Optimized-Interviewing Mistakes

This may sound like a familiar scenario. That new sales person you hired isn’t working out. After six months on the job, he hasn’t met one monthly sales goal. And, he doesn’t get along with others on the team. How did this happen? He seemed so great in the interview!

If this sounds familiar, maybe it’s time to look at your interview techniques to determine if you are making these common sales interviewing mistakes that prevent companies from hiring great salespeople:

1. Not Asking Open-Ended Questions

If you ask mostly closed ended questions, candidates can often guess the right answer from the question and have a 50% chance of answering the correct answer – even candidates who are a poor match for your open role. Pose questions that require the applicant to provide thoughtful, detailed answers. The more the applicant tells you about their motivations and sales philosophy, the better you are able to judge whether they’re right for your company.

  • Questions such as “tell us about your largest sales achievements” or “why do you want to work here?”  may seem trite, but the answers will tell you a lot about the motivation and makeup of the applicant.
  • Another open ended question such as “how would you describe your sales style?” provides useful clues to how well he or she relates to customers. Do they listen to the customer and build relationships or are they all about the hard sell? Is their style right for you?
  • Asking “what specific features about our products do you think are most attractive to potential customers?” provides insight into whether the applicant has done his homework and researched your company. How will they position your products to customers?

2. Not Asking Behavioral Questions 

There is a stark difference between behavioral interview questions which focus on what someone has done and regular questions which focus on what someone would do. For instance, if you ask a sales candidate to describe how they have successfully sold a new product in a price competitive market, you will get a very different answer than if you asked how someone would sell your new product which exists in a price competitive market. The former questions forces someone to demonstrate that they have the critical experience and gives you insight into how they will behave if you were to employ them, while the latter question will elicit a theoretical answer which likely represents what the candidates thinks you want to hear, but may not provide any indication of how they will operate on your team.

3. Not Asking Follow-Up or Cross Referencing Questions

Many salespeople are able to predict the questions they will hear in an interview. They can often concoct convincing answers which may make them sound more accomplished and skilled than they actually are. This is particularly true for salespeople that can’t hold jobs and have more experience interviewing than closing sales. The key to breaking this is to ask key questions multiple time or multiple ways and to ask follow on questions that challenge the answers. For instance, if someone claims to have made 50 calls a day in a particular role, ask them to talk about their ratios of calls to closes. More often than not, winners know their own metrics and the metrics make sense when stacked against total sales performance. Does it all sound plausible? Challenge claims. If he or she cites percentages, ask for real numbers. Increasing sales by 50% is not very impressive if the real numbers were small to begin with.

4. Ignoring Applicant’s Language and Demeanor

There are many small queues which provide useful insight into both the real character of the person you are interviewing and their level of honesty.

  • Is the applicant conversant with standard sales terminology? How about the terminology used in your particular business?
  • Does he or she seem comfortable when citing facts and figures about  past accomplishments? Do his or her claims seems exaggerated? If so, they probably are.
  • How does the applicant present himself? Does their casual manner or formal dress strike the right tone for your business? Will this candidate fit in?

5. Forget to Check the Facts

Check all facts listed on an applicant’s resume, including college graduation dates, degrees earned, dates of past employment and, if possible, details such as salary history and the authenticity of awards claimed. Do this both in interviews and in reference checks. Ask around within your network. Does anyone you know also know the applicant? Does their story check out?

While there is no way to guarantee that your next new sales hire will be perfect, avoiding these common sales interviewing mistakes should increase your chances of hiring a great sales rep.


Eliot Burdett

CEO at Peak Sales Recruiting
Before Peak, Eliot spent more than 20 years building and leading companies, where he took the lead in recruiting and managing high performance sales teams. He co-founded Ventrada Systems (mobile applications) and GlobalX (e-commerce software). He was also Vice President of Sales for PointShot Wireless.

Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.

He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.

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