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Companies are eager to hire A players. Salespeople looking for a job believe they would be the best hire. An offer is made, and a new rep joins the team. The first day of work is hopeful all around.

For many, the hope of being successful on a sales team is realized. But for others there is only disappointment. 

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Mis-hires are painful. The cost of a mis-hire can be 6x base salary for a salesperson and as high as 20% of base salary for an executive. And these costs don’t take into account the personal pain on all four sides -- the salesperson being let go, the person charged with firing the bad hire, the impact on the sales team, and the disruption to customers.

For the past two decades, the emphasis for effective interviewing has centered on behavioral-based questions that begin with phrases such as "Please describe a situation in which you …" or "Tell me a time when you … "

I taught this interviewing technique at the Wharton School for years, and was and remain a proponent of behavioral interviewing. Prompts such as "Please give me an example of a time that you got the support of a coworker from another team to solve a customer problem" replaced others such as "Are you able to get the support of team members from other teams?" or worse, "We are team-oriented here. How do you feel about working in a team structure?" The key to behavioral interviewing is getting candidates to provide specific examples of critical skills or behaviors required for the role.

But like all good things, behavioral interviewing can go too far. I have shared before that I am a fan of “Corner Office” by Adam Bryant. In his interviews, Bryant asks CEOs a series of questions, one of which is usually “How do you hire?” 

Almost every CEO steers clear of behavioral questions when screening candidates, because they are looking for the person inside the resume. I want to share a few of the questions they ask. I think questions such as these are worth incorporating into your interviewing process:

  1. What do you want to talk about?
  2. What has your current/previous manager said in your reviews about what you do well and what you need to improve?
  3. What do you want to improve to be better than you are today?
  4. What will the inscription be on the gold watch you get from your company when you retire?
  5. What do you want to get done in life?
  6. What do you want to learn next?
  7. What do you find interesting?
  8. If you owned the company what would you do?
  9. If your colleagues owned the company what would you want them to do?
  10. What would your ideal job look like?

These questions are aimed at understanding the person’s drivers and passions, and what their lives are about. They look to the future instead of or in addition to the past.

In addition to asking a mix of behavioral and “life experience” questions, I find many insights by observing how a candidate answers each question. Listen for the quality of the answer. Is the candidate thoughtful? Is the answer accurate? Is it all about the candidate or does he or she also use the word "we"? Does he or she have a sense of joy in the answer? 

I also am very attentive to the questions the candidate asks me. Is he or she curious? Does the candidate ask questions to understand what it takes to win in this company? 

Personally, I would want to join an organization that asks not only the important skill, knowledge, and experience questions but also those that touch on personal dreams and accountabilities. Hiring for and accepting a position starts with competence, but at the end of the day, is really about trust. And it takes more than behavioral questions to get to that.

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Originally published Mar 9, 2015 9:30:00 AM, updated October 01 2019

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Sales Interviewing