Making a poor choice in hiring a salesperson won’t just affect your sales income: the money you’ve wasted on training and wages could amount to thousands of dollars of your capital that’s gone down the drain. And besides the financial impact, your disappointing hire could affect the morale of your team, with management and staff absorbing more into their workloads and dealing with the fallout from increased turnovers.You already know that your business is only as good as its sales staff—and that to be the best, you need to hire the pick of the crop. But how do you know which are the best candidates, and the most likely to succeed?
The interview is the single most important factor in finding the candidates most likely to deliver: and if you’re not doing it right, you will continue to have a low success rate in predicting your future employee’s performance (according to a Michigan State University, this figure is around about 14%).But if you want to access the potential for success that a good interview can deliver, you have to be able to identify what information you need, and how to get it.
If you’re a sales manager, or an HR professional working with sales managers, you have a distinct advantage: a powerful interview strategy is structured quite the same as the consultative selling processes you’re probably already familiar with. If you can understand the principles of effective sales strategies, you can easily apply them to identifying and assessing the skills of the best candidates in the bunch.
Selling and interviewing: the same process
It might seem counterintuitive, but sales and interviewing processes are surprisingly more similar than you’d think.
Like the consultative selling process, your interview should be a process of uncovering and fulfilling your candidate’s needs, and determining how they might fulfil yours with what they’re offering. It should involve the same elements of the selling process: opening, probing, supporting and closing; with continual acknowledging, positioning, checking and confirming your candidate’s needs throughout the process.
Considering it is among of the most—or even the single most—important factor in the sales process, the opening is largely ignored.
The opening serves to create a first impression, a taster of the rest of the sales interaction so the customer can piece together their expectations of you and the process. If the opening is pressured—or missing—the rest of the process will either fall on its head, or require substantially more effort than it should have to complete. This is equally true for the interview process: if the opening is poorly delivered, the rest of the interview will be more difficult than it should have been.
Your opening should address three main elements:
- Why you’re there;
- Why you’re worthwhile to your candidate; and
- What will happen throughout the interview.
This might look something like:
“Hello James, I’m happy to have the opportunity to interview you for our sales position. To start off, I’d like to tell you about who we are as a company. Then I’d like to find out more about you and the work you’ve done, and give you the opportunity to ask any questions. I hope that by doing this, we’ll have a good idea whether our company and your personal and professional objectives are suited to each other.”
Asking your candidate to confirm they’ve accepted this process will also help—they’ll feel more responsible for their part, and be more engaged and comfortable with the rest of the interaction.
Your opening opens the door for your sales pitch, but probing holds it open a little longer to buy time and find out what you need to know to complete the interaction. Through probing, you can determine what your customer wants and needs, and why, and you can gauge the language that’s appropriate for the interaction: essentially, you’ll know whether or not what you’re offering is right for them, and you’ll know how to present it.
Probing is also critical in the job interviewing process. You don’t just want to hear about what your candidate can do—you want to know if, and how, they will actually perform on the job, and you can find this out with the right behavioural interview questions and techniques. Like sales probing, interview probing will generate long and open answers that will give a good indication of your candidate’s past work. It might look something like:
“Give me an example of a time when you went over and above to gain a client? What results did you achieve?”
These questions work, because they demand more from your candidate than generic answers—they require the candidate to demonstrate their past behaviour, which is the best predictor of their future behaviour while they’re working for you.They’re even more helpful if you’ve already determined the behaviours necessary for success in the role: your assessment will be focused, letting you easily see how your candidate competes against your target measures.
But there’s more to probing than just asking the right behavioural interview question: you won’t always get all the information you need in the first round of questions. Sometimes you’ll need follow-up questions to continue the probing: there’s an effective structure for this process, based on the acronym SARR:
- SITUATION: What and who was involved in the situation, when it happened, what the surrounding circumstances were;
- ACTION: What that candidate did (as distinct from what the team did);
- RESULT: What the outcome was, in measurable terms (like percentages of increased sales);
- REPORTING: Who the candidate was reporting to at the time, for reference checking.
The interview is, of course, mostly for your benefit—to determine how well your candidate will perform in your workplace. But if your candidate’s answers are glowing success stories, and you decide you want to hire them, how do you ensure that they’ll want to work for you?
In the selling process, you provide support to your customer when you demonstrate that you understand what they need, and that your product or service meets these needs. In an interview, you provide support to your candidate by illustrating connections between their professional needs and what you offer in your workplace. For example, if the candidate is looking for skill development opportunities, be sure to mention the educational programs and funding that your company offers.
The support you give your candidate should entail:
- Confirming that you understand their needs;
- Demonstrating your capacity to meet these needs;
- Asking for interest in / acceptance of your offer.
This might look something like:
Confirm their needs:“So, you’re looking for opportunities to further develop your sales skill set?”
Meet these needs:“We regularly run a number of professional development courses for sales skills, and we can fund a number other approved educational programs that you’re interested in.”
Ask for acceptance:“If you worked with us, are these programs something you think you’d like to participate in?”
Offering benefits that are appealing to your candidate is a good way to guarantee their engagement, and perhaps even their long-term commitment to your company. But if you can’t meet their needs with what you have to offer, they might not be a suitable candidate for you: if they’re a high performer and interested in professional development, and you don’t have the opportunities, they’ll be likely to seek them elsewhere.
Not every sale interaction ends with the customer signing on the dotted line. Sometimes a successful sale involves giving the customer all the information they need to commit when they’re ready, some time to think about it, and following up within the period and in the way you told them you would. In a similar way, it’s unlikely that you’ll be hiring you candidate on the spot.
The objective of closing, in both these situations, is establishing what will happen next—and it is usually when you can expect to hear from each other. This part needs to be crystal clear, to prevent either one of your wondering what’s going to happen, and hindering the establishment of trust between you.
In your interview, you should thank your candidate for taking the time to be interviewed, explain how your hiring process works, and let them know when they can expect to hear from you. Keep in mind, if you’ve found the candidate of your dreams, that they’ve probably applied elsewhere and could be doing the exact same thing with several other companies—and if you leave your candidate with any uncertainty, or you don’t deliver on what you’ve promised, they could end up with your competitors.
The final stage: the credit (reference) check
In the sales process, the customer can’t access finance for the goods or services without a credit check—and before you hire a salesperson, you need a reference check.
Reference checking shouldn’t be an administrative tick-and-flick checklist. When you do it properly, it’s still part of the interview process, and will provide further confirmation that your candidate will perform as well as they say they will. That’s why it looks a lot like the probing stage of the interview process, with the acronym SARR:
- SITUATION: What the situation and circumstances were;
- ACTION: What they did;
- RESULT: What the outcome was;
- REPORTING: Who they reported to.
Asking these questions lets your candidate know that you will be looking for a guarantee of authenticity for their stories—and it also gives you a guideline on what to ask their previous employer. When you do speak with the referees, ask them similar questions that you asked the candidate during the interview—your goal is to confirm that the candidate’s description of their skills and qualities is accurate, and their referees should be able to validate it.
If you’re a skilled salesperson, you can use your sales experience and acumen to hire staff as skilled as you. By using the same strategies in your interview process as you do in your sales interactions, you’ll be able to identify the best-performing candidates of all your applicants—and convince them that the best career decision they could ever make is to work for you.