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How to Interview Salespeople

Finding and Hiring Sales "Stars"

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When you're hiring a new salesperson, a little due diligence on your part can help you to secure a highly-skilled team member. The candidate's answers to your interview questions are important, but they're only one possible source of information about that person.

While resumes are always helpful in gauging a candidate's skills and qualifications, there are certain career areas where skill in preparing a resume translates directly into skill in doing the job itself. Writers, for example, should have well-written, literate resumes! For salespeople, the resume – a candidate's primary marketing tool – is a great indicator of his or her sales skills. How well do they sell their skills and qualifications in their resume? Do they give specific examples of their successes in past jobs? Are their experiences described in a way that presents them as a good fit for your firm? A poorly crafted resume should definitely raise some red flags in your mind.

A good salesperson should always do his or her homework. Before you tell the candidate about your company or the position, ask why they applied for this particular job. The salesperson's answer will demonstrate how much research they did on you and your company before the interview.

A candidate's attitude and behavior can be telling. Did they arrive either on time or slightly early? Were they courteous and pleasant to the people they encountered (receptionist, secretaries, etc.)? Are they dressed and groomed professionally? (Remember, the way someone looks on an interview is probably the best they will ever look on the job!) Did they look you in the eye, shake your hand firmly (but not bone-crackingly), greet you warmly and demonstrate open, receptive body language? Did they communicate well and speak clearly? Did they talk too much and too fast, or barely speak at all? The way they sell themselves is the way you can expect them to sell your product or service.

Some specific interview questions to ask salespeople include:

  • What are some specific examples of previous sales experiences? What would you do the same? What would you do differently?
  • What is your understanding of this company's sales cycle and how does it compare to what you've done in the past?
  • What's your process for making a sale in your current or most recent sales position, from getting the lead all the way through to closing the deal? (Note what if anything they have to say about following up with the prospect after the close; this is critical to building repeat business.)
  • What kind of compensation structure do you prefer? (The possibilities are usually base salary, base plus commission, or pure commission. A salesperson who prefers a pure commission job has considerable confidence in their own skills!)
  • What are your sales goals and how do your actual results compare to those goals?
  • What do you see as this company's strengths and what changes do you think would improve sales and productivity? How do you feel you could contribute to this improvement?
  • What new markets could we address and how would you suggest we develop these markets?

Don't forget to include a few of the classic interview questions:

  • How do you feel your experience would fit this job's needs?
  • What's an example of a great success from a past job and how did you accomplish it?
  • What's a significant mistake that you made, how did you correct it and what did you learn from it?
  • What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses and what do you do to alleviate your weaknesses?
  • How do you see your career developing in the next few years and how will you accomplish that in this company?
  • What do you see as the greatest contributions you can make to improve the company's success?

If there is a lag or a silence, see how they handle it; this is something that can occur in a sales call and a salesperson who rushes to plug every silence by babbling or who does nothing at all will not be successful. Raise any issues or concerns that you have, either from their resumes or in response to things they are telling you; in addition to providing information you need, this will also demonstrate how they will handle similar objections that arise during a sales call.

Do they attempt to form bridges and build rapport with you (notice the picture of your sail boat, children, etc. and share their common interest, for example)? Do they do it well? Making people feel comfortable with you makes them look for reasons to do business with you, another critical sales skill.

Toward the end of the interview, give them an overview of what you see as the company's goals, what they can expect in terms of compensation (structure and a general range), benefits, travel expectations, etc. and what the next step in the interview process would be (including time frame). Ask if they have any questions or concerns. If they ask at least one or two intelligent, relevant questions it's an excellent sign. A candidate who has no questions for you didn't bother to research your company and/or is too overwhelmed to think of anything clever to say – neither of which is a good quality in a salesperson.

Finally, make a note whether they follow up with a thank you note/email to you. And if for some reason the hiring time frame changes, let the candidates know. It's simple courtesy and shows them that you'd be a good employer, and it also helps keep potential “star” salespeople from taking offers elsewhere while you're still slogging through the hiring process.

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