SALES

3 Dumbest Sales Job Interview Questions... and What to Ask Instead

Need a stronger sales team? When you've got a potential hire in the hot seat, make sure you're asking the right questions.
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When it comes to generating revenue and profit, there is simply no task more important than hiring the right sales staff.  Unfortunately, most companies find this process extraordinarily challenging, as evidenced by high turnover rates.

According to CSO Insights, a company that surveys and studies sales teams worldwide, one out of three sales professionals on average leave the organization within a year.  Between ramp-up costs and lost opportunities, a bad sales hire can easily cost $150,000… or much more.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be writing plenty of "how to" information about building a top performing sales team.  For now, though, let's start with the basics. Here are three questions that often get asked during sales interviews, but which tend to lead to hiring the wrong sort of person.

Question #1: "What experience do you have selling this kind of product?"
Why It Gets Asked: You're assuming that years of experience automatically translate into real world sales ability.
Why It's Dumb: Three reasons.  First, it's perfectly possible to make the same mistakes repeatedly over multiple decades.  Second, the process of selling, especially B2B, has changed so radically over the past decade that past experience, even when it once generated big sales, may not be applicable any longer.  Finally, and most importantly, if the candidate has been selling for a competitor, the experience is likely to irrelevant, since your competitor probably plays a very different role in your market than your own company.
What to Ask Instead: "What experience do you have selling for companies of our size in a similar industry?"
Why This is Smarter:  Small and medium companies have to sell differently (i.e. better and faster) than their large competitors, otherwise they'll get forced out of business.  Even when smaller companies compete for the same business, there will usually be a price leader (where the main buying motivator is cost), a brand leader (where the main buying motivator is reputation) and a value leader (where the main buying motivator is the impact of a solution), according to Mary Delaney Mary Delaney, president of Personified, a subsidiary of CareerBuilder.  "Rather than hiring from your competitors, you want to find sales pros who have been successful selling for the same type of successful company as your own, but in another industry," she says.
 
Question #2: "Can I have some customer references?"
Why It Gets Asked: The logic is simple: if candidates know how to make former customers happy, they’ll know how to make your customers happy.
Why It's Dumb: As the saying goes, "a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while."  Even the worst sales pros are likely to have a couple of customers willing to sing their praises. Worst case, the "customer" may actually be a relative or friend queued up to say nice things, no matter what.
What to Ask Instead: "How can I contact the managers for whom you’ve worked in the past?"
Why This is Smarter: Poor sales performers leave a trail of dissatisfied managers in their wake. "Never hire a candidate unless you can talk to somebody who’s paid the candidate in the past and who says that you'd be crazy not to hire that candidate," says Jerry Acuff, author of the bestseller The Relationship Edge: The Key to Strategic Influence and Selling Success. "Hiring problems occur when we hire people we like and, because we like them, we want to believe that they have talents that they don’t actually have."
 
Question #3: "How much money did you make at your last sales job?"
Why It's Asked: You want to ensure that you make a competitive offer.
Why It's Dumb: Sales compensation is always an "apples to oranges" comparison.  Unless your company has the identical commission and bonus structure, the actual compensation will be different, even if the candidate, after being hired, sells the same amount.  Furthermore, the candidate may exaggerate his or her past performance in the hope of getting a better deal.
What To Ask Instead: "What was your quota?  How often did you make it?  And what did you report on your W2?"
Why This is Smarter: These questions cut to the nub of the sales process, which is the ability to perform consistently and according to plan.  What’s more, they allow you to assess candidates for honesty and candor.  "Before you hire anybody, make certain that they’re trustworthy by asking the same question multiple ways," says Delaney.  "If there's any disconnect between the answers, then you know that the person you're interviewing might not be entirely honest."

Last updated: Nov 2, 2011

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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