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?


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.

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.


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.


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.