Born to Sell: How to Best Assess Sales Skills and Temperament In an Interview

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

In this installment, we will look at the basic skills required of great salespeople, and how to determine if the candidate in front of you.

In my previous posts, I outlined how to stop wasting time with inappropriate candidates (Part 1), and how to determine if your candidate responds to coaching and the needs of the current position (Part 2).  

In this installment, we will look at the basic skills required of great salespeople, and how to determine if the candidate in front of you uses those skills. Keep in mind that there is a significant gap between knowing about something, and being able to do what is being discussed.

As an example, every experienced salesperson will know about and be able to speak about handling objections, but during the interview, how do you learn if the candidate walks the talk?

Related Article: Finding the Golden Ticket: Interview Tips for Hiring Stellar Employees

Controversial Interview Questioning

There are a series of conversational questions that will allow an interviewer to experience the candidate's skill set, rather than just to have the candidate answer questions about that skill.  If you were interviewing a chef, you could ask the chef many questions about their experience and processes.  

No matter how complete your questions, you never actually get to confirm the essential requirements of the job—the food must look and taste great.  In interviewing jargon, we want to “get the cook into the kitchen." Now, how do you do this with a sales candidate?

Every salesperson at one time or another will put their foot in their mouth. We do not need to screen for this. What we do want to discover is how eloquently the candidate can take their foot out of their mouth, and if they maintain rapport and stay cool once they realize where their foot is.  

To test for this, ask the candidate a question that has multiple choice answers.  Regardless of the answer the candidate gives, inform the candidate that at this company, another answer is preferred. For example, the interviewer asks, “Do you prefer to sell to ad agencies or the client directly?” Or, “are you more effective in selling in-person or via the phone or email?”  

In either case, whatever the candidate’s answer, inform the candidate that here at this company, we’ve found that the other choice works better. With the foot deeply inserted in his/her mouth, will the candidate try to understand the company’s position (best response), will the candidate try to explain their answer (okay response) or will they get defensive and argue for their choice, which is, in effect, telling you that your choice is the incorrect one (bad response).

Parallel Thinking in Sales

Another important skill for salespeople is “parallel thinking,” which is the ability to find compelling similarities between things where the connection is not apparent.  Here the interviewer may take something from the candidate’s past work history and ask the candidate how that experience would help them success in this new position.  

For example, “Your resume indicates that you worked at XYZ Company as a sales assistant.  What did you learn there that you can apply here?”  The candidate must now draw relevant parallels to make a point and answer your question. As you hear their response, you can quickly evaluate if they were clear and effective in making their point.

Anyone interviewing with you wants a job, but do they really want this job?  The interviewer suggests during the interview that there may be another opening in the company in another department, one that requires less selling and more of anything else (research, management, training, etc.).  You ask if they would like to interview for that job as well.  

The best salespeople love to sell, and would not want to do anything else.  If the candidate is easily swayed into another position, especially one presented as requiring less selling, they are not a great fit for your team.

Related Article: How to Avoid Hiring Monsters

Dealing With Disagreement

Salespeople will also have to deal with direct disagreement, which is similar to the foot-in-mouth, yet very different.  The interviewer describes a scenario that any salesperson might face.  

“You are traveling to a city that has four clients.  One is doing business with you and not the competition; one is doing business with the competition and not you, one is doing business with both of you, and one is doing business with neither of you. You have enough time for three meetings.  Who does not get seen on this trip?”  

Like the foot-in-mouth, whatever the answer, you inform the candidate that their answer if wrong. How will the candidate respond to direct disagreement? Will they ask you what choice you would have made, and then why, trying to understand it?  

From there, will they change their answer or explain why they made their choice, using your answer as the basis to open up a conversation. Or, will they lose their cool and get defensive?

Salespeople must be problem solvers. The best salespeople are both problem solvers and story-tellers, using the format of an engaging story to explain how they might go about helping you solve a problem. The interviewer might ask, “If you were selling light bulbs that were used in traffic lights, how would you determine the market potential in Boston or NYC or Chicago?”  

There is no single “right” answer, and the skill of the candidate will be judged by their ability to tell you a story about how they would accomplish this task.

  • Are they clear, compelling and logical?  
  • Do they speak with authority?  
  • Is their solution viable and creative?

So here you have a conversational methodology for getting the cook in the kitchen, and giving yourself a real-time, experiential way to determine the actual selling ability of the candidate. 

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