Interviewing sales candidates can become a bit of a hassle if you are not fully prepared, which can be anything from creating the right environment to asking the right questions, as well as having an understanding of who you are looking for to fulfill your team’s needs.

The end goal of interviewing is to find the right people that fit into the culture of your team, that can handle objections, have patience and persistence, while also hitting their sales quotas.

In this guide we have laid out a foundation for interviewing sales candidates in a way that can be systematized for your own internal use.

Note: If you’re looking for an existing solution to objectively assess your sales candidates to ensure they have what it takes to truly produce for your company, check out our Aptitude Test for Salespeople.

sales manager interviewing sales candidate

How Your Interview Room Changes the Interview

Let’s discuss how to use design, layout and location to get the most out of your sales interviewees.

Think about the space you use most in your interviews.

Is it in your office? The conference room? A coffee shop? Virtual? Did you pick this space with specific intentions, or was it just the most convenient for the appointment time?

Did you know that the space you choose may actually impact the outcome of your interview? The design and atmosphere of an interview room can either set candidates at ease or put them on guard.

Many businesses focus on finding the cheapest commercial paint and carpeting available to keep costs down. They think design is not really important to their bottom line.

In reality, the difference between soft lighting and the glare of fluorescent lights, or between stark white and an eggshell matte can have significant effects.

The way your office is designed impacts the creativity and productivity of your workers. Even more telling, it affects how people perceive your business when they arrive to interview for new positions. By understanding how layout and color impacts candidates, you can better control the flow of information during an interview.

Spice Up Your Interview Room with Color

Most candidates have the professional instinct to dress in muted colors. However, you can throw your personality around a bit more by adding color to the interview room. Designers and psychologists have spent millions trying to understand the implications of color. Using certain shades in combination with neutrals can mix personality with professionalism.

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Consider the following colors and their effects:

  • Red. Red is a powerful, elegant color. Darker shades add power to an interview room, placing the interviewer in a perceived position of authority. Red accents stand out against whites and grays as trim, border colors and carpeting.
  • Yellow. Very light and pastel yellows add a splash of cheerfulness without going overboard. Painting an entire wall bright yellow would be a bold move, likely detracting from the professionalism of the space. Use accents to make greater connections with candidates.
  • Green. This color often represents growth and is a stable harmonizing color. Light greens are favored by startups and small businesses, while dark greens are typically used by larger, established companies.
  • Blue. The most relaxing color on the list, mid to dark shades are great for building trust. People are more likely to tell the truth in a room decorated with blue tones. Dark blues come with an added perception of reliability and power.
  • Purple. Deep purple has long been associated with luxury and money. Queen Elizabeth I decreed that only royalty was allowed to don violet fabrics. This is partially due to the huge expense of purple dyes throughout history. Purple is a creative color, and is considered neutral between two parties.

How to Make a Candidate Feel Relaxed

The best way to help candidates relax is to meet in a neutral location. Meeting outside the office, and perhaps paying for lunch, is a great way to make them feel special. This tactic is especially effective at the associate level. It relays the message that you are looking for a long-term hire that would benefit greatly from the profitability of your business.

If you have a candidate who has scored high on the sales assessment, you may want to use this approach to net high talent.

Start off the interview with small talk. Converse about sports, the weather or whatever topic you can think of, until the interviewee’s body language indicates they are ready to handle the more difficult questions.

For interviews on site, an office with window-walls can help candidates feel relaxed with a view of the company. They can see the coming and goings of the other employees and judge for themselves what type of company they are interviewing for.

When dealing with virtual interviews be sure to keep distractions to a minimum. It’s understandable that many parents are locked in with kids and pets, but be prepared to keep any noises, walk-in’s and other background distractions down so that the interviewee feels relaxed and has the perception of professionalism, regardless of what you may or may not be wearing on your bottom half.

How to Make a Candidate Feel Uncomfortable

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There are multiple reasons you may want to apply pressure to a candidate, instead of relaxing them.

One reason is to nudge candidates to be more truthful during the interview. Salespeople are built to please, so getting the truth sometimes takes a bit more digging.

Another reason you might apply pressure to a candidate is to see how he performs in uncomfortable situations. If your job opening is for a salesperson to start in a fresh territory, a little pressure may be warranted.

Some cheap installations can increase tension and allow interviewers to judge candidates under pressure.

By placing mirrors behind candidates, you can see the backs of their heads. This provides no logical benefit, but makes interviewees feel like they are being watched from all angles. There are a lot of little truths that get stretched, and candidates with eyes on them from behind tend to embellish less.

Some common examples of embellishment include:

  • “I worked from 2011-2013 at X.” While technically true, the candidate is implying that he worked for three years at company X. The real time frame of December 2011 to February 2013 is a lot less impressive, and leaves open more gaps.
  • “I made $75,000 at my last job.” Some candidates count their benefits, including the estimate medical costs. This is misleading, and a tactic to leverage a higher starting salary.
  • “I had $1.5 million in sales at my last job.” How much of it was from cold calling and hard work, and what percentage was from loyalty accounts leftover from a previous employee?

Second, play with space. Fill up the room, or pick a small interview room. By stuffing it full of podiums, TV carts and projectors or even plastic foliage, you will make candidates feel pressured. You do not want to look messy to the point where the company’s image is tarnished, but enough to incite mild claustrophobia.

An opposite tactic is to interview in your largest conference room. A wide open space filled with empty chairs is a power move. Candidates will feel the pressure of those interviewing them and that of the company itself. If you really want to lay on the heat, bring several co-workers to the interview and give everyone a couple of questions to ask.

Regardless of your environment, do not smile until the end of the interview. This sounds like a small tactic, but it can be a power tool in applying pressure to the interviewee.

Optimal Design Practices

Office best practices establish an environment of trust, leading a candidate to try harder to get the job. If the candidate likes your company and has successfully passed a phone interview and sales assessment test, you will experience greater synergy during your in-person interview.

Consider these broader office design tactics to improve your workplace overall:

  • Use Urban Zoning. Just like neighborhoods, your office space should be properly “zoned”. If someone wants to step away for a cup of coffee or a lunch break, they should not be eating right next to the cubicles.
  • Incorporate Personal Styles. By letting people design their workspaces to their liking, you foster creativity and personal pride. Set professional restrictions, but let your employees show their personality through their workspace. Top performing salespeople often have the opportunity to pick where they work because multiple companies are seeking them, so be sure your company culture is on display.
  • Facilitate Background Noise. How loud do you talk in a restaurant? Do you talk more quietly when you are the only people in the restaurant or when it is full? An office is the same way. A buzzing office facilitates discussion. Never encourage counterproductive small talk, but a vibrant office will appear more attractive.

Consider the overall image you want your office and interview space to project, then implement strategic design tactics to make sure you are projecting that image and hiring the best sales candidates.

What Questions Should I Ask in a Salesperson Phone Screen?

After reviewing sales candidate resumes, hiring managers often add a phone screen to determine whether to move the candidate forward into the testing and interviewing process.

This 20-30 minute phone call helps bring the candidate’s resume to life and provides some excellent clues about whether they have the characteristics the company is seeking. Since the time is short, hiring managers often wonder about the best questions to ask.

Below is a salesperson phone screen protocol, we use and recommend, to help you determine whether a candidate is likely to be successful in the testing and interviewing process. 

First, ask the candidate briefly to walk you through their resume.

For each previous position, ask the candidate to answer three (3) questions:

  1. Please provide a basic description of the job.
  2. If you were on a sales team, where did you rank?  (Competitive candidates will know the answer.)
  3. What got you to move on to the next position?

These three questions help you to establish the candidate’s previous employment patterns, which are a solid predictor of how they would respond to the challenges of your open position. The more similar the previous roles were to the open job, the more likely you will see similar behavior if the candidate comes to work for you.

Next, ask at least one question for each of the 3 elements of Drive: Need for Achievement, Competitiveness, and Optimism.  Finally, we recommend adding a question regarding confidence, especially if the open position requires cold calling.

A well-constructed phone screen is like an interview sampler, allowing you to make an informed decision about moving the candidate to the next phase of the hiring process – increasing the chances that those that you ask to take an online sales test and conduct an in-person interview will be up to the challenge.

How to Interview an Inexperienced Sales Candidate

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Hiring managers often look for sales candidates who are fresh out of school and/or inexperienced in sales. A key benefit in doing so is finding a new recruit who has not developed bad habits and can learn the company’s sales process fresh.

During the interview phase, it is important to understand that the best predictor of future behavior is previous behavior. That is why hiring managers use behavioral interview questions, which ask the candidate to provide several examples of their previous behavior in a variety of situations. But how do you use behavioral questions when you interview an inexperienced sales candidate?

For candidates who lack sales experience, the key is to focus on situations in any previous position or at school where they had to display the characteristics that make a salesperson successful.

For example, when interviewing for Persuasiveness, if you cannot ask about a previous sales career, you can use a question such as:

  • Question: “Tell me about a time when you had to get someone to change their point of view. How did you work to convince them?”
  • Listen for: the candidate to provide several examples of successfully persuading their classmates, teachers or colleagues. Also, note the candidate’s persuasive technique to help you diagnose potential developmental needs.

Or, when interviewing for Relationship Skills, you can ask:

  • Question: “Tell me about a work or school relationship that was particularly challenging to develop.” 
  • Listen For: what was most challenging about this relationship and whether the candidate was successful in building it. More tips on using this question can be found here.

The point is to ask each question broadly enough to allow the candidate without sales experience to demonstrate whether they have the critical characteristics needed for success in sales.

When you have the time and resources to train candidates thoroughly, this interview approach will help make sure you are hiring high-potential talent, eager to succeed in training and hit the ground running thereafter.

How Sales Candidates Fool Sales Managers During Their Interviews

Have you recently hired a seemingly talented sales candidate, only to find out shortly after that they are incapable of meeting your expectations?

If so, you are not alone.

Many sales directors and managers face this problem at some point, and it can deal a huge blow to the business because of the cost of a bad hiring decision.

Too often, the interview is the best sale you will ever see out of your candidate.  They are on their best behavior, probing for your pain and promising you the world.  But beware; this does not tell you whether they will actually sell for you once hired.

So how can you avoid these one-time sale wonders and hire a true producer?

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your interviewing process and prevent low-performing salespeople from sneaking into your organization and failing to deliver the results they promised in the job interview.

The first step is learning how sales candidates trick sales managers into thinking that they are a good fit for the job.  Once you know how these bad salespeople are sneaking through your hiring process and wasting your time and resources, you can begin to focus your time on better-qualified candidates that are far more likely to produce for your sales team.

Sales Candidate Tricks Used During Job Interviews

Using their personality to oversell themselves.

Think about it – even the worst salespeople know the basics when it comes to selling products and/or services.

So, it is easy to understand how they might use those same sales tactics to sell themselves to you during the job interview. They may even go so far as to mirror your body language and tone of voice to make you like and trust them more.

That is why you must always avoid being easily swayed by a charismatic sales candidate who builds rapport with you but does not have much else to offer your business.  Stay on topic when you are asking your interview questions, and avoid devoting too much time to small talk. Also, make sure you probe for honest, in-depth answers to every question you ask.

Of course, you want someone who is personable and a good culture fit, but they should also possess the personality traits and skills required to produce excellent sales results for your business.

If you have a habit of hiring salespeople based on personality alone, bring a third party into the job interview – preferably someone who has different personality preferences than you do.  That way, the third party can provide balance and give you honest feedback about the candidate.

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Exaggerating about previous results and job experience.

It is all too easy for a sales candidate to come to your business and lie about the sales results they achieved in the past.  They may even lie about where they worked in the past and/or how much experience they have in your industry.

On the other hand, your candidate could have worked for a large company where they were able to close a large number of leads, but failed to mention that they were using a rolodex of pre-existing leads or relying on the company’s brand recognition rather than bringing in any new leads.

To combat this issue, verify any claims the salesperson makes about results they have produced in the past.  They may be able to provide you with sales reports or numbers that prove their claims are true.

You should also check their employment references, so make sure you require at least 2 references from every candidate you interview.  When calling, be sure to as the references detailed questions about the candidate’s behavior.  Past behavior is a good indicator of future behavior, so following up with their previous managers is a great way to get a feel for how they will really perform at your company.

Saying what you want to hear.

Salespeople are often excellent communicators – that is what makes them capable of relating to customers so well.

However, this becomes a problem when a candidate you are interviewing responds to every question by telling you what you want to hear, regardless of whether or not it is the truth.

For example, imagine you ask a sales candidate whether they prefers working on a team or working alone.  They may respond by charismatically talking about how they can adjust to whatever work style is necessary to land the job.

While adaptability is a good quality to have, you should not allow a sales candidate to get out of answering your questions this way.  If they fail to give you a straight answer, keep probing until you receive one.  That way, you understand how they will really act on the job and whether or not they will be a good culture fit.

If they fail to give you straight answers even after additional probing, you should approach hiring them with caution. After all, you cannot determine if a candidate will be a good culture fit when they refuses to tell you the truth about their work style and preferences.

Taking advantage of an unstructured interview process.

One of the worst things you can do when hiring a salesperson is approach the interview process without a structured plan in place. That is because a lack of structure gives a charismatic salesperson the chance to take control of the interview and position themselves as a great fit for your business.

So, make sure you create a set interview process and use it every time you need to hire a new salesperson. Here are some tips that will help you interview more effectively:

  • Ask the right questions. Avoid basic “yes or no” questions, and ask questions that allow the candidate to tell you a story about their past behavior instead.  That way, you can get an idea of what their future behavior will be like.
  • Have a consistent set of interview questions. Although you may feel like you have conducted so many interviews that you know your interview questions by heart, it is important to still write them down and conduct them in the same order every time. Otherwise, you are allowing the candidate the chance to control the direction of the interview and will have a difficult time comparing interview results if your questions are in a different order each time or if you forget to ask certain questions because you were trying to “wing” the interview.
  • Pre-screen all candidates. Schedule a phone interview with your candidates and administer a sales assessment to those who pass the phone interview. A good sales assessment will tell you if your candidates have the personality traits needed to be successful in sales. Then only invite the candidates who have passed your phone interview and sales assessment in for an in-person or virtual interview. Doing so will allow you to avoid wasting time and money interviewing candidates who are not a good fit for your business or do not have the core personality needed to succeed in a sales role.
  • Involve other managers. Involving others in the interview process will help you eliminate personal bias and avoid hiring someone based on their personality or likeability alone.
  • Know what you want. Analyze the top performers on your sales team to see which personality traits and habits they possess, and look for those same traits and habits in new hires.
  • Pay attention to non-verbal cues. The last thing you want is a salesperson that is disengaged and disinterested in their work.  If their body language shows that they would rather be doing something else, that is a good sign you should not hire them.
  • Do not rush through the interview process. As a sales manager, you are busy and probably do not want to spend a lot of time interviewing new candidates.  However, a bad hire can be costly, so you need to take your time and make sure you pick the right candidate.
  • Take good notes. Not only will this help the candidate feel like you are tuned in to what they are saying – it will give you something helpful to reference after the interview is complete.
  • At the end of the interview, ask the candidate if they have any questions. If they have done their research and are truly interested in working for you, they should have at least one or two questions about your company or the job role.

Now, you should be well equipped to spot a salesperson who is trying to fool you during a job interview.

In Summary

Use the tips here to properly analyze whether your candidate is a good fit for your company so you can avoid making poor hiring decisions that cost your company thousands of dollars.  It may take you some extra time and effort, but it will be worth it when you realize you have built a high-performing sales team due to your consistently good hiring decisions!

If you are looking for an easier way to objectively assess your sales candidates to ensure they have what it takes to truly produce for your company, check out our Aptitude Test for Salespeople.