Tips For Questions to Ask at Interviews

It is well understood that sales training can improve specific skills, but what do you look for when recruiting a new sales person?For all sales positions a willingness to achieve is an important factor. Thus, in recruitment, the key question to answer is: what level of commitment and stamina do they have? This question is important because these two factors are vital to future success in the increasingly demanding sales role. In an interview, the sales manager must try to form a picture of the applicant through specific questions and a systematic analysis of their personal history.

It is an advantage to have a repertoire of standard questions that you can ask every applicant in the same form. This gives you a feel for how to interpret the different answers given. The examples below should help you choose your own ‘catalog of questions’:

To assess financial motivation you can ask questions such as: How much do you earn at the moment? How much do you want to earn per year? How much do you want to earn in 3-5 years’ time? What is the ceiling which, as you see it, you probably won’t exceed? How important is money for you compared with other factors which make you happy or unhappy in your job?

A materialistic outlook forms part of the motivation of a good salesperson. Their financial objectives should be ambitious. However, too heavy financial pressure can admittedly prevent success. A salesperson whose motivation is exclusively material cannot again be stretched during barren periods. Work must also be fun and suit the salesperson.

To check for non-material motivation of the sales applicant you can ask them questions such as the following examples: Other than financial rewards, what does working as a sales person give you? What arguments would you use to recommend to a good friend that they should take up the profession of a salesperson? What difficulties/drawbacks would you also point out to them? What periods in your career do you like to think back to? What times don’t you like to remember? What would a job that was tailor-made for you be like?

The questions that the candidate asks at interview will tell you a lot about their level of achievement motivation.

Note down the questions asked and analyze them after the interview. Stable motivation ‘stands on two feet’: both material and non-material work motives must be present in a balanced mix in a good salesperson.

To assess the applicant’s personal objectives a different set of questions is required. These can include: What are you intending to do over the next 3-5 years? What are your plans and desires in the professional and private field? Regardless of whether we come to an agreement or not, what do you hope will change for the better for you over the next few years? In your work, and outside work? What position are you aiming at in the medium term? When you look at your present life, what do you want to stay the same and what do you want to change over the next few years?

Sales people who are achievement-orientated are clear about their own personal objectives and have a clear idea about their future. Where these are lacking, the capacity for self-motivation is wanting too. Applicants often come prepared for such questions and give pretended objectives. To decide whether these sentiments are genuine you have to listen carefully and be prepared to ask precise questions.

In the interview you will also need to assess whether the applicant is up to the challenge of the job. Here the person hiring has to work out a sober equation: what know-how does the applicant possess and how does it match their new job?

Both overstretching and understretching are disadvantageous. Beware of obviously overqualified applicants who are looking for a job out of an emergency situation. There is a big risk that they will get out again as soon as an opportunity presents itself. When in doubt, always favor the underqualified applicant, the one for whom the new job is a challenge which mobilizes their energies. In such cases it is likely that you will have to invest in a programme of sales training for the applicant.

Do not forget to check whether the applicant identifies with the role of a sales person. You can do this by setting the scene and asking questions, like the examples below.

You are asked by strangers at a party what job you do. What do you introduce yourself as and how do you describe your work? Why do you think a lot of people enjoy working in the sales force? What negative opinions and prejudices do people have against this job?

The last question is projective in nature: The things applicants say about others reflects their own attitudes and opinions. They just put these in the mouths of other people. Therefore, always ask questions in a general and indirect way when you are after an unvarnished reply.

Many people have become salespeople without this being a planned career move. What is important is have they over the course of time identified with the job and role of being in a sales position – or whether they use defensive paraphrases like ‘consultant’, ‘agent’ etc.

You will also want to find out their reasons for changing jobs. If a candidate has changed jobs frequently this could indicate that they have little staying power, low willingness to identify and a tendency to change jobs just for the money. Ask these types of question to find out their reasons:

What were your reasons for moving from company x to company y at that time? What were you earning at x in the end, and what did you start off with at y? Which of your expectations were fulfilled at y and which were not? Why do you want to change your job now? What would your present company have to do or change in order to keep you?

When assessing job changes, you can make a sober calculation by subtracting one year from the length of employment at each company: training and familiarisation take half a year, and another six months go by between the internal notice, the search for a new job and the expiry of the period of notice. Someone who has three changes of company within five years has, in fact done only two years of ‘real work’. Changes of job must also be differentiated on an individual basis according to age, industry and economic situation.

By asking questions that get the applicant for self-references you can check out the maturity of the applicant. Count self-critical statements as a sign of maturity and a realistic self-image. Experience shows that active leisure interests (competitive sports, club activities etc) show a positive correspondence with high willingness to perform at work. The following questions can be helpful.

Where do you see your weaknesses as a salesperson and where are your strengths? What makes a good salesperson in your opinion? How have you got on with bosses so far? What would your ideal superior be like? If you could turn the clock back, what in your life would you do differently (from today’s standpoint)? Have you ever had a barren period in your career so far, how did you cope with this? What do you do outside your work? What are your hobbies and interests?

In summary, to select the right person for a position in sales requires the preparation, and asking of, a number of questions designed to explore the key areas that demonstrate a willingness to achieve. Identifying the motivations of the applicant are important in the selection process: skills can be taught and honed through sales training but the underlying attitude, commitment and stamina needed to succeed in the tough role of a salesperson must be present.

About the author: Richard Stone is a Director for Spearhead Training Limited that runs management and sales training courses that improve business performance.

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