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The Center for Sales Strategy Blog

How to Listen for Talent when you are Interviewing Salespeople

Interviews are challenging. The person you’re talking to wants the job, so they’re motivated to give you the answers you want to hear. But you’re not looking for the textbook-correct answers. You’re interested in whether the person on the opposite side of the table—or the other end of the phone or Skype call—is qualified for the sales position you’re looking to fill. 

When you're interviewing salespeople, even something as innocent as a yes-or-no question will often take on a life of its own. The candidate, in an attempt to impress, will fill the space with a lot of words, examples, and ideas that seem to fall all over the spectrum between yes and no. Consequently, the process becomes tricky and messy and not at all direct.

interviewLet’s say you ask questions like these:

  • Do you like to work hard?
  • Do you like to be a leader?
  • Are you competitive?

Even these simple questions will elicit answers that are extremely complex, often including qualifiers like “it depends on the situation.”

Here’s a sampling of the answers you might receive. As you read these, ask yourself, is the candidate saying yes or no?

Question: Do you like to work hard?

Answer: I do, I love to work as hard as the opportunity allows me to. Really it is more about working smart than hard. In fact, planning is what it is all about. Planning allows me to work smart which is better than working hard.

Question: Do you like to be a leader? 

Answer: I love being a leader. I mean, of course, I need to know the material extremely well first. It is important to me to always know where I am going or I am not able to lead effectively. So I like to first have a brainstorming session and figure it all out – like the pieces of a complex puzzle – and then decide how to best lead and if I am the right person for the leadership role based on my findings.

 Question: Are you competitive?

Answer: Competitive, hmmm… well, it just depends on the contest. If I am interested or not, if it is something I really want to compete in or not, in fact for me, it is not really about competition or even competing. I just like to be the best I can be. I just want to feel good.

If you are like most interviewers, trying to decipher these responses can really make your head hurt.

When you are interviewing candidates, remember this rule of thumb: If you don’t know the answer, ask more questions. Ask a lot of questions… and then really listen. And remember, if you continually feel like you can’t get a straight answer from your candidate, you might be picking up on an important sign that they just don’t have consistent talents in these areas. Their talents may be more situational – which means that you will see those behaviors sometimes, but not most of the time. Ideally, you want to find someone who is so hard-wired with the talents you need that they respond to your questions consistently every single time. 

To focus on finding the right sales talent for your open position, follow these tips:

  • Start with a job analysis. Define in advance specifically what you are looking for in a candidate. Are you looking for a competitive new business hunter? Are you looking for someone who can take on a leadership role? Are you looking for a problem-solver who can figure out tough sales challenges? Write down exactly what you are looking for and ask questions related to those specific behaviors and characteristics.
  • Ask consistent questions. Create a list of questions and ask every single candidate the same questions. Keeping your interviews consistent allows you to better compare and evaluate your candidates. Write down exactly how they answer (not your comment or conclusion about their answer) so you can reference it later, or even get a second opinion from someone else.
  • Ask questions that are experiential. Get a feel for their normal patterns of behavior by asking questions like, “Tell me about a situation...” “Give me an example...” “Please illustrate a time....” Listen carefully to their examples. Are they convincing? Detailed?
  • Never be afraid to dig deeper. Three little words “Tell me more” can truly help you unlock a tremendous amount of information. If you are unsure and want more information, “Tell me more” is the perfect way to seek clarity.
  • Don’t only listen to their words. To get the overall picture of each candidate, look for consistent patterns in their responses. What talents do they rely on most? Do they re-engineer questions to make them more comfortable to answer? Or do they answer the question you actually asked? Be sure you are hearing what is there and not hearing what you want.

By defining in advance what you are looking for, asking specific, consistent questions to uncover the right talents, and listening carefully to what is said and not said, you have a much stronger chance of finding the person who’s right fit for your open position and needs. 

You don’t want someone who is competitive only after a cup of coffee, or someone who only wants to lead on Thursdays, or someone who only works hard when they feel like it. You want to be able to bank on their behaviors. You need to hire people who consistently want to compete, work hard, and lead. Not sometimes, most of the time.

Yes, they’re out there.

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