How to Find the Right Rep

By Heather Baldwin

If you’re having trouble finding the right people to fill your vacant sales positions, the problem may not be with the candidates; it might be with the questions you’re asking. Most interviewers use a list of canned questions that sound good on the surface, but don’t really provide any indication of how the candidate will perform on the job. Instead, sales managers need to be asking behavior-based questions that require factual answers that demonstrate a candidate’s competencies and abilities as they relate to specific job requirements. It’s a technique called Competency-Based Behavioral Interviewing, or CBBI, and it’s enormously successful in predicting a candidate’s future performance, says Victoria Hoevemeyer, an independent consultant and author of High-Impact Interview Questions (AMACOM, 2006).

Most organizations use a traditional interview format with questions such as: "Why should I hire you? Where do you want to be in five years? What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? How well do you work under stress?" Often, interviewers combine these questions with situational questions, such as: "You’re working with another sales rep to pitch a customer and the other rep isn’t doing the work he agreed to – what do you do?" But both types of questioning are flawed. Traditional questions have been used for so long that most candidates know them and have memorized the "right" answer. Thus the best-looking candidate is the one who can best recite the answers. And situational questions are hypothetical; even if someone has the "right" answer, you can’t be sure that’s how he’ll behave when faced with the situation in reality. The bottom line is that traditional and situational interview questions don’t focus on demonstrated behaviors that tell you whether the candidate can do the job or not.

That’s where CBBI comes in. It is based on the premise that the best predictor of future performance/behavior is past performance/behavior. Interviewers ask questions based on real situations that relate to the competencies for the position and thus can evaluate candidates on actual behaviors/performance rather than on possible or potential behaviors/performance, explains Hoevemeyer. For instance, a traditional interview question might sound like this: "I mentioned earlier that this is a high-stress position. How do you manage stress?" Using CBBI techniques, the interviewer would instead say: "Tell me about a time you had to perform a task or project under a lot of stress." Hoevemeyer emphasizes, "Now you are going to find out how the candidate actually handled stress in a real-life situation and what she considers stressful."

Here are some sales-related competencies and sample CBBI questions:

Goal Setting/Accomplishment/Focus

  1. Give me an example of a time when you set a goal and were able to meet or achieve it.
  2. Describe how you set your goals for last year and how you measured your work. Did you achieve your goals? If not, why not?
  3. Give me an example of a time when you used a systematic process to define your objectives even though you were not prompted or directed to do so. What type of system did you use? What payoff did you get from using the process?
  4. Tell me about a time you were assigned a goal that you believed would be impossible to attain.

Oral Communication

  1. Tell me about the most difficult or complex idea, situation or process you have ever had to explain to someone. How did you explain it? Were you successful?
  2. Describe a time when you had difficulty communicating your thoughts clearly to another person or group. What message were you trying to convey? Where did the difficulty in communicating lie? How did you end up getting your point across?
  3. Give me an example of a time when you were able to successfully communicate with a customer you personally did not like.

Presentation Skills

  1. Describe a situation where, after a presentation, you were faced with a hostile questioner. What did you do? What were the results?
  2. Give me an example of a time when a presentation you were making wasn’t working and you were able to switch tactics to make it work. How did you know the presentation wasn’t working?
  3. Tell me about an oral presentation you made to a group within the last year. What was the most difficult aspect of the presentation?
  4. Describe the most significant presentation you have had to complete.