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Interview Tips to Hire Better Sales Candidates

By Renee Houston Zemanski

Are you unhappy with the reps you’ve hired in the past? It might have something to do with your approach to interviewing. John Smith, senior vice president of enterprise sales for, discusses the top five mistakes sales managers make during the hiring process and how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Interviewing reactively instead of proactively.

“You want to do everything in your power to make sure that at all times you have a full bench, so if your best player walks out tomorrow, the next great player is just a phone call away,” says Smith. “Many times employers take a reactive approach and wait until there’s an opening before they begin recruiting. They start feeling the pressure because no one is calling on their clients, and it puts them in a position of hiring ‘B’ and ‘C’ players just to fill that opening. They need to proactively and consistently interview. If I come in contact with an ‘A’ player, I’m finding room for him or her. If I can’t find room, I’m going to call some of my peers and say, ‘You’ve got to find room for this person, because [this candidate is] that good.’ So, you’re no longer focusing on the best interests of your team, but you are still focusing on the best interests of your company.”

Mistake 2: Not having a clear understanding of the candidate.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hired great, great people who told me in the interview that travel would not be a problem, and six months into the job there was a problem with travel,” says Smith. Not good if 50 percent of the job was traveling. In a case like this, Smith recommends more in-depth probing during the interview process, even if everything seems great. He will ask, “Have you traveled in your previous jobs? If so, how many times a month? How would being away on business 50 percent of your time affect you and your lifestyle?”

Mistake 3: Ignoring your instincts.

“You may read a really pretty resume,” says Smith. “It looks strong, but something isn’t feeling right. Trust your gut. Keep asking questions until you understand why you have this feeling. Put time into your interview; it’s better to put your time in upfront than hire a person and realize that you’ve made a mistake.”

Mistake 4: You have preconceived notions.

“Keep an open mind,” says Smith. “Don’t go into the interview with preconceived notions. Sometimes people think they know exactly what the right candidate looks like before he or she even walks in the door. You want clones of certain people who are successful in your organization, and that’s not being open-minded. A lot of great things come in a lot of great packages.” While Smith agrees that employers should know exactly what type of candidate they are looking for, he says that they shouldn’t discount anyone else.

Mistake 5: You don’t fully understand the candidate’s industry background.

Smith provides the following example: “I came in on a third interview with a candidate with whom people were extremely impressed,” he says. “When you read the resume, it looked beautiful – he made 150 percent of quota, etc. It so happened that I was very familiar with his industry, and I knew exactly what he did to make that quota. It wasn’t as impressive as it sounded.”

In other words, explains Smith, don’t get sold on numbers. Understand the candidate’s sales process and industry. Call references and ask them to explain what the candidate did. Ask the candidate open-ended questions, such as, “Can you tell me about a day in your life at work? Where do you spend the majority of your time? What’s a successful day look like to you?”

Hiring new candidates is one of the most difficult and risky parts of sales management. Be sure to implement a great interviewing process to set yourself up for more successful outcomes in the future.