How to Use Sales Interview Questions to Uncover a Candidate’s True Potential


We’ve all experienced the sales candidate who aced the interview, but tanked once you signed them onto your sales team. It’s your job to ask the right kind of targeted interview questions to reveal if someone really has what it takes to perform well in your selling environment.

Join Laura Lloyd, Regional VP of Sales, and Drea Douglass, Director of Talent Management Consulting, as they walk you through the strategies and techniques for asking sales interview questions that give you the best insight for making the right hiring decision.

In 19 hyper-focused minutes, we’ll cover:
  • How to align your interview questions with what the position requires for success
  • Tips for finding out how motivated a candidate actually is by making money
  • Ways to determine if a sales candidate will be a good fit for your team and culture
  • Specific techniques to craft interview questions that get a “true” response

Read the Full Transcript of the Briefinar Below: 

Drea Douglass:    Hi. Welcome to the Briefinar. We’ll be with you in just a few moments.
Drea Douglass:    Hello, and welcome to Briefinars for sales leaders. We promise to be brief, bright, and bring it all to you in 19 minutes or less. Today, I’m joined by Laura Lloyd, regional vice president of sales. Laura has worked with many sales professionals over the past decade, providing targeted solutions for a variety of sales training and assessment clients.
Laura Lloyd:    Thanks, Drea. You know, sales interviews are close to my heart. I am a sales professional and have sat on the other side of the table many times, and I can offer a perspective of someone who’s been there and done that. This Briefinar is for busy hiring managers who want sales-specific interview questions but don’t have the time to prepare and ask the right questions for an impactful interview. These questions are designed to help you clarify areas of potential weakness if the person is hired into this role.
Drea Douglass:    Specifically, we’re going to walk through how to align your interview questions with what the position requires for success, tips for finding out how motivated a candidate actually is by making money, ways to determine if a sales candidate will be a good fit for your sales team and culture, and lastly, specific techniques to craft interview questions that get a true response.
Laura Lloyd:    So often, a sales candidate seems to say or do the right things in an interview or during that interview process. You hire them, and naturally, you expect them to lift off and start performing at high levels. We have big expectations, and unfortunately, the reality is that often, this person was leading you to believe that they had what it takes to be successful in your selling environment, but then you find out it was just for show, and they don’t actually have what it takes to succeed.
Drea Douglass:    Focus on asking questions that reveal information about these three areas: behaviors, motivators, and skills. A good pre-hire sales assessment will cover these areas.
Laura Lloyd:    Well, so why these three, Drea?
Drea Douglass:    Great question. Behaviors matter, because a candidate’s behavior style is important to specific roles. Behaviors show the candidate’s personality and what you see on the outside. For example, an introvert versus and extrovert. You can see those things about a person. Someone who’s more reserved is introverted. Someone who’s more outgoing is typically extroverted. Their motivators are most important, because either you got it or you don’t. You can’t manufacture it, and we’ll talk about that a little bit more in the next slide.
Drea Douglass:    Finally, when we say skills, you can actually divide that into two categories, soft skills and hard skills. Soft skills are the professional polish of a person, what’s below the surface, their mentality. Can they stay on task? Can they see the big picture? Do they use common sense? Are the emotionally intelligent? Hard skills can be learned. They’re trainable and measurable. They measure the candidate’s knowledge of what to do, how to do it, and when to do it in relation to the sales process.
Drea Douglass:    Now, a lot of folks want to know from us, “How do I get true responses?” Now, if you’re not … If you don’t have the luxury of taking a bunch of time with the assessment, and you only have interview questions at your disposal, how do you get accurate, true responses from your candidates as opposed to, well, BS, quite frankly? My first recommendation is to ask open-ended questions, and a good test of whether your question is open-ended or not is, does it begin with do or did? “Do you do this? Did you do that?” is likely going to get a yes or no answer. That doesn’t give you much to work with, so the first recommendation is to ask open-ended questions. Begin your question with who, what, when, where, why, or how, and you’re likely to get a truer, more detailed response that helps you see their true potential more clearly.
Laura Lloyd:    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Gives them the opportunity to elaborate.
Drea Douglass:    Exactly, and speaking of elaboration, you want to go three deep. Elaboration is really important, so don’t take their answer on face value. Even if they do give a pretty detailed answer, listen actively and ask a couple more questions. For example, you can ask, “Who’s the most convincing person you’ve ever known? What did that person do that made them so convincing?” Then, based on the candidate’s answer, ask a follow-up question. “How have you tried to use the same approach in convincing your prospects or customers?” Then, ask an additional question related to their answer. You have to listen actively. I can’t stress that enough. “It sounds like, quote-unquote, ‘Mr. Scott’ was a very convincing salesperson, and I see why you’d want to follow his example. When you tried to use his technique with your own prospects, what happened?” or “What held you back from trying his technique?” Being an engaged interviewer really is what’s key there.
Laura Lloyd:    Just digging deeper.
Drea Douglass:    Exactly. Finally, ask candidates questions in areas they have likely struggled in or may experience challenges in right now based on their assessment, but with the assumption that it’s a challenge area that they’ve worked on developing. This tends to open people up, make them feel a little bit more comfortable about talking about their potential weaknesses in a sales interview. For example, if you have a candidate with a very outgoing behavior style, very charming, enthusiastic, that personality also tends to be conflict-averse. Conflict aversion can lead to avoidance in the sales process in crucial areas, such as asking qualifying questions, asking for the business, handling objections, et cetera.
Drea Douglass:    You can ask them, “What have, historically, been difficult conversations for you to have with buyers in the sales process?” or “Tell me about the conversations you’ve found to be most difficult for you to have in the sales process? What made them difficult? How have you overcome those difficulties to ensure you don’t avoid having those crucial conversations?” Then, more importantly, most importantly, “What do you do differently now from how you used to do it?” See how I went three deep there?
Laura Lloyd:    Yep. That was good. On to this next slide, Interview Questions to Uncover. This is about behavior style. You can gain a lot of insight into how well a candidate will perform in your unique selling environment by understanding their behavior style. We’ve … Several people have taken the DISC assessment before to understand what those behavior styles are, and so for this interviewing technique to be effective, everybody involved in the selection process needs to come to a consensus on exactly what the sales role requires for success. That can be done through our benchmarking process, which we’re going to discuss in a few minutes. Once you’ve agreed on what the role requires, ask questions to determine if the candidate will align well with the culture, with the team, and with the position.
Laura Lloyd:    Here are some examples. How do you differentiate yourself personally? What’s more important, being decisive or slowing down to pay attention to the detail? Have you ever had a losing streak, and how did you turn that around?
Drea Douglass:    These questions, I think, are really good for getting at the heart of a candidate’s approach, and that’s what behavior style really tells us about, is it describes a person’s approach. Certain approaches are better in certain selling environments. Some selling environments do require a softer, more thoughtful and methodical approach. Some require … Most, probably, for those listening, require a more aggressive approach, more tenacious, bold, and these are a couple questions that can help you uncover that type of behavior style.
Laura Lloyd:    On to the next one, money motivation. Everybody has a unique set of motivators. It’s what gets them out of bed in the morning and drives them to perform throughout the day, and when you’re trying to fill an open sales position, it’s very important to find someone who’s highly motivated by making money and the ability to control their own income level. That’s about the compensation plan. Are they commission-based? Are they willing to work for it? Sales jobs reward the drive to make money, and the more weight your sales position places on the commission, the more driven a person will need to be in this area. Use the following questions to reveal how motivated your sales candidate is by money, and look out for the red flags that indicate their drive to make money is not as high as they may want you to think.
Drea Douglass:    Let’s discuss what a good answer and a bad answer would look like relative to some of these questions. The first one here, what are your long-term career aspirations? That’s a pretty standard question. What you’re looking for here is, is this person a rock star or a superstar? Those are two terms I like to use. Rock star implies somebody who wants to stay in their role and do what they do forever, you know, that sales rep that is motivate by incentives, and they just love being out there developing business. They’re not interested in advancing or having more responsibility and not being out in the field anymore. You want to understand that about your sales rep and go in with that type of mentality, I need to understand, is this a rock star or a superstar, and what do I need in this role?
Laura Lloyd:    And what are we looking for long-term?
Drea Douglass:    Exactly. How has your compensation been structured in the past or at your most recent employer? This one is my favorite question, actually, and you don’t have to get into the nuts and bolts of specific numbers here. This is not what we’re asking for, and you may want to clarify that for the candidate. “You don’t have to tell me, specifically, the numbers, but if you were going to put a ratio on commission versus salary, what would that look like? Was it a 70/30 split?” That kind of thing will help you understand, and compare apples to apples, their past compensation versus what you plan to offer them.
Drea Douglass:    Then, you might want to even ask them what their ideal ratio looks like for them. They might have something in mind where they prefer more weight on salary. Then, you can, again, compare apples to apples, whether that’s the environment that’s ideal for that person. How have you achieved year-over-year growth in your accounts and in your territory with new business development? Then, we get into the nuts and bolts of do they prefer developing new business, or are they the type that tends to cultivate existing business, so hunters versus farmers. This helps you get to the essentials of that particular distinction between sales roles.
Laura Lloyd:    It is so important that the job rewards what motivates your candidate.
Drea Douglass:    That’s the most important, in fact, we consider. I mean, motivation covers a multitude of sins is the way I like to put it. Even if you’re an introvert in a more extroverted selling environment, that can be overcome if it’s worth it to you, but what makes it worth it to you? That’s what we’re always trying to find out.
Laura Lloyd:    Okay. Now, we’re moving on now to interview questions to uncover personal skills.
Drea Douglass:    Personal skills are not dependent on experience. A lot of people think the older you get, the more polished you are, the more mature you are, and therefore, the better the decisions you will make. That may be true for a lot of people, but I’ve seen a lot of assessments out there that say otherwise.
Laura Lloyd:    I’ve seen my share, as well.
Drea Douglass:    Yeah. Of very young people with limited experience that actually are very mentally clear and focused and a lot of older people who lack clarity. Personal skills help you understand your candidate’s mental clarity and focus as well as their ability to discern what’s important in any given situation. Bottom line, can they connect the dots? This is the stuff that surfaces about six weeks after they moved into the role. Personal skills are the things you can’t quite put your finger on in the interview, but there’s something not quite right about this person.
Laura Lloyd:    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Just doesn’t settle.
Drea Douglass:    Yeah. The personal skills assessment makes it very clear, that which is typically very vague. Here are a couple of questions to use when trying to uncover cognitive weaknesses, emotional intelligence, results orientation, strategic thinking ability, things like that.
Laura Lloyd:    Okay.
Drea Douglass:    What role does sales team alignment play with the rest of the organization and the overall success of the team? That’s really important to understand a person’s ability to see the bigger picture. How do all the parts come together to create the whole? Can they think across dimensions and not just about results, but also about the people involved and about the resources available, et cetera?
Laura Lloyd:    Okay. Describe a time you lost a longer-term customer. What happened, and how did you handle it?
Drea Douglass:    That’s an emotional intelligence question.
Laura Lloyd:    Mm-hmm (affirmative). How do you stay organized? What are some examples of how you stay on top of high gain activities? I like this one.
Drea Douglass:    Yeah. Laura’s all about that, and it’s … That can be very difficult for a lot of people. It’s hard to get and stay focused, and that’s something that we measure to ensure that that person can stay on task.
Laura Lloyd:    Who are some of your hardest customers you’ve tried to sell to, and what made them so difficult and challenging?
Drea Douglass:    Mm-hmm (affirmative), and the last one here, tell me about a time you responded poorly to stress? In this case, you can assume that they’ve … they’re not perfect. Right?
Laura Lloyd:    Right.
Drea Douglass:    You just ask that … “A time you responded poorly to stress, what happened, and how have you gone about ensuring it doesn’t happen again in the future?” You’re assuming development there.
Laura Lloyd:    Mm-hmm (affirmative). All right. Now, we’re moving on to selling skills ability. Selling skills can be taught and refined, but ideally, you’ll want to bring people onto your sales team who are already proficient in the basic sales acumen. Use the interview process to gauge how well a candidate understands the strategies necessary to successfully, excuse me, move a prospect through each stage of the selling process. It’s important to keep in mind that not all selling skills will translate easily from one industry or selling environment to another. Your first step should be to gain a deep understanding of what skills are important for the job you’re trying to fill, and then tailor your interview questions to drill down into those areas.
Laura Lloyd:    Let’s look at the following questions to answer, can this person sell? First question, walk me through your sales process of choice.
Drea Douglass:    Yeah. Where do they start? What’s their typical starting point? Don’t let them just give a rote answer or a basic answer. Again, you want to go three deep there and drill down and find out, in more detail, how they go about selling.
Laura Lloyd:    How would you start working a territory from scratch? It’s kind of thinking that plan through. Walk me through your process for developing a prospecting plan? What is your process for determining if a prospect is qualified? You know, qualifying the opportunity. Where, specifically, do you need to grow your sales skillset? That is, are they aware that they do need some further development? Lastly, how do you handle situations when a prospective buyer insists that you cut price? How are they going to stand up to the challenge? How are they going to create that value?
Laura Lloyd:    All right. A good hiring decision is objective, and it’s based on data, not just a gut feeling. Oftentimes, in an interview, you get that gut … You think it’s a gut feeling and it’s a good candidate, but here are some recommendations to … things to look at.
Drea Douglass:    When evaluating candidates for hire, we encourage our clients to apply equal weight to four key variables in the decision, or what we call the four Rs. The first one, rapport. This is where the answers to the interview questions you ask come in. Will he or she be a fit with your company and the team’s culture? How will they come across to others they’ll need to work with closely? Did they show up to game day, really, in the interview?
Drea Douglass:    Then, the report. At the Brooks Group, we use an assessment system called Brooks Talent Index, which allows our clients to identify exactly what a position needs for success and then compare applicants to those established benchmarks. It’s a scientific method for determining with great accuracy if the job-seeker is a match for the role. The next one is their resume, of course. The resume could tell you about how the person thinks of him or herself as well as an outline of basic qualifications and skills and experience, and, of course, that’s important foundational element. Finally, references. No one is intentionally going to give you a reference they know is a bad one. That why we recommend, at a minimum, checking dates and places of employment to ensure the candidate did, in fact, work where they say they worked, when they say they worked there. Unfortunately, I’ve seen candidates falsify their resumes.
Laura Lloyd:    That’s sad but true. Well, by evaluating a candidate in each of these four areas, you’re much more likely to choose someone who will be a good fit. Having well-thought-out interview questions will set you up going into the hiring process, but keep in mind that what we’ve just covered are generic sales interview questions. The more that you can tailor them to specific skill requirements of the position you’re trying to fill, the more you’ll be able to drill down and really determine if a good candidate … if the candidate is a good fit for your company.
Laura Lloyd:    Let’s assume you’ve gone through a telephone interview. They have qualifications you’re looking for, and ideally, you’ve done a sales pre-hire assessment. You’re pretty far down the path and feel like they’re a strong candidate, good in the running, but now comes the time for, or opportunity to ask interview questions that probe potential weaknesses. When we talk about weaknesses, what does that mean? It means getting clear about the challenges that that specific candidate is likely to experience in your selling environment and your organizational culture.
Laura Lloyd:    We have … Let’s see. We have a couple of minutes here. We’re going to move on to a brief overview of the Brooks Talent Index Job Benchmark. As we mentioned, for those listeners who already use Brooks Talent Index assessments, you’re probably familiar with them. The beauty of the benchmark is that it allows you to determine exactly what a position requires for long-term success and then compare your job candidates to that blueprint. We’re very excited, because we recently added a custom interview guide with every job benchmark that’s created. You can see before an interview where a candidate might not line up completely with the job requirements, and within this guide, you’ll be given custom questions that allow you to really drill down into those areas. It’s like having an expert hiring consultant walk you through your interview process, but in a much more convenient, cost-effective way, because it’s all right there for you in your personalized guide. Along with the recording of this Briefinar, we will be sending you a little bit more information about the interview guide and how you can obtain your copy.
Laura Lloyd:    I think we … Unfortunately, we are at our 19 minute mark, and we don’t have time for questions at this point. I will be happy to respond to all of the emails that we receive with the questions, personally, but we wanted to thank you for your time today.
Drea Douglass:    Thank you very much, and happy interviewing.

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