Rick Rose of Dataflex, the sales-driven juggernaut of the computer-resellingindustry, reveals the interview tactics that help him divine which job candidates can become great salespeople

E ditor's note: Rarely do we see an organization as aggressively and thoughtfully sales oriented as Dataflex. When Rick Rose joined the company, in 1984, it was just one of what seemed like a thousand fledgling computer resellers, with annual revenues of $5 million. Today the company, which is public, has 200 employees, sells $90 million worth of computer equipment and services a year, and habitually appears on the best-managed-company lists of every major business magazine in the country. At year-end 1991, Dataflex had experienced annualized five-year sales growth of 66%, with a 20% return on equity. It had no debt on the books.

Virtually all of this success, says CEO Rose, is attributable to a fanatical devotion to sales -- from hiring the right salespeople and teaching them well (how many companies run daily two-hour sales meetings that participants crave?) to doing everything conceivable to please customers. A telling statistic: salespeople who have been with Dataflex a year or more routinely sell 10 times what the average salesperson in the industry does.

Here, Rose tells how he uses in-your-face interviews to separate sales-recruit wheat from the chaff.

There are four characteristics a prospective salesperson must possess to have even a chance at becoming a star producer -- and experience isn't one of them. Successful Dataflex salespeople outperform the industry average by unheard-of margins, yet none of our million-dollar-a-month sellers was a heavy-hitting sales pro when I brought him or her on board.

What does make a salesperson successful?

* Confidence in his or her own abilities.

* A willingness to take calculated risks.

* A great sense of humor.

* Nimble thinking -- by which I don't mean a genius IQ. I mean the ability, when put on the spot, to take the available information and formulate the best possible response instantaneously. To do that, you have to be a conceptual thinker, somebody who can answer any question on a given topic, because that topic is completely understood. Many companies train their people off a script, but to be a true professional, you can't afford to depend on rote responses.

To spot great potential in inexperienced salespeople, we make them run the gantlet during the interview process. It starts when they answer the Dataflex ad. My assistant, Liz Massimo, has been instructed to give any callers the brush-off.

Alan Fendrick, now one of our top salespeople, tells a story about how Liz tried three times to tell him why he wasn't what we were looking for. But he was persistent. He stood his ground and said, "Look, I really think I have what it takes. It's at least worth a few minutes of Mr. Rose's time." He cleared the first hurdle.

I am deliberately adversarial in the first interview. It gives me a clear idea of what candidates would be like with a customer. I try to give them criticism and a challenge. I put them on the spot, try to see if they have convictions, embarrass them. If they're too sensitive, they aren't going to do well around here.

My first words to Alan were, "Why in the world do you have performing stupid human tricks on the Letterman show on your résumé?" Then I asked him, "Aren't you supposed to look nice for an interview?"

Alan came back with a zinger. He looked me dead in the eye and said, "Are you talking about me or you?"

I tell people, "Forget about what you think I want to hear. Forget that this is an interview." I try to shake them out of the standard interview mode. If they persist in giving rote answers, even after I've told them point-blank that that's not what I want, I know they aren't right for the job.

After the job candidates have been in my office for about five minutes, I will tell them bluntly that I'm not very impressed -- even when I think they're terrific. I'm looking for their response. I want the applicants to try to persuade me that I'm wrong about them. In sales either you believe in what you're doing or you don't. Good salespeople must believe in themselves.

When I interviewed for a sales job at Applied Digital Data Systems, in 1971, I had forgotten to pack a tie and was wearing black-and-white wing-tip shoes, which were in vogue in Florida at the time but raised eyebrows in New York City. The secretary put my résumé upside down on the desk of the vice-president of sales. He was eating a tuna sandwich when I came in. Failing to find a napkin, he wiped his hands on what he thought was a blank sheet of paper but was actually my résumé. He asked me several questions and insinuated I was not packing the goods to do the job. I remember feeling an almost violent reaction to that challenge. I was thinking, Someday you'll not only eat my résumé but eat those words as well. I ended up selling more equipment than the rest of the sales force combined, which comprised eight people. To this day I don't know whether his goal was to challenge me or whether he really thought I couldn't do the job. But I learned the value of being challenging in an interview from that man.

Next in an interview, I ask for a definition of sales. Then I ask, "Have you unquestionably, without a doubt, 120% decided on sales as a career?" If they answer no, the interview is over.

If they say yes, I ask why they've chosen sales. A common response? "I want to help people." My comeback to that: "You want to help people? Go be a nurse." Another line people toss out: "People tell me I'd be good at selling." When that one comes up, I'll point outside my office window and say, "See that lawn out there? If people told you you'd be good at mowing lawns, would you be interviewing for that job right now?"

Then comes the real test. I'll say, "If I told you I'd give you $1 million to mow that lawn over there, would you do it?" I am looking for people who are honest enough to admit they are motivated by money, because that is the motivation for a salesperson. You'd be amazed at how many candidates try to dance around that fact. About half the potential salespeople are eliminated at this juncture because they won't shoot straight with me. Instead they persist in saying what they predetermined would win them the job.

Why is being direct a critical trait? Customers smell it when you aren't giving them a straight answer. We have built our reputation on being honest with people to the point that if we make a mistake, every manager who had a chance to catch that error and didn't calls the client and apologizes. If somebody isn't straightforward in this company, that person has a real problem.

I'll often ask a question to test a person's honesty. I asked Alan, "Do you have some deep, burning desire to accomplish some goal?"

"You may think this is stupid," he replied. "But I'd like to make more money than my father makes."

I didn't think his answer was stupid at all. Most sons are competitive with their fathers, but it took guts to be honest about it.

Next I give applicants for sales jobs a little test to see if they are able to grasp concepts. I tell them they can ask me as many questions as they need to once I've explained the subject to them.

I told Alan I would teach him about something called a statistical multiplexer; then I wanted him to explain it back to me. I talked for about 15 minutes, providing lots of technical detail. Alan, when it was his turn, garbled the explanation something awful, and I told him so. I also told him he should have asked more questions. He said, "You're absolutely right."

Conceptual selling -- the ability to help a customer visualize how your product or service will fit into his or her life -- is a key to becoming a professional salesperson. It's applicable whether you are selling computer peripherals or topsoil. Many people are good at memorizing or following a deductive-reasoning pattern, but if you understand something conceptually, it doesn't matter where you come in, you can figure out what's going on. You've got to understand your product conceptually to be able to sell it. Sensing a winner, I gave Alan a second chance, and he passed the test with flying colors.

I conclude interviews by telling candidates to go home and call me after they've thought it over. I tell them I'll do the same. About half never work up the nerve to call back or, I suppose, just aren't interested. Alan, however, wouldn't leave the room until he had the promise of a second interview. I knew tenacity like that would help him close tough sales. He is the only person, before or since, who has ever done that.

Nobody is hired before getting the nod from the people in the department where he or she will be working. Why would anybody want to come to work at a place before meeting those people? All of our salespeople spend 15 minutes or so with any potential salesperson who comes back for a second interview. I want all my employees to enjoy the people they work with.

The time the person spends with our sales staff isn't a cakewalk. For example, Alan will ask, "Does it intimidate you that during the last five years we have seen 30 people come and go?"

Some potentials will walk away right then. That doesn't bother me in the slightest. Our salespeople are an elite group. We'll sell $90 million to $100 million worth of products and services this year, and yet we have fewer salespeople now than we had when I joined the company, eight years ago at the $5-million sales level. The interviewing process is structured to rule out the squeamish and the uncommitted. Anybody who is willing to go through it is a decent prospect.

Finally, the interviewee is invited to participate in a week's worth of sales meetings -- we run two-hour sales meetings, which start at 7 a.m., four times a week. The emphasis is on the word participate. The same rules that apply to our regular sales staff apply to the prospects. They'll get kicked out if they don't participate. We want to see how they handle pressure, because that's what sales is. If a person survives our interview process, we know he or she has the extreme confidence it takes to thrive in sales. It all boils down to something simple: people who take more risks sell more.

From the book How to Make a Buck and Still Be a Decent Human Being: A Week in the Life of Dataflex, by Richard C. Rose and Echo Montgomery Garrett. Copyright © 1992 by Richard C. Rose and Echo Montgomery Garrett. A HarperBusiness book. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers