Interviewing, hiring top sales candidates

In my last article I discussed some ways to be sure you find high quality candidates. Again, I can't stress enough that there are many agencies out there that are experts in hiring that you can consult or engage. Making a good hire is critical; making a bad one is costly. Most small to mid-size companies don't have the necessary resources to do effective hiring on their own and I have seen many very costly mistakes. Whether hiring salespeople on your own or using an agency the interviews are critical. Here are some of the things I have learned that will help you make a good hire.

Plan a series of interviews

Phone interview: The first interview should be on the phone. Explain your interview process to the candidate. Ask if they have looked at your website and what they know about your company and the product they will sell. If they say nothing or they know very little and you are still interested ask them to learn about your company and get back to you, but typically that is the end of the interview with me.

Use a standard set of questions to screen all aspects of job-related fit. For example, one of my clients has a non-negotiable requirement. The candidate must be able to handle a 200-pound piece of equipment that they will have to take in and out of a van and push into doctor's offices in order to do a demo. So questions need to be designed to careful screen this ability without discriminating. Questions about credit, references, why they are looking for a job, current income anything that will screen them in or out should be asked here and marked on some type of rating scale. This interview could be done by someone in HR or an administrative assistant to save time. It is not something a sales manager should be doing. The purpose of this interview is to see who will continue on with the process.

First face-to-face interview: Check out the obvious manners, dress, attitude, posture. I recommend starting with a tour of your office and facilities. Make introductions to people who might work with the candidate. Make the candidate feel at ease so they will be able to give their best performance. Watch to see how the candidate interacts with people and note the type of questions asked. If the interview goes well, some companies schedule the candidate to shadow a successful salesperson. This can be done for several hours or a whole day.

At the end of that time you can meet again to answer questions. This can be very enlightening for both you and the candidate. I'll never forget the time I interviewed for a sales position with Minute Maid. It was the frozen juice division. I was very interested in the job until I shadowed a salesperson. I had to get up at 4 in the morning to meet the salesperson in time for her route. Her job included resetting juice in the frozen section of grocery stores. Try sticking your hands in the freezer for an hour at 4:30 or 5 a.m. I wasn't interested in the job after a morning of shadowing. That worked out best for me and Minute Maid.

One of my favorite things to do when interviewing is to ask the candidate to come up with ideas for selling the product or service. I am looking for a few creative ideas. I also ask how they will generate leads and how long it will take for them to become the top salesperson. I love to hear the answer to that question.

Second face-to-face interview: This can be team or one-to-one. If appropriate, I recommend taking the candidate out for a meal. I do this for a couple of reasons. First it gets them out into a different setting and I can watch the reactions. It provides a different setting for conversation. If the team goes to lunch you can watch to see how the candidate interacts with each person.

Second, most sales jobs require meeting customers for meals. I want to be sure they have the manners and business etiquette required. I want to be sure they can handle eating and holding a conversation at the same time.

References and checks

Check, check and check! I can't tell you how many problems I have heard about simply because references were not checked. You read about senior executives who didn't really have degrees from universities or who lied about prior jobs or reasons for termination and yet references still go unchecked. Hiring the wrong person is a very expensive mistake. It is worth someone taking the time to check references. Someone at your company must be responsible for doing this.

* Personal - check at least three references.

* Professional - minimum three employers. The best case is to check with two co-workers, two people who managed the individual and, if you are hiring a manager, two people who worked for the candidate.

Ask tough questions such as how the candidate handles pressure. Ask about an incident with a customer that the candidate handled well. Ask about one handled poorly. What would the reference say are the strengths of the candidate? What are the weaknesses? How would the reference describe the candidate's personality? Look for consistency in answers from those who talk about the candidate. There are professionals who do nothing but check references and if you use a professional recruiter they may do this for you but be sure they are checking in all of the areas and with multiple people.

There are websites you can use to do financial and background checks. It is important to note that you need to get permission from the candidate to run these checks. I often ask, "Is there anything you would like to tell me before I run these checks?" There can also be legal ramifications. It is important to check with your HR department or your employment law attorney to be sure that you do all of this correctly.

Here are some areas you will want to check.

* Education

* Background - Criminal and DMV

* Financial

Personality and performance survey

I urge all companies to do some type of testing and assessment before hiring. It is important to be sure that simple things like computer skills are verified. If you require salespeople to input information into any type of sales force automation tool, then typing proficiently is a must. Can they write a letter or email to a client that is acceptable? Do they know how to use e-mail? If they don't know these things then you better be willing to teach them or not hire them. How quickly does this person learn? What is the personality type of the successful salespeople at your company? Does this person match? There are many different types of assessments to help you determine these things, find one that is suitable for your company.

Making the offer

Be sure that you have everything ready to go before making the offer.

Read chapter 13 in "You're Not the Person I Hired." The authors say, "Never make an offer unless you are absolutely sure it will be accepted." Once accepted you should have everything in place to provide a smooth transition and training period. Don't wait until after they accept to have everything in place.

So, now that you have hired them how will you train them and retain them? My next two articles will look at new hire training, ongoing training and how to retain the best salespeople.

Alice R. Heiman is president and chief sales officer of Reno based Alice Heiman, LLC. She'd like to hear your stories about hiring salespeople. Send them to


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