How many times do companies conduct a job interview with a salesperson who seems impressive—only to prove to be a disaster once they start? Sadly, this happens more often than most managers would care to admit. Salespeople, even average ones, can sometimes fool you in an interview by saying what you want to hear.
Fortunately, if you know what to look for, you can dramatically reduce the odds of making a bad hire.
In order to achieve this happy outcome, you need to understand the key behaviours that distinguish a top-notch sales rep from a so-so one. The following are five behaviours that, over my years in sales and sales management, I’ve found truly make the sales stars stand out. For each behaviour, I’ve suggested what to ask in an interview to separate the marvels from the mediocrities.
Traits of a top sales rep:
1. They Look for a Creative Solution to the Prospect’s Objections
“One size fits all” products and services truly don’t fit everyone. This is why the best reps are diligent about figuring out how to tailor products and services to a given customer’s needs, such as by coming up with an alternative offering at the right price.
Salespeople who have a flair for devising creative solutions often close sales that stymie less talented reps. And not only do these stars land the sale, but they solidify the relationship with the customer, who appreciates the lengths the rep has gone to in order to help solve their pain. Here are some questions you should ask to uncover this sort of creativity:
- Tell me about a time when you had to get creative with your product or service offering in order to make a sale. What were the obstacles, and how did you overcome them?
- Can you describe a couple of instances, big or small, in which in order to achieve an objective you took a different tack than the company’s usual practice?
- Can you describe a time when, despite taking a creative approach to meeting an objective, it didn’t work? What did you do next?
2. They Ask Questions that Get to the Core of the Prospect’s Needs—and Ability to Buy
For a salesperson to qualify a potential opportunity, they first need to understand the business or consumer pain that the product or service can solve for the prospect. To do that, salespeople must ask a series of probing questions to get the prospect to reveal exactly what they need.
All too often, salespeople start selling a product’s features without truly understanding the prospect’s needs. And even if the potential customer is ready to make a purchase, until the salesperson has fully qualified the prospect, that person will raise objections. The best salespeople ask more questions, and smarter ones, than run-of-the-mill sales reps do. In an interview, ask the job candidates to list the critical questions they ask potential customers and what information they need before they consider the prospect fully qualified. Look for ones along these lines:
- Does the prospect have a budget?
- Does the person they’ve met with have the authority to make the buying decision?
- What timeframe will they need to make a decision?
- Are they looking at competing products or services?
- Do they fully understand the client’s business and the goals of the person they met with?
- Is there a real need for the product or service?
3. They Listen Carefully to Identify What the Prospect is Really Looking For
It’s remarkable what a strong grip the stereotype of the salesperson as a great talker continues to hold—not just in popular culture but among so many business managers. Of course, some top sales performers are indeed great talkers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But they certainly don’t have to be. What truly matters is being a great listener.
This skill goes beyond shutting up once in a while so the prospect can get in a word. Great reps understand that it’s crucial to ask questions—and then to listen closely to the answers. Mediocre salespeople typically give this part of the process short shrift, instead jumping right into trying to prove why their product or service is the right fit.
In order to understand a prospect’s true needs, salespeople need to listen twice as much as they talk—and to absorb what they’re hearing. Here are some things to look for to spot someone like that:
- When you ask questions in the interview, does the candidate rush to answer even before you’ve finished your questions? If so, they’ll probably do this with a prospect as well.
- After you’ve asked a question, does the candidate pause and think about their answer?
- Before answering, do they ask questions such as “Is this what you’re looking for here?” to confirm that they’ve clearly understood your question?
4. They Persist in the Face of Endless Rejection
Selling isn’t easy. Doors are constantly being slammed in our faces, we get hung up on and stood up for appointments. Some weeks—or months—nothing goes right. Most people would fall into a deep funk if they faced being rejected more than 90% of the time.
Sales stars know how to shake off rejection and persist until they achieve success. They consistently pursue the sale, even with prospects who have tight schedules and long timelines. You would be better off investing in a salesperson who has little sales experience but keeps plugging away than in someone with plenty of experience but a poor attitude. Here are some questions to ask in this area:
- How many times do you typically get rejected in a week? How do you handle that?
- Tell me about a sale you had thought was a sure thing but then were unable to close. How did you respond to this?
- How do you maintain a positive attitude during slumps?
5. They Can Prove Their Past Successes
Great salespeople produce results—period. They talk freely about their results and are able to offer evidence of their accomplishments. But average salespeople will more likely talk about the tasks they complete throughout their day.
You’ll also see a sharp difference when you ask questions that hone in on specific results. (And be sure to get a reference from a sales manager to verify the claims made during the interview.) Top performers will be able to answer these questions quickly and confidently. In contrast, mediocre ones will roll out the excuses for their unimpressive performance. Here are some questions about results to help you spot the sort of candidate any smart employer would love to hire:
- How big is the sales team at your current company, and where do you rank?
- What is your quota, and did you achieve it in the past fiscal year?
- What was the biggest sale you made in the past year, and what was the key to making it?
Matthew Cook has 17 years of sales and sales management experience, primarily in the financial services and staffing industries. He is founder of SalesForce Search Ltd., which was No. 4 on the PROFIT HOT 50 ranking of Canada’s Top New Growth Companies in 2010 and No. 19 in 2011.
More columns by Matthew Cook