In tough economic times, the pipeline for a sales job is often glutted with hundreds of applicants. With numerous seemingly qualified applicants to choose from, the interviewing and selection process can become long and drawn-out--and a waste of your valuable time.

Hiring on gut instinct may feel right, but it can lead to big mistakes. A skillful interviewer will instead ask questions that reveal how serious a candidate is about the job and how likely he or she is to succeed in the position.

Here are three knockout questions that can form the centerpiece of an effective interview. When asked together, they should give you a deep profile of the interviewee. If a candidate can’t answer these questions satisfactorily, quickly move on to the next applicant.

1.  What do you know about this company and our industry?
The applicant's answer to this question should show solid research into your company and the industry. If he or she knows little about what your organization does, you likely have someone who’s just job shopping. That’s not what you’re looking for--you want people who are passionate about building a career with your company and in your industry. These are the people who tend to be successful long-term employees. Candidates in this group will have done research on the company and industry and will be able to enthusiastically articulate why they want to join your team.

2.  What do you want to accomplish at this company?
When you ask this question, listen for ambitious but realistic answers. I once interviewed an applicant who in all seriousness told me he expected to be the company’s president in three years. Given this person’s background, there was absolutely no way that was happening--he wasn’t in touch with reality, and he wasn’t hired. But you should also be wary of those who have low expectations of themselves--these probably aren’t the high performers you’re looking for. 

3.  What have you done to prepare for the job?
The applicant’s answer to this question should show you that he or she is committed to securing the job. I once interviewed someone for a sales position at a medical device company, and when I asked what she had done to prepare for this job, her answer was: “I’ve studied your catalogue and website, and my best friend is one of your sales reps--I’ve traveled with her while she made customer calls for the last two weeks. I really want this job and am ready to start today.” Actions like this show commitment, and people who are dedicated have a much higher degree of success.

Asking these three questions will allow you to identify the solid candidates and quickly take lesser applicants out of the running.