How to Identify Top Sales Talent in The Interview Process

identify top sales talent

We’ve previously discussed how to identify top sales talent from the resume. Once you start interviewing the most promising candidates, you’ll need to deduce whether a candidate who looks great on paper is really a great fit for your organization. To successfully identify candidates who can blossom into top performers, we recommend systematic approach. Here are our top tips:

1. Use short phone call interviews to weed out candidates who don’t fit your needs.

Short phone interviews are an effective way to screen candidates early on in the process. At the beginning of the phone call, the interviewer should read the job description to the candidate. Then, ask the candidate about their salary expectations. If their expectations are vastly different from what you’re offering, you know the fit isn’t there.

During the phone call, interviewers should assess how well the candidate communicates on the phone. Sales representatives will be cold calling prospects and need strong phone skills. Pay attention to the candidate’s overall professionalism, including the formalities of the phone call. Did the candidate thank the interviewer for their time? If the interviewer tells the candidate they need to wait for more information, how did they react to the news?

The phone interview can also be a good opportunity to learn more about candidates’ past work experiences and relevant industry knowledge. But the most important question is this: Do we want this person representing our company to prospects on the phone?

2. Develop a system for evaluating candidates on critical traits.

A systematic approach to the hiring process goes beyond gut feel. Prior to beginning your in-person interviews, identify traits that tend to correlate to sales success within your organization. (To do this effectively, look at your top performers. What do they have in common?)

Create a rubric for evaluating each trait. During the interview, every member of the interviewing panel will assume responsibility for assessing the candidate on one or two traits. Try to match the evaluation process to interviewers’ own strengths and expertise. An interviewer with an engineering background can evaluate how well candidates can speak to technical issues.

These evaluations can be used to inform your decisions on which candidates to call back for additional interviews.

3. Ask creative questions that break the mold while also revealing important information about candidates.

Interview questions can be repetitive, allowing candidates to prepare canned responses and then deliver them on cue. Since the sales process is so unpredictable, it’s important to gauge how well sales job candidates can respond to unexpected questions. To break candidates out of their rehearsed responses, ask questions that are more offbeat. Their responses will tell you a lot about how well candidates can cope with situations that go off-script. Ideally, the question should also reveal something about the candidates’ personality and problem-solving abilities.

Some examples of “weird” questions:

  • What’s your favorite movie and why?
  • What superpower do you have that no one else has?
  • If you were going to be trapped on a deserted island, what three objects would you want to have with you?
  • If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do first?
  • What would the name of your debut album be?
  • You have the power to get rid of one U.S. state. Which one would it be and why?

4. Pose questions that help you to evaluate candidates’ attention to detail and knowledge of the sales process.

Dive deep into the candidate’s sales process. Don’t just ask them about deals they’ve closed. Ask them to walk you through the entire process of making the deal and what role they played in it. The best candidates will be able to recount the situation in detail. For candidates who don’t have much sales experience, ask other questions that force them to recall information about prior jobs and extracurricular activities. The details themselves don’t matter as much as their ability to delve into specifics when discussing past experiences.

Pay attention to how the candidate discusses the sales process. Do they just throw around terms like “top of the funnel,” or do they really seem to understand the underlying concepts?

5. Make smart use of sales assessments.

There are a number of sales assessments available that can augment your hiring process. Sales assessments can’t make hiring decisions for you, but they can act as an additional data point. If you have concerns about a candidate, the assessment can confirm or challenge your existing perceptions of the candidate. Some assessments are sales-specific, but general personality assessments can also be informative.

Assessments are useful for evaluating cultural fit. If you have things that are deal-breakers in terms of cultural fit, the assessment can provide an additional perspective.

Commonly used assessment tools include assessments from the Objective Management Group, DISC tests and personality assessment, Pymetrics simulations, and Insights Discovery.

6. Evaluate candidates’ professionalism during the interview process.

Candidates’ demeanor during the interview process is a pretty good indicator of how well they’ll handle interacting with prospective customers. Pay attention to the small things: Did the candidate shake hands in a professional manner? Did they send thank-you notes to interviewers in a reasonable timeframe, using appropriate language?

Everyone who interacted with a candidate during the interview process should receive an opportunity to weigh in. Candidates who treat secretaries and lower-level assistants badly in an interview are likely to do the same when a deal is on the line.

7. Do role-playing exercises during the interview.

Many entry-level sales candidates won’t have much if any conventional sales experience. But you can still test their sales chops with role-playing exercises. 

A classic example: Point to the mug on the table and ask the candidate to pitch it. To up the challenge, discretely raise objections to create a harder sell. Even if the candidate falls short of beating the highest difficulty, their response afterwards can provide valuable insights into how they reflect on failure (as well ass success) and adapt accordingly.

In later stages of the sales process, role-playing exercises should be more formalized. Ask candidates to come prepared with a mock sales presentation for your product or something similarly complex.

When you push candidates out of their comfort zones and ask them to demonstrate real skills, you’ll identify potential top performers.

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Senior Marketing Manager @ CloserIQ. Previously Recruiter @ ManpowerGroup & Freelance Social Media Strategist. University of Wisconsin Journalism & Strategic Communication Grad.