Sales reps are often considered for sales management positions due to exceptional performance as individual contributors. While sales leaders should certainly consider their strongest players for promotion opportunities, it also creates a challenge within the organization: The qualities that make a successful sales rep don’t necessarily make a successful sales manager. So asking a star rep to expound on his or her sales performance during the interview process may not be the best barometer of their management ability.

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On the other hand, there’s no such thing as a “born sales manager.” To be effective, managers need to be able to demonstrate -- or acquire -- certain managerial skills. My objective in interviewing candidates for sales management positions is to determine if these skills exist or can be developed.

Clearly, technical competence is important for leading a sales team, but the other critical traits I look for when interviewing a sales management candidate are self-awareness, a willingness to learn, and an understanding of the roles of leadership and coaching. 

Here are seven questions I use to surface these traits, along with explanations of what I hope to hear in the responses.

1) What do you perceive as the differences between being a great salesperson and being a great sales manager?

As I mentioned, the two roles are not synonymous. In many ways, they’re quite different. With this question, I want to see if the rep understands that what got them to where they are today is not what will help them excel as a sales manager. If they don’t see the differences between the two positions, it’s a serious red flag.

2) Why do you believe you are qualified to lead a team of people?

Becoming a sales manager means taking on the responsibility of building a team. Notice that the question isn’t “Why are you qualified to be a sales manager?” or “Why are you qualified to manage people?” Too often sales management interviews focus more on the technical aspects of the job or the salesperson’s past performance and not enough on the leadership skills necessary to create a great team.

For a sales manager to be successful, he or she must be able to engage team members and create a culture of high performance. Yes, this requires technical selling skills, but it also requires a host of mission-critical leadership abilities, including communication, coaching, strategic thinking, and so on.

3) How will you motivate your team?

You can’t motivate people to do something they’re not already inclined to do. Motivation comes from within, so leaders have to discover what makes each individual player tick. At the same time, they have to create a workplace culture that attracts and retains the best possible talent, and I want to know how they intend to do that.

The challenge is that many high-performance salespeople expect everyone else to share their own personal motivations. Big mistake. If their answer indicates this type of attitude, proceed with caution. 

4) How do you develop high-performing salespeople?

Salespeople aren't born, they are trained, so development is a significant part of a sales manager’s job. Knowing which skills are critical and which activities ultimately lead to success are extremely important. I want to see how the candidate would assess those skills and activities, and how they would approach training those areas.  

Above all, I want to see if the candidate understands the idea of developing talent, or if they will simply expect salespeople to succeed or fail on their own. This latter approach isn't going to work.

5) Are you comfortable with a change in pay and role?

It’s not uncommon for sales managers to earn less than top performers on their teams. While some salespeople prefer to remain at the top of the mountain and make the big money, others are enthusiastic about developing new skills and taking on a different role in the company.

It’s important to be clear about this transition and surface the candidate’s true feelings on this topic. I would preface this question by thoroughly explaining the transition from sales rep to manager, and then make it clear that opting to stay in the rep position is a perfectly acceptable option. I’d rather keep a star salesperson than promote them into a management position that leaves them disengaged or unhappy.  

6) What gaps do you have in your knowledge of our sales process and/or systems?

A rep who isn’t consistently effective at using the company’s CRM system is unlikely to train others to be effective. Although these systems are designed to benefit the company and help the salesperson succeed, some reps can produce top results while refusing to use the sales process or CRM appropriately. 

It is reasonable to assume that a salesperson will bring those weaknesses and/or bad habits to their team as a manager, so it is important to clarify expectations for performance in those areas. Some managers are willing to allow salespeople to take shortcuts, avoid paperwork, and shun certain internal processes, so long as they produce results.

... Which sounds great until things begin to go wrong or reps leave the company and take their institutional knowledge with them.

7) Tell me why you think you might be a bad choice for sales management?

I don’t use this question with everyone I interview, but it's a revealing one.

It’s not only a back-handed way of inquiring about a person’s weaknesses -- which allows me to assess self-awareness -- but it also provides an indication of how the person is likely to handle uncomfortable conversations.

Sales managers often have to deal with awkward or negative topics with direct reports, so I want to see how they handle being put in an awkward situation themselves. The answer to this question is important, but the way they deal with the question is equally so.

If they can give a genuine and thoughtful response (e.g. not framing positives as weaknesses), it’s probably a good sign. If they answer without thinking, that’s valuable information as well. 

Bonus: Two Exercises for a Second Interview 

If you’ve decided to move forward with your candidate and advance them to a second or third interview, use these exercises to further uncover their aptitude for a sales management role.

1) 90-Day Business Plan

Before your follow-up interview, ask the candidate to prepare a 60- or 90-day business plan that covers how they would transition into a sales management position and outlines their first steps in the position.

2) SWOT analysis

Request that the candidate create a detailed personal SWOT analysis that outlines their personal Strengths and Weaknesses as well as the Opportunities and Threats the role may pose for them.

What questions do you ask sales management candidates? Please let me know in the comments.

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Originally published Jan 20, 2015 7:30:00 AM, updated October 01 2019

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Sales Interviewing