Hiring an entry-level sales representative is one of the most challenging tasks that hiring managers face. Most prospective job candidates will be a few years out of college at most and lack sales experience. Moreover, most entry-level positions receive a high volume of applicants. Sifting through dozens of candidates to find the right one for your company is tough.
Fortunately, there are reliable methods for evaluating entry-level candidates at all stages of the hiring process, from when you first receive resumes to initial screening to final interviews. Here are some best practices to follow at each stage.
Before the interview: Narrowing the field
While the stack of resumes on your desk is daunting, there are simple ways to identify the best candidates among job applicants. Use this method to kick off your screening process:
1. Evaluate the candidate’s resume in terms of structure and professionalism.
Even setting aside the contents of a resume, the form of a resume can reveal a great deal about job candidates. Ideal candidates should send a resume in standard format, with few if any typos and spelling errors. A well-structured resume reveals that the candidate is likely committed, detail-oriented, and willing to adhere to rules of professional conduct.
In contrast, a resume that is error-ridden or structured unconventionally may indicate that the candidate doesn’t prioritize professionalism. Such a candidate probably won’t represent your company well to prospective customers.
2. Consider how well the candidate tailored the resume and cover letter to your company.
Closely examine the candidate’s job objectives and cover letter. Did the candidate demonstrate a reasonable understanding of your company and the position, or does it look like they just sent the same resume to fifty companies?
You should look favorably upon candidates whose materials demonstrate time spent researching your company and mission. Do the materials suggest a deep understanding of your company’s history and mission, or are they just repeating back the language on your About page? Not only does in-depth research indicate passion for the job, but it also suggests that the person will approach sales prospecting with similar care.
3. Examine candidates’ previous work experience and contact references as necessary.
Even candidates who are fresh out of college should have some type of work or internship experience for you to evaluate. Candidates’ work experience can reveal much about their values and work ethic in addition to skillsets.
If you are seriously considering a candidate, contact references provided and try to have an honest conversation about the candidate’s abilities. Be wary of candidates who do not provide references, or who provide personal references only.
4. Assess the candidate’s work ethic and leadership abilities.
The resume can reveal much about a candidate’s work ethic and ability to lead. Candidates who worked fulltime or part-time during college have demonstrated the ability to multi-task.
Extracurricular activities can also be telling. Although college athletics is one way to demonstrate leadership and the ability to be a team player, it isn’t the only way. Did a candidate join associations during college? Better yet, did he or she assume positions of leadership? Candidates with a history of volunteer work have also demonstrated commitment and strong values.
There is no one single profile of a strong sales candidate, but a lack of any impressive work or extracurricular activities is a red flag.
5. Determine whether the candidate has any unique skills or experiences that may be useful at your company.
Depending on your company’s culture and product, you may be on the lookout for particular skills or industry experience, such as technical abilities. Identify the skills and experiences you’re looking for ahead of time, and then flag candidates who fit the bill.
In the process of considering resumes, you may find candidates with unusual but potentially skills that you haven’t previously considered. Keep an open mind and look upon candidates with these skills favorably. They might just be able to add something new to your team.
Although no resume can give a complete picture of job candidates’ abilities, evaluating resumes smartly will allow you to narrow your field to the best candidates.
The initial interview: Getting to know the candidates
Now that you’ve narrowed down the candidates, it’s time to talk with them directly. Conducting an initial interview—whether by phone or in person—will help you to determine whether a candidate is someone you want to work at your company. Here are some ways to evaluate entry-level candidates during the early interview stage:
1. Assess the candidate’s professionalism during the interview process.
As with resumes, there is much to learn from how candidates handle the interview process itself. Look for candidates who conduct themselves with the utmost professionalism. This is indicative of how they will treat prospective customers during critical interactions.
These traits are musts:
- The candidate is congenial when scheduling an interview.
- The candidate shows up to the interview on time. If the interview is in person, the candidate is dressed appropriately for your company’s culture.
- The candidate demonstrates a strong working knowledge of your company and product. When given the opportunity, they ask relevant questions that can’t be answered on your company website.
- The candidate thanks the interviewer for his or her time at the end of the interview.
- After the interview, the candidate sends a prompt thank-you email to everyone involved in the interview.
Think of the interview as a trial run for sales. A candidate who takes time to send thank-you notes to interviewers is likely to do the same after meeting with a prospective customer. Conversely, candidates who fail to display professionalism are not likely to represent your company well.
2. Identify which traits you value most and evaluate candidates on those qualities.
Although there are certain traits that are critical for sales (such as drive, thoroughness, and communication ability), organizations differ in how they prioritize. Determine which traits are most important to you for sales representatives and create a scorecard that rates each candidate on those key traits. If multiple people will be involved in an interview, consider assigning a different trait or competency to each interviewer.
3. Evaluate how well the candidate communicates on the phone.
One major advantage to a phone interview is that it gives you an opportunity to learn how well the candidate communicates on the phone. Sales representatives who come across as friendly and helpful on the phone are able to sell better.
Consider not only the candidate’s affect, but also their ability to communicate information concisely. Prospective customers are busy people and are not likely to respond positively to a rambling sales representative. You might even ask job candidates to provide a sample voicemail. Is the candidate able to communicate in an affable yet efficient manner?
If the candidate falters, try giving constructive feedback and ask them to repeat the exercise. Candidates who are able to internalize feedback and improve their performance are coachable. Many entry-level candidates will have limited experience in sales-related tasks, but the ability to learn quickly is a major advantage.
4. Ask questions that challenge candidates.
Successful sales representatives think quickly on their feet and can expertly handle tough questions from prospective customers. To stimulate that environment, you need to ask candidates some tough questions.
Examples of good questions to ask during an early-stage interview include:
- How do you deal with rejection?
- Describe one challenge you faced professionally. How did you handle it and are you satisfied with your performance?
- What was one skill at your previous position (or college) that was really difficult for you to learn? How did you develop this skill?
- What would you say your biggest weakness is and how are you working to address it?
When critically evaluating how well the candidate responded to these questions, consider a range of factors. Did the candidate come across as honest and trustworthy? Sales representatives who come across as a little too smooth turn off many customers. You want a candidate who answers hard questions thoughtfully and persuasively. This candidate will be able to handle prospective customers’ objections with similar grace.
5. Probe the candidate’s interest and knowledge of sales.
During the initial interview, it’s critical to gauge the candidate’s passion for sales. Is this candidate passionate about sales as a career or did they just apply to the position because they happened to see the opening?
Although new sales representatives won’t have as much direct experience to draw from, they should understand the basics of sales terminology. Ask questions such as these to assess their knowledge and passion:
- What is the last book on sales that you read?
- What prospecting methods do you feel are best and why?
- How would you research a sales prospect before a phone call or meeting?
- How would you change your approach for a transactional sale as opposed to an enterprise sale?
- What’s a good method for qualifying prospects?
You should also pay careful attention to the questions job applicants ask you. Good candidates will have questions about the intricacies of your sales process, while mercenary candidates may care predominantly about compensation.
The final interview: Observing candidates in action
After speaking to the long list of candidates, you’re ready to further narrow the search. Decide which candidates you’d like to speak with further and arrange for an extended in-person interview. This is a chance for multiple members of the team to get to know the candidate and assess sales potential.
1. Ask the candidate to give a mock sales demonstration.
Before the interview, ask candidates to prepare a mock sales demo or a sales role play. The demo can be for your product or anything else. Its real purpose is for you to evaluate the candidate’s potential in sales.
While entry-level candidates are unlikely to deliver a stellar demonstration, you can determine whether the basic skills are there in terms of communication ability. Is the candidate’s selling style compatible with your organization’s messaging and process?
Play the role of a prospective client who raises objections to the sales pitch. Consider how well the candidate deals with these objections. Do they display strong listening abilities, or do they go right into the next part of the pitch?
Give the candidate constructive feedback at the end of the presentation to test whether he/she is coachable.
2. Bring the candidate in to meet with high-level executives and do a culture check.
When a candidate meets with a range of people within your company, everyone should check for cultural fit. Can you envision this person fitting in with your culture, or do they clam up in the presence of the CEO? Remember, the candidate’s ability to converse effectively with your executives indicates how they may interact with sales prospects.
If you’re serious about a candidate, offer the opportunity to observe your company in action. Ask the candidate to sit in on a sales call with one of your representatives. The questions they ask afterwards will reveal much about their approach to sales and compatibility with your company.
After the interview, seek feedback from everyone who has a significant interaction with the candidate, including receptionists. Even if the ultimate decision will fall to a hiring manager, more data is always useful.
3. Learn more about the candidate’s long-term goals.
Ideally, when you hire an SDR they will be able to develop within your company. Ask the candidate to discuss long-term goals and interests. Consider whether these goals are feasible. Can you envision this person growing with your company?
4. Use psychometrics judiciously.
At this point in the hiring process, giving candidates personality assessments can provide supplemental information. While quantitative personality assessments can’t make hiring decisions for you, they can help you gain a more complete picture of a candidate. If you have particular concerns about a candidate, psychometric testing can reveal whether those concerns are founded.
While hiring an entry-level sales representative can feel risky, following these methods will help you identify the right candidate. At this point, it’s all about professionalism, coachability, and cultural fit.