First… Sell Yourself: How to Win Your Next Interview

By Jake Reni

You’d think sales professionals would shine in job interviews. After all, a job interview is the ultimate sales call – and nobody should know the product better than the seller.

After 15 years of interviewing salespeople, however, I can tell you that 95 percent of the candidates I talk to can’t sell themselves. Does that mean 95 percent of sales pros aren’t good at their jobs? I don’t believe that. So why am I wasting so much time on calls with candidates who have great resumes but can’t show me how they’re special when sitting on the other side of my desk?

I ask people what they do that’s different from their peers and they can’t tell me. I ask them why they think they outperform their peers and they can’t tell me. I ask them how they deal with failure and they can’t tell me. So, what can they tell me? They tell me they won, but not why. They tell me how many hours they put into a win, but not what they did during those hours. The interview ends and I have no idea who I was talking to. Resume, meet trash can.

Your Numbers Aren’t Your Whole Story
I get that you ran the marathon. So did a lot of other people. I’m more interested in the how than the what – how you dealt with a challenge, how you demonstrated grit throughout, how you came up with your secret sauce. I need to know what you learned that you’re going to bring into my organization so you and I can run 10 marathons together.

If you can’t talk to me about your process, I can’t tell if you’re really a winner or if you just got lucky. Maybe that great success you had during the six months you spent at your last job wasn’t your success at all – maybe purchase orders jumped into your lap because the seller who had covered that territory before you did a fantastic job. So don’t expect a hiring manager to be impressed by your marathon unless you can describe every knee you skinned, how much it hurt, and what the bandage looked like.

Educate Yourself So You Can Educate Your Interviewer
If you’re serious about getting an offer letter, you have to prepare like you’re responding to an RFP. That means showing numbers, explaining processes, knowing the customer, and building confidence.

  1. Know your numbers. What are your monthly, quarterly, and annual attainments? If you can’t answer this question, you’re either hiding something or don’t care enough about your profession to know. Either way, I’m not interested.
  2. Know how to back into your quota. If you can’t tell me the specific activities and the volume required of each one to hit your quota, I’m not interested. I want to know how many discovery calls you make to get one approved opportunity, how many qualification calls you make to get one discovery call, and how many touches you make to get one qualification call. Don’t know these numbers? I’m not interested.
  3. Be prepared to tell me how you prioritize your time on accounts. What does a great buyer look like for your company? What firmographic, technographic, and economic profile criteria define your target account profile? If you can’t tell me how you prioritize your prospecting, I’m worried about how much time you waste. I’m not interested.
  4. Know how to articulate why you are successful. I talk to too many reps with proven track records who can’t tell me why they are outperforming their peers. They don’t know which of their activities are high value and worth spending time on; they don’t know what works – so they can’t replicate or scale their success; and they haven’t spent time trying to figure out their secret sauce – so they’re not showing ownership of their business. If you can’t differentiate yourself, I worry you won’t be able to differentiate our product. I’m not interested.

But What Matters Most Are Your Soft Skills
Maybe you already do everything listed above. Does that mean I want to hire you? Not quite. Those are just the cost of the ticket. Want to stand apart from the crowd? I need to see your soft skills. If you can show me the following, I’m a lot more interested.

  1. Articulate your ideas with power and brevity. A lot of candidates start talking and don’t stop. They’re unprepared or uncertain, so they can’t get a concise message across. If you’re nervous and mumbling in front of me, do you really expect me to put you in front of my customers? I want a seller who abides by the 60/40 rule: Spend 60 percent of the time listening and 40 percent asking questions.
    If someone can speak concisely but still ask great questions of me, that’s very compelling. It shows insightfulness, or EQ (emotional intelligence). I know a person has EQ when they can really read the interview, taking my non-verbal and verbal cues and using them to interview me back. That’s something I care about. Brevity is important because anyone can outsell themselves from a deal. When you’re in front of a customer, will you speak more than you listen? If you can demonstrate your EQ, you have my attention.
  2. Show your willingness to change. Coachability matters. During an interview, I’m watching to see you can take feedback well and are willing to unlearn things learned in the past. Are you curious? Are you seeking feedback? Do you demonstrate that you’ve done this historically? Are you asking questions in the interview and applying them in the interview process as well?
    A mentor of mine, Rob Jeppsen, used to talk about skill versus will. The items in the first list above are about skill. This list is about will. If you’ve mastered the skill and possess the will to change, you have my attention.
  3. Demonstrate your grit. In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth says that people who have the grit to put in more hours and more energy outperform those who demonstrate hard skills. The ability to persevere is a learnable skill. I want people who practice putting in more effort when everyone else is putting in just enough to get by. If you can demonstrate grit, you have my attention.
  4. Be brave enough to show your vulnerability. There are two types of sales cultures. The most common one is a culture of scarcity, where everyone keeps secrets because they don’t want their peers to beat them. In these cultures, people are afraid their weaknesses will be discovered and they’ll be called out on them. But there are also cultures of abundance. In these cultures, everyone is willing to share best practices and carry the weight together. When the team sees someone struggling, they rally around and help.
    This is the culture I want in my sales organization, so I’m going to ask questions like, “Tell me about a time you were working on a project and your knowledge and information fell short. How did you make up for your weaknesses?” When I ask you about a time you struggled, I’m going to learn whether you’re a lone wolf who figures things out on your own or if you’re able to reach out for help. If you’re not afraid to admit you struggled and can talk about what you did to improve, you have my attention.

You’re the Star of Your Sell Sheet
Everyone has a story to tell. That’s the concept of sales: We need to be storytellers. It’s your responsibility to articulate your story in a way that gets my attention.

Our stories look like numbers, but our numbers represent journeys; they represent sacrifices like late nights, early mornings, and bad commutes. Sometimes you screwed up and won anyway, and sometimes you did everything right and lost the deal. Your story is what makes you different from the woman who was sitting in the candidate’s chair before you – and the guy who’ll be sitting in it next.

So talk to me about something I care about. I don’t care about a piece of paper. I want to know about you.

Jake Reni is head of academy and sales transformation at Adobe Systems.