An Account Executive is responsible for closing deals and acquiring new customers. Although SDRs may identify potential customers, the AE brings them to the point of decision — and the account.
So when you’re hiring a new AE into your organization, it’s important to get a strong sense of how well they’ll fit into the role, which means no generic questions here. We know a bad sales hire can start out costing 50-75% of that hire’s salary — and last year’s base-pay for the average AE was $59,000, but that can easily be much higher.
And those figures don’t take into account the hiring costs, training, severance, and HR costs, nor the big one: lost productivity (and with it, revenue).
Asking the right questions when you interview candidates can help you weed out those that will be a poor fit. But to do that, you need to know which ones to ask, why you’re asking them, and what they tell you about that candidate.
Basic interview questions
1) “Define the stages of the sales cycle — which do you find most challenging? Why?”
At a very basic level, this question probes for the AE candidate’s job knowledge. Their answer should reflect a clear, insightful understanding of each stage, as well as clear reasons backed by examples.
A follow-up to this can be, “What’s your least favorite part of the sales process?” Their answers may be the same, or it may be different. In either case, if their least favorite part is the most important stage for your organization — that’s a bad sign.
2) “What was your quota? Your average deal size?”
This is just a lead-in question — most interviewers stop here, even though there’s a lot more you can find out. Ask, “How many people hit this number?” “How many people were on your sales team?” “Walk me through 3 times you were rejected.” Or, “walk me through your biggest deal and how you closed it.”
These questions help you understand the salesperson on a day-to-day basis. You can learn how easy (or difficult) it is for them to close deals. This is not the time for the candidate to talk about easy sales — if they only discuss the easy ones, probe to hear about more difficult ones.
3) “Tell me what kind of buyer I am, then try to sell me a product.”
This is often known as an “unlock pitch.” Let the candidate pitch you anything they want, including your organization’s own product. Their answer can tell you a lot of things: how much do they want the job? Did they additional research on your or your product? Is your product something they’re excited to pitch?
4) “How would you retain a dissatisfied client?”
Again, this is another basic question to determine customer service skills, but it can give you a peek into the candidate’s thought processes and experience. Ask for examples. You’re looking for evidence of a process. How did he or she take care of them? When did their efforts fail? Why?
5) “How would you support your assigned clients while also pursuing leads and making cold calls?”
With this one, you’re probing for time management skills. An AE’s schedule is busy, with responsibilities ranging from current account support and growth to discovery calls with prospects. Ask for specific details: the average number of daily discovery calls, check-in calls, demos, etc.
The candidate needs to demonstrate to you that they can juggle the multi-faceted responsibilities of an AE well.
The chronological interview
Mike Wolff, SVP of Commercial Sales at Salesforce strongly recommends using the chronological interview when hiring top account executives. By walking through relevant work experience in chronological order, you can identify and understand themes that surface along the way.
6) “Describe for me your current or former role, your responsibilities, and how success was or is measured.”
With this question, you’re looking for specificity and clarity. How succinct and clear are they in their explanation of their job responsibilities? Success metrics should be pretty straightforward, too — any vague or murky answers should throw up a red flag.
7) “What is your proudest accomplishment?”
This question is to test alignment. Does the candidate’s proudest accomplishment tie in with their answer to the previous question? If not — another red flag. Further, their answer illustrates values and motivations.
For example, if the candidate tells a story about closing a difficult sale that involved going against great odds, overcoming many objections, etc. — that can signal they’re a very motivated and driven person. The more details that are in line with their previous role’s responsibilities, the better.
8) “With the benefit of hindsight, walk me through what you would do differently to drive greater success.”
This tests their self-awareness and coachability. If they can’t find anything they can do better, that’s not a good sign.
9) “If I were to call your former VP, how would he/she describe what you’re doing well, and the areas you’re improving in?”
Once again, this test coachability and self-awareness. Plus, you may be able to glean an understanding of how they were previously coached — including whether they even received feedback.
10) “Let’s flip it around: thinking about your former VP, what do you appreciate about their leadership style? What did they do well, and what would you prefer was done differently?”
This helps you understand what type of leader the candidate prefers to work with. Is it in alignment with the VP of sales at your organization?
11) “What inspired you to pursue the next opportunity?”
In short: are they running away from something, or to something? If they’re running from their last job: why? And will they do it again at your company?
Conversely, if they’re running to something, what is it? What stood out to them that they couldn’t find in their current/former organization?
Interviewing candidates for an Account Executive position at your organization requires a little more probing and specificity than interviewing a sales rep: there’s more responsibility, more revenue to be gained, and, more to be lost.
So while evaluating these candidates can be a more complex process, in the end, your questions need to draw out answers that clearly demonstrate how well they do the details of the job and how well they’ll fit into your company’s culture.