How to Screen Your Salespeople: Conducting an Honest Interview

Devon-McDonald by

Last week, I released the first half of a two-part series regarding the hiring of great salespeople (read the first post here). In this post, we are lucky enough to have even more advice from Darica Ward, the Chief Marketing Officer of SkillSurvey, Inc. Her insights are invaluable in terms of managing sales recruiting strategy.

Darica, is there a typical structure that works best for interviewing sales people?

The first thing is to use some candidate assessment tools, such as online reference checking, prior to the interview itself. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to a bias toward Pre-Hire 360, SkillSurvey’s automated reference-checking system for collecting feedback from a candidate’s managers, peers, and subordinates.

When this is done prior to your interview with the candidate, the reference feedback can guide the direction of your interview, giving you the ability to probe for more details on skill sets highlighted from former managers and colleagues as needing further development. You can even compare candidates’ behaviors and past performance from their references’ feedback. There are also a variety of other candidate assessment tools available, including personality tests, skills tests, and simulation testing.

The best, most revealing interviews are those that are based on behavioral questions — questions that require candidates to describe how they’ve handled a situation in the past, or how they approach a particular challenge. For example, you might ask, “Tell me about a time when you were able to overcome the odds and make a sale with a prospect that was initially not interested. Tell me the exact situation, your role, what action(s) you took, and the final result.” Even this approach, though, won’t reveal everything you need to know. The most effective process is to combine behavioral interviews with reference assessment.

Interviewers frequently make the mistake of focusing on outcomes when interviewing sales people. It’s far better to explore the candidate’s process with questions such as, “Share with me the best voicemail you ever left.” Or, “How do you personalize an introductory note to someone when you first get a lead?” If you’re satisfied that the process is right, it’s safe to assume that the desired outcomes will follow.

How can an expansion-stage sales leader better prepare him/herself for the interview process?

Organizations in the expansion stage typically are struggling to scale the business. Their focus, understandably, is on sales, not on “nice-to-haves” like HR infrastructure. In my view, this is a mistake. In the absence of formalized processes and tools, people are forced to make it up as they go along … to “trust their gut.” It’s far better to invest the time to create a formal candidate interview process and properly train people to use it. Skimping on this will only come back to haunt you in the long run. It takes a long time to undo the damage of a poor hiring decision.

A lot of people think reference checks are a waste of time. Do you agree or disagree?

If you’ve outsourced your background checks to a firm that is just going to verify a candidate’s employment history, then, yes, I agree. It’s a waste of your resources.

It is possible to get much more meaningful feedback on a candidate’s on-the-job performance — including candid verbatim comments — via an automated reference checking system. Again, I’m biased. But why settle for the bare minimum when you can learn about a candidate’s strengths and developmental needs from people who’ve observed the candidate on the job?

Darica, thank you for your time in answering these questions. Can you give me SkillSurvey’s elevator pitch and how your tools can help screen your sales people?

SkillSurvey is the inventor of online reference-checking solutions that collect feedback from references on a candidate’s behaviors and past work performance. Our methodology gathers information uniformly for each candidate, providing an even playing field for decision making. The behaviorally-based questions are geared to reveal candidates’ strengths and developmental needs in areas that correlate with success in a particular job family. We have over 700 clients representing the Fortune 1000 to SMB with many relying on our Sales Job Family of reference assessments to help them hire only A+ players in their field.

What do you think of Darica’s advice? What words of wisdom can you offer in terms of  sales recruiting strategy?