Performance-based Interview Questions for Sales Candidates

“Trading up” is a term I’ve been hearing a lot lately in the marketplace. CXOs are looking to improve the quality of their talent, so they’re replacing low producers in every field with stronger people. And they can. There’s a lot of talent on the sidelines—good talent. However, other companies are doing the same thing, which means shedding their lowest producers and filling the job market with fodder.

Why is it that sometimes the best sales production you get out of a sales person is when he/she is selling himself/herself for a new job? I’ve often noticed that it’s not only the best sales production you get; it’s the ONLY sales production you get.

If you’re trading up, you’ll want to consider the questions you’re asking in the interview so that you truly do have the opportunity to trade up…and not just trade out. Here are a few questions that will help you guage candidates’ sales production and the type of sales cycle they’ll likely excel with…

Sales production questions:

  • “Tell me about the first year’s new sales revenues you generated in your last position.”
  • “Tell me about the past year’s new sales revenues you generated in your last position?”
  • “What was the size of the largest sale, second largest sale and third largest sale in each of those two years?”

Why these questions? I’m looking for new sales production potential. Unless the new representative is being hired to take over a productive territory with a minimal requirement for new sales, I want to know what they can produce, not just what they can maintain or grow.

Maxim: Never hire someone expecting them to sell a deal larger than the largest deal they ever sold every day.
Caution: Make certain that the candidate’s answer is about new accounts for which they have generated initial sales, not new sales to existing customers, or sales growth with existing customers. Buried in the resume and the dialogue is the truth about their actual sales performance. Too many resumes and interviews are focused on total dollars, and not on the breakdown. This is the performance you are hiring for, but you will have to dig to get the information you need.

Sales Cycle questions:

  • “Walk me through the sales cycle and the sales process you followed in your most successful years of selling?”
  • “When do you stop working on a prospect in the sales cycle?”

Why these questions? When you’re trading up, you’re not looking for a new sales trainee to bring up to speed. You want a producer who will assimilate easily and quickly into your system. This means that they understand process and have a sales cycle that is similar to the one you have. Also, you want sales people who are able to cut bait and move on. My experience has been that the most successful sales people do not have the largest list of prospects, but a tight list of hunts.

Maxim: Do not hire new sales people to sell outside of their old sales cycle experience.

Caution: A sales person’s expectations for success are developed in part around speed of result. When you hire people to sell in long sales cycles, say 180 – 365 days, and their experience has been selling in shorter sales cycles, say 30 -90 days, the disconnect will lead to failure. In this example, the sales representative will become discouraged and unproductive because s/he is used to faster wins and more of them. The opposite is also true. If someone comes from a longer sales cycle experience into a shorter sales cycle business, they may lack the sense of urgency necessary to be successful. Hire people whose success has been in sync with the sales cycle of your business.

There’s an old saying that goes something like, “If you’re hiring successfully at a rate better than 50%, you’re doing great.”

I think we need every tool we can get to do better than that.

What are some of your favorite sales candidate interview questions that we can add to the collective wisdom?