When we think about the stages of a recruiting, we all probably have a similar idea of that process. Resume screen, phone screen, in-person interview, 2nd round in-person interview, offer letter, reference checks, offer acceptance, and new employee onboarding.
Some companies stick a few other steps here and there (like a sample presentation for sales reps), but for the most part, we all follow the same process. Because it works.
Well, let me backtrack on that. I think it actually works for certain types of roles, but it falls short of helping to interview for sales talent and skill. Here are some ways to screen and hire the best sales talent you can.
Build a repeatable sales recruiting process.
If you don’t have a great sales recruiting track record or the killer instincts needed to spot great sales talent, you will need to fall back on a repeatable process for finding the best sales talent. And you may need to get a lot tougher and rigorous in your interview process. My basic approach includes using a scoring matrix for assessing skill & experience, asking all candidates the same set of questions, and leaning on a partner. But it also includes asking a few unusual questions along with my favorite request, “Sell me this pen.”
Don’t be afraid of the tough stuff.
“Sell me this pen” is a shockingly effective way to weed out candidates without solid sales skills. I think more sales manager’s don’t use it because of it’s abysmal “pass” rate. But it’s effective for a reason. It actually demonstrates the candidate’s skill, versus just talking about the skill. It’s a situation-based technique, which is really different than talking about how the rep likes to sell. You get to see how they sell in action.
If you are bad at hiring great sales reps, you are going to have to use some tactic like the pen request. And, you are going to have to ask tough questions of your candidates too. When they respond to a question, ask them “Why” or “How”. And then ask again. And then again. Force yourself, and the candidate, to go way deeper by using the very same techniques we use as salespeople, like the 5 Why’s and Silence.
Design your repeatable process to include the hard stuff to weed out bad fit candidates and those who lack fundamental sales skills. Let me not sugar coat this—it’s not just a tougher interview process for the candidates, it will be hard for you too. Let’s say one step of your repeatable process is that the candidate has to send a follow-up email or note within 24 hours of the interview. And they don’t. But you love them and they did such a good job during the interview. You will want to overlook this. And justify it. But you shouldn’t. A sales candidate (really, any candidate, but that’s another article) who doesn’t send a follow-up email within 24 hours of the interview needs to be taken out of consideration. It doesn’t matter how great they are on paper, in theory, in person or any other way. But, this will be hard for you if you like the candidate.
The tough stuff is tough for a reason. It works.
Interview sales reps the way your buyer will buy.
Think back to that standard interview process: Screen resumes for experience, do a phone screen to make sure they aren’t crazy, bring them in for an interview to assess their expertise & suitability for the role, bring them in again for another interview as a sanity check, make them an offer.
This is how the majority of the world runs their interview process. Fine. But it’s not the way your buyer buys. So it’s not the way your buyer will get to know your sales rep.
Consider flipping your interview process on its head entirely. You can do this in subtle ways, but also in larger ways.
- Reach out via email to set up the phone screen time. How responsive are they? Some candidates won’t/don’t respond during their work day, which is respectful. But, they should at least respond that evening, or early the next morning. Weed out candidates who are slow to respond. “I didn’t check my email the past couple of days” is inexcusable for a modern sales person who is seeking employment.
- Have some email exchanges with them before the phone screen. Are they responsive throughout? Are they professional? Are their emails grammatically correct? Many of your buyers will first interact with your sales reps via an email exchange, which creates their first impression. Weed out candidates who don’t articulate ideas well in writing, aren’t professional or have grammar/punctuation/typo challenges. Don’t think you can overcome this or coach around this. You can’t. A modern salesperson needs to be exceptional and written/email communication.
- Set a phone screen time and have them call you. Do they confirm the time a day before? Do they call promptly at the appointed time? How do they handle those first 10-15 seconds of the call? Do they confidently introduce themselves? Do they quickly build rapport? Or are they hemming and hawing? Weed them out ruthlessly if they can’t kick off a call well.
- Call them at some point after the phone screen. Do they answer their mobile phone professionally? If you leave a voicemail do they call you back promptly? Go a step further and send them a text. How do they handle that interaction? Your buyers will be having mobile calls and exchanging texts with your sales reps (yes, even in an enterprise B2B sale). Make sure those skills are strong too.
- So far so good, and you want to bring them in for an in-person? Before you do, ask them to prepare a 5-minute presentation on any topic of their choice (can be what they currently sell, or something else), and have them present it to you in a web-based meeting. Do they fumble through the web-based presentation or are they fluent and skilled? Do they have a compelling presentation style? Do they drone on and on, or do they respect the 5-minutes? Do they ask you questions along the way and engage you or do they just give you a lecture? Ask them some curveball questions. Your sales reps need to be fantastic at web-based presentations, so test their chops before you meet them in person. After all, this is how your buyers will interact with them.
- If they rocked the online presentation, now you are ready to bring them in for an in-person. Follow your repeatable process. Ask the tough questions. Look for chemistry and rapport building, practical knowledge of the sales cycle, relevant experience and professionalism. Test for skills with the pen request. And look for that follow-up communication within 24-hours of the in-person.
- Ready to bring them in for the 2nd interview? One more thing. Have they thus far in the process asked you a ton of questions? Have they been inquisitive, curious and intellectually engaged? Do they ask about your buyer, your sales cycle, your average contract value, common objections, why you lose deals, your sales culture, and your competitive landscape? If not, weed them out. This is tough but necessary. If they haven’t been asking you smart questions along the way, they won’t be asking them of your prospects either. And you have to wonder why they aren’t asking. Do they just not know that these things are important and will factor into their success? That shows a level of professional immaturity in a salesperson. I know it’s harsh but sales candidates who don’t ask me tons of relevant questions are a big red flag.
- If your candidate has passed all of these steps with flying colors, you are probably in pretty good shape. Many companies have reps do full presentations as part of their process, and that can be a good step too. You can ask a candidate to prepare a 20-minute presentation on your company/your product to see how well they have synthesized your content and message. I really like having candidates do this and I find it to be very illuminating. But the truth is, if they have passed the gates of the other steps so far, they will probably also pass the longer company presentation with flying colors too.
- Want one more hoop? Ask your candidate to close the deal. Set them up with “Why should I hire you? Make a compelling case for me.” You may have already asked them this during the actual interview or screen. But do it again. And this time, look for them to not pitch you. When a buyer asks them at the end of the sales cycle to pitch them on why they should buy, a rep shouldn’t launch into a pitch. A rep should “resist the urge to pitch” and draw on everything they have learned thus far to entice the buyer into pitching for the rep. You want a candidate to do the same for you.
I know this sounds tough, but it’s really not. It’s just a different process for recruiting. If you find it hard, remember it’s much harder to lose time, money and momentum with bad hires.
Keep the gate open.
The above process is more rigorous than a typical recruiting process. And I don’t think it is right for every company. But a team who is trying to scale, and keeps getting held back by poor hiring decisions, needs to give this approach a try. Pick and choose the elements of this that work best for you, your company and your culture to formulate your own “buyer-centric” recruiting process. Always make it pleasant for the recruit. You want to start the relationship out with mutual respect and admiration. Explain up front that you use a unique process that won’t follow the typical interview steps.
More than anything, think of this approach as trying to keep the gate open for them, versus trying to close it on them. That will help you bring the right tone and energy into to the process and start your candidate relationship off on the right foot.
Good luck! Let me know how it works for you.