Hiring a salesperson is stressful, because I want to make sure I bring the right person on board. After all, he won't just be an employee. He will be, in many ways, the name, the attitude, and the feeling that potential clients associate with my company. I want every customer who comes into contact with Metal Mafia to get the right impression about the company and the brand I have worked so hard to build. What makes hiring the right sales person even more stressful is that salespeople are often good talkers, know how to spin anything unfavorable about themselves well, and are very good at giving the right answers in an interview setting. However, the reality is that none of those things will matter when push comes to shove and they are on the frontlines with my customers. So once I've gotten to know them for culture-fit purposes in an interview, there is really only 1 question I ask that will determine immediately whether or not the candidate sitting in front of me can sell, and sell well.
What's the magic question? It's this: I simply choose an object--it can be the watch the applicant is wearing, a pen left on the table inadvertently, a piece of jewelry on the wall of our showroom, anything really--and I ask him to sell it to me.
Most of the time, the candidate looks surprised, laughs nervously, thinks for a few seconds, and then launches into a pitch of some sort, either expertly waxing poetic about the object in question or making a disaster of himself and the activity at hand. It doesn't matter which path he takes, because they're both wrong, and neither will get him a job at my company. You read correctly. Even oodles of confidence, the gift of gab, and a silver tongue won't get someone a job in sales at my company.
The candidate that will get the job is the one who starts by asking questions. Do I usually wear watches? Do I prefer black or blue ink? Do I have someone special in my life I'm looking to give a gift to? You get the picture. Selling is not about talking, it's about listening. Talkers don't close anything but the door on themselves. A talker worries about his own perspective, his own ideas, and his own constraints. A good salesperson knows that every sale starts with understanding a customer's wants, needs, and limitations.
There is no way to fake the answer to this question. The candidate will either do it right, by being curious about his customer, or he will do it wrong, by plowing through a pitch that will land on deaf ears. Once he chooses his path, there is no turning back, nothing for me to be on the fence about, and certainly no need to reconsider. He has shown me beyond a shadow of a doubt whether he has the capacity to be a rock star or a b-stringer at best.
This single question is so simple and yet, so powerful, it has never steered me wrong, not even once. Only when I didn't follow the rule and let someone slide, thinking I could teach them to ask good questions have I hired the wrong people. Ask it and you'll see.