hire doesn't work out, your company loses ground with current customers and cedes brand new deals to the competition. Compared to the real costs of an underperforming salesperson, a reputable assessment is a drop in the bucket.

A More Inclusive Interview Process

A reader asks, "As company president, I have always conducted any interviews and made the decisions when hiring sales reps. I would like to change this and involve other employees in the interview process. How do I go about it?"

Everyone wins when employees participate in the selection of a new hire.   The candidate meets more people within the organization, coming away with a better sense of the overall culture. You benefit from listening to the opinions of others before making a final decision. Employees feel their views count and have greater buy-in for the candidate you select.

The Best of Intentions

Though well meaning, many presidents or sales managers begin including other employees in the selection process by saying, "Oh, by the way, I'm interviewing a candidate for our open sales position this morning. Would you like to talk with this person for a few minutes after I'm done speaking with them?" Others drop a prospective hire off at an employee's cubicle unannounced. A company president told me about spontaneously introducing a candidate to an employee playing solitaire on their computer. Another mentioned leaving a salesperson to chat with a staff member. When she came back the two were enthusiastically discussing their favorite restaurants.
 
These situations lead to awkward, unprepared conversations between the parties. Executives leave themselves open to this type of occurrence when no pre-planning takes place.

Consider the Participants

Include only those who would interact with the new sales rep on a regular basis. If hired, your new salesperson can meet and chat with other employees during orientation. Unless we're talking about a very small company, having a job applicant meet every one in the organization is tiring, confusing, and a time waster.
 
I recommend the potential hire meet with four people at most. If you've never included other employees in the interview process before, start with just one or two.   See how it goes.

Discuss Beforehand

At least a week before the candidate comes in to meet with you, get together with the selected staff members. Let them know you'd like to include them in the interview process. Ask them what questions they would like to ask of sales candidates.   Talk about what you would like to learn from their conversations with the applicants. Let a discussion take place. Be open to suggestions on improving the overall hiring process.
 
Leverage each employee's strengths. Have the Director of Customer Service inquire about post-sales account management or the Director of Marketing ask about lead follow-up.
 
At the close of the meeting, ask each person to submit a list of questions to you. Look them over and get together again to finalize the lists. Candidates for any position resent having to answer the same questions over and over again. Make sure that each staff member makes different inquiries.

Present an Organized Front

The day before the candidate arrives, tell them who they'll be meeting with. Give them a chance to do some research on LinkedIn. They might prepare some questions of their own.
 
Email the salesperson's resume and interview time slots to the group.   Stop by after the last interview and bring the candidate back to your office. Answer any last questions. Escort them to the reception area and make your goodbyes. They will be impressed by and appreciate all of these courtesies.

Follow-up

Don't let too much time elapse. At some point during that day or the very next, convene the interview group. Share thoughts, opinions, and observations about the salesperson. You should go last. Once all of the applicants have been met with, rank them by order of group preference.  
 
Not everyone will be in agreement, but the opinions and insights will prove valuable. You'll feel more confident when you extend an offer to a candidate.

Candidates' Impressions

Many presidents or managers wait until the second interview to have a candidate meet with other employees. If the initial interview does not go particularly well, they won't be wasting valuable time on an unsuitable candidate. I agree with this.
 
Just as you assess applicants for your open position, they evaluate you and your organization at the same time.   By allowing different people to participate in the interview process, the candidate sees a company with a professional, thorough, organized, and inclusive approach to hiring. Top performing sales reps want to work for a company embodying those qualities.

I've Read the Resume. Now What?

Since the economic downturn, I haven't hired any new salespeople. I'm finally able to, and am currently reviewing resumes. Many candidates show a strong work history through 2009 or 2010. After that, they jump from job to job - 6 months here, 9 months there. Should I consider them? How do I find out whether their work history is related to the recession or a poor job performance on their part?

Looking at resumes typically takes up part of my day - every day. I have seen exactly what you describe for several years now. I'll share some of my thoughts on the subject:

Consider the Work History

If you look at their pre-2009 work history, does this candidate fit your organization? How long did they work for each employer from the beginning of their career through 2009? What were their sales accomplishments during the given time periods? If your overall impression, less 2010 to 2013, is favorable, consider them for your open position.

Look at their Industry

In every difficult economic period some industries trend downward while others fare better. Many real estate agents and mortgage brokers sought employment elsewhere. So did those employed by the auto industry and its suppliers.

If an industry experienced permanent downsizing, a potential candidate simply may not be able to work in that field again. Job hopping might have resulted from their trying to find the right new fit.

Did They Take a Logical Next Step?

Lately, I've been looking at resumes from salespeople selling large equipment and tools to the construction industry. After they were laid off, many of these applicants started working at "big box" home supply stores as an interim step.

It makes sense to me - using their expertise in another capacity until the economy improves. How could I hold that against them?

Ask Them for Specifics

Have them explain what happened with the sales position that ended in (for example) 2009. Ask about the three jobs they've held in rapid succession. What happened that caused them to leave so many jobs in a row? What did they learn? If they had to do it all over again, what might they have done differently?

Emotional or Mature Approach?

It's alright for a candidate to acknowledge that this has been an upsetting and frustrating time for them. As human beings they have a right to their feelings. But when discussing the matter, do they become emotional - maybe lash out or blame others - or are they able to articulate what happened in a mature, objective manner? Look for a candidate with some perspective. Use the discussion as a gauge of their resiliency.

If Yours is a New Industry to Them

Does coming to work for your organization, even if they're still in sales, represent a career change? If so, they need to make the connection for you. Why does this position make sense for them? How does it compare with their previous job(s)? Do similarities exist (length of the sales cycle, end user, seasonal buying habits)?    

Do they see any potential difficulties? How quickly do they think they'll be able to get up to speed? How will they go about doing so on their own time? Look for thoughtful, realistic answers.

Your Due Diligence

Jump on LinkedIn and learn more about this candidate and their previous employers. Call your networking contacts and ask for introductions to executives or business owners in the industry this candidate worked in. Learn directly from them how the economic downturn affected their industry.

When checking references, insist on speaking with former managers.

Get in Out of the Rain

Share your concerns about the possibility of their accepting a position with your organization, waiting until the economy improves, and then going back to a job within their previous industry. See how they respond.

A serious applicant should mention a genuine interest in your products and services. They should talk about the effort they'll put in to learning their new job and their reluctance to leave all that behind. It could be they feel that their former industry is just too volatile and they don't want to risk it again - ever.

Though no guarantee exists, their answer should help you make a decision about taking that risk.

Sales Skills Transfer

Salespeople with good solid sales skills transfer their talents to other industries all the time. If you follow a thorough process when interviewing these candidates, you may find yourself hiring a motivated sales rep who you might not have met otherwise.

VP Title Problematic as the Organization Grows

A reader asks, "Several years ago, I hired our company's first and only salesperson. Early on, I involved him in decisions affecting sales, causing him to request a title change to Vice President of Sales.  He thought it would more accurately describe his role and increase his stature with clients. Having struggled to find a good salesperson, I reluctantly agreed.  I didn't want him to resign.

"Recently, I hired 2 additional salespeople, one of whom outperforms the 'VP' by a big margin.  The 'VP' has no managerial authority over the two new reps but sometimes acts as though he does.  This strains the relationship between the three of them. This individual really does not have the experience or presence to hold this title. What should I do about this situation?"

Companies, especially small ones, grow and change.  Your dilemma speaks to the importance of assigning titles that accurately reflect an employee's experience and role within your organization. 

The VP of Sales Role

Individuals with this title have typically had a successful career in sales and sales management before taking on the VP of Sales role.

Responsibilities usually include working with the CEO, setting company-wide objectives and strategy, determining department budgets, coordinating objectives with other departments, managing sales managers and directors of sales, overseeing customer account management, managing the sales forecast, designing and developing sales training, understanding industry trends, and making high-level presentations to customers.

Those without this broad and deep experience aren't likely to have credibility or succeed in the position.

Inflated Title Causes a Credibility Problem

When someone's title doesn't match their experience, employees may be skeptical.  Managers in other departments might think, "C'mon, this guy VP of Sales? Seriously?"

If your VP of Sales calls on customers in a day-to-day sales capacity, they may question his role.  People have a certain image of a VP of Sales.  If the rep doesn't live up to that ideal, customers will take your company less seriously.

Have a Conversation

Discuss the situation with the rep. Count on it being awkward. Begin the conversation by reminding the salesperson of the size of the company when he first started. Review the many changes that have taken place since.  Acknowledge your appreciation of his contributions in the early days of the company.

Let him know that as the make-up of the entire organization has changed, you feel his title no longer matches his job.  Remind him that he is part of a sales team now, instead of the sole sales contributor.  Listen to what he has to say.

Sales Rep's Likely Response

"Is this a demotion?  How will this look?," he'll likely ask.  Assure him that this is not a demotion but a realignment in response to company growth.  His territory and salary will remain unchanged. No company-wide announcement will be made.  Other than ordering business cards with his new title, no other changes are planned.  Strategize with him about what to say if customers comment on his change of title; most will not even notice.

Undoubtedly, he'll ask for a new title like Senior Director of Sales or Major Account Sales Rep. This negotiation is a test of your leadership.  Don't get talked into another title that may not be appropriate down the line.  If you want him to use the same title as the other sales representatives, say so.

Right the Wrong

This situation began innocently enough. Because this salesperson had more contact than anyone in the company with prospects, decision makers, and end-users, you asked their opinion on everything from strategic sales decisions to content for brochures. Who better to ask?
No doubt, they enjoyed the involvement in critical sales matters and wanted their contributions acknowledged.

In reality, your VP of Sales has solid but not superstar sales skills and shows little managerial potential. By allowing him to retain this title you'll lose credibility with your employees.  Outstanding salespeople may leave, thinking there's no potential for advancement.  Customers may question the sophistication of your company. 

You need to make a move. Take care of this problem. It won't improve over time.  Going forward, resist the urge to bestow lofty titles on individuals, no matter how hard working, who don't have the experience to live up to them.

Show Them the Money!

Last month, my newsletter covered ideas and tips to help hiring managers determine a candidate's level of money motivation. I wrote about the difference between a candidate who seems interested in earning a lot of money versus one with a history of and a plan for making as much money as possible.

This month, I want to carry that discussion one step further. Many company presidents, business owners and entrepreneurs tell me that they want to hire "money-motivated" salespeople. I know they are sincere. During the interview process, however, many are unprepared for the questions that a money-motivated candidate will ask of them.

Money Questions a Candidate May Ask 

Some of the questions that might be asked are as follows:

  • Is the compensation plan capped?
  • Is there a limit to how much I can make in a calendar year?
  • Do you offer quarterly or annual bonuses on top of the commission?
  • How much does your top salesperson earn?
  • How many quarters / years in a row have they made that much money?
  • How often do your sales reps max out on the comp plan?
  • What does the average performer earn annually?
  • How many sales contests do you sponsor per year?
  • Is there a sales contest going on right now?
  • Do you have a President's Club?

Know Your Compensation Plan 

In reading through the list above, you're coming to understand the types of questions money-motivated candidates ask. You're also getting an idea of the subjects that interest them and the direction they will steer the interview in when it's their turn to talk. 

Come to the interview prepared with all types of facts and figures that relate to your compensation plan. Be ready to discuss interesting data about the plan that they may not even ask about. If it relates to money, they will pay attention.

Keeping the Candidate Interested 

No one can predict and prepare for every single question a candidate might have. They may ask one or two questions that you cannot answer on the spot. That's not a problem. If you promise to get back to them in a reasonable period of time, it probably won't influence them one way or the other. 

If you cannot or will not answer several money based questions in a row, they will begin to lose interest. The same will be true if you act embarrassed or seem hesitant to discuss the financial realities of your compensation plan. Organize your data and offer straightforward answers to their inquiries.

The Realities of Money-Motivated Candidates 

If a money-motivated candidate suspects that your organization cannot offer the type of income they are used to earning, they will pursue other opportunities. If by chance they do come to work for you and realize they cannot make the amount of money they envisioned, they will quickly leave. They know they are talented and will want to work for an organization that can pay them what they are worth. 

To avoid either scenario, create and present an achievement-based comp plan that will entice a money-motivated candidate. Be completely upfront about the earning potential and be willing to negotiate certain parts of the plan to accommodate them. It will pay off in terms of increased sales revenue for your organization.

Better Job Applicants through Better Job Postings (part 2)

Last month I focused on the skill set section of the job advertisement. The newsletter underscored the importance of mentioning the specific sales skills needed to succeed in your organization. Next, I would like to look at the responsibilities and requirements sections. 

When writing job advertisements, most of my clients accurately describe their company, the benefits package, and the process for applying for the open position. Often they find it difficult to clarify the responsibilities and requirements. Others omit those two areas altogether.

Responsibilities 

A responsibility involves a duty or an obligation. In addition to the selling responsibilities discussed in my last newsletter, regular responsibilities accompanying the sales position you are advertising for might include:

  • Sales software usage
  • Meeting attendance
  • Weekly / monthly / quarterly sales reporting
  • Continuing sales training

Ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • What type of information do you ask the sales representative to enter into the sales software system?
  • How often do you meet with the entire sales staff and the individual sales representatives?
  • What do they need to bring / provide at these meetings?
  • Do they generate any of their own sales reports?
  • If so, which type and when are they due?
  • Do you provide sales training on a regular basis?
  • Is it on or offsite / daytime or evening?

The answers to these and other questions you come up with will assist you in tackling the responsibility section of the job advertisement.

Requirements

A requirement differs from a responsibility in that it is a necessity or a deal breaker. Some requirements might include:

  • College degree
  • Industry experience
  • Certification
  • Organization membership

Ask yourself:

  • Is a college degree truly a necessity?
  • Does prior industry experience help a sales rep be more successful?
  • What type of certification is mandatory in your industry?
  • Do salespeople realize any benefits from joining certain organizations?

Some people throw in requirements (like a college degree) to weed people out. Make sure the prerequisite is absolutely essential. If not, it can chase good candidates away. 

The job advertisement allows companies to be specific about what they really want. You may, for instance, ask your sales representatives to turn in a bi-monthly sales forecast. In your estimation, it's a critical component of the job. If the candidate you are interviewing has never been asked to turn in a sales forecast, that could cause problems once they begin working for you. 

You may choose to hire them anyway. In every other way they may be a great fit for your open sales position. If you do make them a job offer, you'll know before they start that you need to work closely with them on their first few sales forecasts. That's valuable information to have. You'll begin your working relationship with them on a stronger footing.

Better Job Applicants through Better Job Postings

Money motivated...... Prior industry experience...... Calling on C-level executives...... Ability to close...... Strong presentation skills...... Outgoing...... 

These are some of the popular words and phrases I often see in job advertisements or want ads. They aren't so much bad as they are vague. None of the words really describe the particular job being advertised. 

Last month, my newsletter focused on how a well-crafted job description improves the overall hiring process. In this issue, I will discuss the next step - writing a strong job posting.

Typical Job Posting 

Job advertisements are typically built around 6 sections: 

  • Company description
  • Responsibilities
  • Skill sets
  • Previous industry experience
  • Benefits
  • Contact information

Let's take a look at skill sets specifically. It's the section of the job advertisement where clients most often struggle.

Understand Skill Sets 

Competence, aptitude, and proficiency come to mind when I think of successful salespeople. But competence in which areas? An aptitude for what? The specifics sometimes get missed when writing the job advertisement. 

To determine the skill set necessary to succeed at your particular organization, ask yourself questions like:

  • How do you present or demonstrate your product or service to clients?
  • What technology (if any) is used?
  • How long is the presentation?
  • How many people typically watch the presentation?
  • What are their most common objections?
  • Is the final decision made by group consensus or by one decision maker?

Additional questions you could ask might include the average dollar amount of the sale or the length of a sales cycle. As you start to give thought to the questions above and others that you come up with, the true skill set needed by your new hire will begin to emerge.

Specifics are Important 

All sales positions call for the ability to close. Salespeople must be able to ask for the business. But closing can differ depending on the product and the sales cycle.

For example, companies with a shorter cycle need a sales representative who can accurately assess buying signs and ask directly for the sale without hesitation. A salesperson like this might find a long sales cycle tedious and without enough immediate gratification. 

A lengthier sales cycle requires a salesperson with strong consensus-building skills. They must be able to work within a customer's buying process and know when everything is in order before they attempt to close. They may be more strategic and might not gain as much satisfaction from a shorter sales cycle. 

Being specific about your company's sales cycle in the advertisement will increase the chances that the right type of closer will apply for the position from the beginning.

Working with Recruiters 

Some of my clients work directly with recruiters. They rarely place ads on the web. That's fine. In order to work effectively with a recruiter, however, the hiring company needs to provide precise details about the qualifications necessary for their open position. In doing so, they will make it far easier for a recruiter to present appropriate candidates.

Fewer but Better Applicants 

When I craft and then post a more detailed job advertisement for my clients, many are disappointed to receive fewer resumes than they're accustomed to. As they quickly scan the resumes, though, most are surprised at what a good match most applicants are for their open position. They also discover that the interview process is much more efficient and productive. They aren't wasting their time talking to candidates without the right background to do the job. 

Make an effort to write a job advertisement for the salesperson you really want. Specifics never scare truly qualified people away. Candidates that do apply will be more interested in the job, not less. They know what they have to offer and want to work for a company looking for that type of sales representative.

Interview Responses Too Abrupt?

A client asks, "A candidate that my company is considering for a sales position had a strong score on a pre-employment sales assessment, was impressive during the phone interview, and had professional experience that would be a good match for our company. During the in-person interview, however, they gave such brief answers that it was difficult to gauge whether or not to bring them back for a second interview. What do you recommend in a situation like this?"

Though a candidate who gives brief answers can be a welcome respite from the candidate who gives long winded replies, too much brevity can leave you wondering about their fit for the position. You are right to feel hesitant. The purpose of a face-to-face interview is to see how the candidate presents themselves and interacts with others. Would this candidate give perfunctory responses to colleagues and customers who would have the right to expect acceptable answers to their inquiries?

A thoughtful, mature candidate should answer the question that is posed to them in a direct and forthright manner. Some answers will be briefer than others, but in all cases the answer should fully cover what the interviewer is trying to find out. An astute candidate will sometimes ask, "Did I answer that question to your satisfaction?"

Try this technique for handling this confusing situation:

During the interview, give them time to settle in to the process and don't judge them too harshly on the first few questions. Sometimes, out of nervousness, a well-meaning candidate can go on too long or be too brief with their answers. If, after 6 or 7 questions, they are not settling in and their answers are too short to be satisfactory, resist the urge to ask one probing question after another trying to elicit better responses. It is not your responsibility to pull information out of them.

Instead, I advise my clients to pause for a moment and then saying the following, "your answers to my questions are so brief that I am having a difficult time getting the information that I need to determine whether or not you are the right fit for our organization." Then pause again and see what they have to say. If they indicate that this is their interview style or feel that they have answered the questions appropriately, complete the remainder of the interview professionally. Do not ask them back.

If, on the other hand, they apologize and express a willingness to give more expansive answers, start the interview over from the beginning. Their answers should be noticeably longer and they should be asking whether or not you found their responses to be satisfactory.

A client of mine tried this technique and was told by the prospective candidate that his career counselor had told him to give very brief answers to the questions that he was asked. The candidate apologized for the difficulty this had caused and offered to answer any and all questions over again. My client thanked him for his candor, started the interview again and eventually made him an offer of employment.

Good salespeople are hard to find. If a candidate seems to have great potential, try this technique before you give up on them. They may be worth the effort, as one of my clients discovered.


Though my clients come from many different industries, the challenges they face are similar. In "Sales Management Tips," I regularly answer questions that have been posed to me by my clients. I hope the answers will help you to solve some of the sales dilemmas you face in your own sales organizations. If you would like to ask a question, please contact me. The identity and affiliation of those submitting questions will be kept confidential.

Is Prior Sales Success Relevant? Be Objective

A client asks, "As a newly hired Vice President of Sales, my first responsibility is to hire three new salespeople. After the first round of interviews, I asked them all to take a sales assessment test. Among the candidates was a former co-worker that I was excited about hiring. They did not perform well on the test at all. How could this be? They were a strong producer at my former company. What should I do?"

It can be an awkward, unwelcome surprise when a highly-regarded colleague does not perform well on an assessment. As more and more companies use these tools as part of their hiring process, situations like this will occur more frequently. When confronted with a circumstance like this, there are several factors to consider.

Test First

The next time that you need to hire a salesperson, test all of the candidates before you interview them. Use what you have learned from their assessments as a basis for determining who to bring in, and in developing your interview questions. By following this path, you will not be surprised when you discover that a candidate that you met and liked is not a strong prospect for your open position.

Quota, Quota, Quota

In this situation, however, you administered the test in the middle of the process. In the case of your former colleague, you have to be ready to ask tough questions to gauge the difference between your experience with them and what the assessment results are telling you.

Thoroughly go over their performance against quota with them. Ask questions such as "How many of your accounts did you inherit when you joined the company?" "By how much did you grow each account?" "Exactly how many accounts were brought in through your cold calling efforts alone?" "What was the total revenue of that effort?" "How many accounts did you lose?" Questions like these will help you determine whether or not they are more oriented toward account management (working with existing customers) or landing new business.

Why Are They Leaving?

If they are as strong a performer as you believe they are, investigate why they are switching positions. Is it possible that their performance has slipped? Could a manager be on to the fact that they are not as strong as they appeared to be? Did a recent territorial realignment cause them to lose some of their best accounts? Might they be concerned about having to prospect to make up the business?

One Hit Wonder

Occasionally, a salesperson is in the right place at the right time. This could mean selling a hot product in good economic times, taking over a very strong territory, or lucking into a few new accounts. Maybe their manager did much of the heavy lifting. What looks like selling may just be order taking. When the economy softens or a few accounts go out of business in this salesperson's territory, their production really suffers and they do not have the skills necessary to sell through the difficult times. They are never again able to achieve what they did in that singular situation.

Lastly, remember that you just started in your new position and your first few decisions are going to be scrutinized carefully. By supporting the hiring of this candidate based on a past association, and in spite of the poor results from the assessment, you are taking an even greater risk. If they fail, it will reflect poorly on you. Is that a situation you want to find yourself in?

Improving Hiring Decisions by Using Sales Tests

A client asks, "I've been hearing a lot about sales assessment tests. Do they really work? How do I choose one?"

Depending on your needs, assessment tests can be used as part of your hiring process and/or as part of assessing your sales team. This month I will focus on using tests in the hiring process. In a subsequent newsletter I will talk about using them as a diagnostic tool.

Tests do work. There are numerous scientific surveys that demonstrate the value of testing (e.g. for finding strong contributors, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and improving retention rate) and it puts one more tool in your hiring toolbox. A bad hire has a lasting impact which can be particularly damaging at a smaller company. Testing can help mitigate your hiring risk. So the decision should not be about whether to test, but about which test is right for your sales organization. Briefly, there are several types of tests:

  • Personality: Assesses an individual’s character traits, and provides insights into how they might fit in with your company’s culture.
  • Intelligence: Evaluates an individual’s reasoning, memory, comprehension and numerical abilities.
  • Aptitude: Shows skills an individual has learned and is capable of performing.
  • Executional: Examines whether or not an individual has learned certain skills and whether they will execute those skills when they need to.

Handle the search for a sales test just like you would handle the search for a good house painter: ask your peers and sales executives in your network if they use sales assessment tests and if they were satisfied with the results. Call the various companies they suggest, and talk to them about validity, delivery, and price. Ask to see a sample test and a list of companies that they currently do business with.

When reviewing the tests, be sure to consider only commercially reputable EEOC-compliant assessments supported by a substantial body of historical and statistically validated data. Make sure that they allow you to “benchmark” so that test results can be compared to your ideal candidate. For salespeople execution is critical, so executional tests deserve most of your attention.

Testing is only one part of the hiring process. Writing an accurate job description, crafting insightful interview questions, meeting with candidates several times, and conducting thorough reference checks are all equally critical to helping you identify and hire the right candidates for your company.

Involving Sales Staff in the Hiring Process

A client asks, “I am considering hiring another sales representative. What criteria should I use to make this decision? What do I do if I decide to proceed?"

In last month’s column I wrote about making the decision to hire an additional salesperson. Should you decide to do so, telling your current sales team is the next step. Below are some thoughts on making this process as smooth as possible.

Telling the Group

Making the announcement that you have decided to hire an additional sales representative can elicit mixed emotions from your current sales staff. Concerns ranging from territory and income reduction to fears about the new person showing every one up are common. The best way to mitigate fears and concerns is to position your decision around what’s best for the health of the business, using facts and numbers to back your decision up where necessary.

Present the Plan

If you are asking salespeople to give up part of their current territory, show them the new territorial alignment plan before you begin bringing candidates in for interviews. If they object strongly to a particular territorial decision, hear them out. They may have thought of something you hadn’t. When it comes to territory realignment, most sales representatives will try to do a little wheeling and dealing. If what they propose is fair, try to accommodate them. If you cannot, explain why. The final decision is yours.

Involve Them in the Hiring Process

Before you begin the interview process, let your sales staff know that you would value their input. Ask them questions such as:

  • “What characteristics do you think a sales representative needs to be successful at our company?"
  • "What do you know now that you wished you had known before you took the job?”
  • “What was the most helpful part of orientation?”
  • “What is your favorite part of the job?”
  • “What is the most challenging part?”
  • “What questions would you ask a prospective candidate during the interview process?”

Make sure that each salesperson has a chance to speak with the final candidates during the interview process and ask them for their opinion afterwards. When you make your final choice, tell them specifically why you selected that person and how their input helped.

Though it’s always an adjustment to accommodate a new sales representative, your current staff will appreciate being involved in the process, which will make for a smoother transition for everyone.

Assessing the Self-Motivation of a Salesperson

A client asks, “During an interview, how can I determine whether or not a prospective sales representative is self-motivated, competitive, or hungry?”

Job interviews are challenging because both you and the candidate are trying to present yourselves in the best light possible. This gets further exacerbated when the interviewer makes a common mistake and asks the candidate leading questions.

One way to avoid this problem is to use behavioral questions. These questions will usually take the form of “Describe a time when….” or similar phrasing. Asking, “Can you tell me about a time when you created a sales contest just for yourself?” will give you a lot more information than a leading question such as “Are you self-motivated?” The former question allows them to both tell a story and actually demonstrate their level of self-motivation or competitiveness. The latter question tips them off to the reply you want.

A genuinely self-motivated salesperson understands the importance of frequently setting up both large and small rewards for themselves on an ongoing basis. If a candidate mentions buying a gourmet dessert for their family every Friday if they speak to a certain number of decision makers each week, you know they understand the importance of setting smaller goals. If a candidate mentions buying tickets to a theatre production or sporting event if they open a new account or close a particularly big sale, you know they understand the importance of setting larger goals as well. Salespeople like these are actively engaging in this process.

Good follow-up questions to ask are “Who have you told about these contests?” or “How often do you bring home a gourmet dessert for your family?” Listen for candid and open answers.

Behavioral questions such as these will help you to see beyond the candidates “best manners” and enable you to more accurately determine whether or not they are a driven salesperson.