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How to Apply Your Sales Skills to Job Interviews

If you’re a sales manager, you're well-acquainted with the pressure to add top talent to your team and you know how tough it is to really know if a new hire will perform as expected. Cost estimates for a bad sales hire can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A 2012 report by the DePaul University Centre for Sales Leadership put the average cost to hire, train, and replace a salesperson at $114,957.

The stakes in getting it right when hiring sales people are higher than probably any other role in your company. The secret to success is knowing what to look for and how to assess for it in an interview.

Here’s the problem: According to a study by Michigan State University, 90% of hiring decisions are made based on interviews, but those interviews are accurate predictors of future performance only 14% of the time. So, you’re going to be wrong 86% of the time. Yikes!

Here’s the good news: You can make interviews a more effective tool for assessing potential sales hires. Here’s the better news: As a sales professional, you already have the necessary skills and a proven interviewing process that you can use. You probably just don’t realize it.

Parallels Between Selling and Interviewing

An effective interview process is remarkably similar to a consultative sales process.

Here’s an example of a consultative sales model:

You’ve all probably used a process similar to this one at one time or another. You open the call, probe the prospect to uncover needs, support those needs with your benefits, and close on next steps.

Now let’s apply these steps to interviewing.

Opening

When I used to manage and train sales reps, one of the things I stressed was the importance of the opening. It sets the stage for the meeting and the entire relationship.

I’d make them practice it before a sales call, but, more often than not, they’d skip it. And when they did, it either killed the sale, or made it much harder than it needed to be. I see the same thing now working with managers doing interviews.

In a job interview setting here’s what your opening should include:

  • A purpose and agenda: “Hi, Dave. I’m here to interview you for the sales associate position. I’m going to start by telling you a little bit about our company and then ask you some questions, and allow you time to ask me some questions as well.”
  • The value to the candidate: “This will allow us both to see if our company is a place that will support you in your career goals and aspirations.”
  • A check for acceptance: “How does that sound?”

Probing

As salespeople, we all know the importance of probing. This is where you find out about your prospect’s needs, and the need behind the need. You uncover how they frame the problem you’re hoping to solve.

In the interview, you’re trying to assess how they’ll perform on the job. And you can use these same probing skills with one important distinction: you have to use behavioral interview questions. 

Behavioral interview questions are similar to most sales probing questions in that they’re open-ended. They’re designed to get the candidate talking about examples of past behaviors, not just telling you what you want to hear. Behavioral interview questions sound like this:

  • “Can you tell me about a time when you had to put everything on the line to close a big sale? What was the result?”
  • “Sometimes it takes more to sell a deal back at the office than it does to sell the customer. Tell me about a situation like that.”

Behavioral questions provide insight into how a candidate will behave when working with you by getting at past examples of historical behavior. The best prediction of future success is past performance.

Now, if you’ve taken the time to create a behavioral profile of an ideal salesperson, you can use this to guide your questioning and to assess candidates’ responses. We help our clients to create this profile using our system, but we also provide a free tool on our website you can use for a lightweight version.

Supporting

In this stage in the sales process, you’re confirming the prospect’s needs and supporting them with your benefits. Then you ask for acceptance and move forward. It’s the same in the interview.

As you’re listening to the candidates' stories, think about how to get your candidate to choose your company. Link their needs to the benefits of your workplace. Let’s say they’ve shown an interest in managing people. Here's how you could support that interest:

  • Confirm their need: “It sounds as though you’d eventually like to be in a leadership position. Is that right?”
  • Support that need: “Our company creates career paths for employees that allow them to reach a leadership position over time.”
  • Ask for acceptance: “Would that be something that would interest you if you were to come on board?”

Look for a match between what they want and what you offer. If it’s not there, they’re a flight risk.

Closing on Next Steps

In a sales conversation, closing doesn’t necessarily mean closing the deal. It means closing on next steps. You wouldn’t leave a prospect wondering when they’ll hear from you next. Candidates shouldn’t be left wondering if they’re going to hear from you either. Be very clear with the next steps.

Thank them for coming. Explain your process and when they’ll hear from you. And then follow up.

This is especially important when it comes to rockstar candidates, who may be speaking to several companies. Don’t let your competitors snatch up A-level talent because you didn’t follow up.

After the Interview

Asking the right questions is only half the battle. Just like you have to dig to get at a prospect’s real needs, you’ll often have to do the same to get the truth from a candidate.

To do this, we counsel our clients to use the SARR probing method. For each question, ask these follow-up probes if you don’t get the information the first time:

  • SITUATION: What was the situation? (Who was involved, when did it happen, what were the circumstances)
  • ACTION: What did you do? (The candidate specifically, not the team. Watch for “we” responses.)
  • RESULT: What was the outcome? (Get measurable results.)

Those paying attention will notice there’s one “R” missing. Here’s where it comes into play.

You’ve been wearing your seller’s hat throughout this entire process, but now it’s time to put on your buyer’s hat and do some reference checking. Never, ever skip this step. Bad things will happen if you do.

Ask a candidate's references the same types of behavioral interview questions you asked the candidate. Why? Because you’re trying to validate that they have demonstrated the behaviors required for success at your company in their previous positions. 

You also want to speak only with former managers. Here's how to make sure of this. When you’re interviewing candidates, throw in the second “R” in SARR at key intervals:

  • SITUATION: What was the situation?
  • ACTION: What did you do?
  • RESULT: What was the outcome?
  • REPORTING: By the way, who were you reporting to at that time?

This does two things: 1) it signals to the candidate that you might be checking up on their stories, so they'd better be honest; and 2) it tells you who you need to talk to.

If you use your sales skills and follow this interview method, you’ll be miles ahead of most when it comes to accurately predicting the performance of your sales hires.

We have loads of resources on our website that can help you do this. And, of course, we’re always happy to talk about how we can help you be even more successful at hiring superstar salespeople.

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