structured interviews

Select Top Salespeople by Using Structured Interviews

Posted in: Hiring Salespeople

Structured interviews help you find top sales performers…

Do this, and you will outsell the competition every time! With a structured interview, you ask specific questions to evaluate each sales candidate:

  • job-related skills,
  • behaviors, motivations,
  • and abilities.

You ask all candidates the same predetermined questions. And, you ask the questions in the same order. You then rate every answer using a quantitative scale with an interview scorecard.

Does it sound like fun to you? No?

These interviews can seem a little unnatural.  Confident sales managers think they are the world’s best judge of people. And they want to wing it with interview questions.

However, research by industrial-organizational psychologists consistently shows that structured interviews result in better hires. You will get very good at conducting this type of interview with practice.

Trust Us…It is Well Worth the Effort

What is the purpose of structured interviews?

The purpose of a structured interview is to evaluate potential salespeople in a consistent manner throughout the hiring process. It allows for the comparison of critical information collected from each candidate during the interview. This method allows for an easier approach to the final candidates hiring process and minimizes bias.

When should structured interviews be used?

Structured interviews should be used to evaluate sales candidates consistently throughout the hiring process. Structured interviews should also be used when the interviewer would prefer to reduce the possibility of bias, improve interview efficiency, and provide comparable data on all candidates.

What is an example of a structured interview?

A structured interview consists of using structured questions that the interviewer has preplanned and standardized for the position. 

Here are some examples of structured interview questions: 

  • Tell me something about yourself.
  • Can you work flexible hours?
  • What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?
  • Describe your ideal manager.

What are the advantages of structured interviews?

There are many advantages of structured interviews. Here are the some of the most common:

  • The interview process is more efficient.
  • Provides the ability to compare multiple candidates at once, using the same criteria.
  • Structured interviews are less stressful.
  • Quick, efficient and easier to evaulate.
  • Structured interviews are twice as predictive as a normal interview.
  • Reduce interview bias (where you “like” applicants due to appearance, demeanor, or the fact that you just bond with them)
  • Focus on job-related skills and abilities (with well-thought-out questions)
  • Minimize the chance for “false” answers from candidates.

What are the disadvantages of structured interviews?

There are very few disadvantages of structured interviews. Here are some common disadvantages:

  • It takes a lot of thought to plan good interview questions.
  • Questions need to be pre-planned, reviewed and approved by everyone involved in the interview process before being implemented.
  • Some of the interviewees may object because they prefer to improvise.
  • Managers may need practice to make this type of interview work.
  • The structured interview can seem stilted.
  • These interviews are not the warm-fuzzy interactions of old.

Why Use Structured Interviews?

As we’ve said above, the simple answer to why is “it works.” As Harvard Business Review recently reported:

While “unstructured interviews consistently receive the highest ratings for perceived effectiveness from hiring managers, dozens of studies have found them to be among the worst predictors of actual on-the-job performance.”

Both testing and structured interviews outperform unstructured interviews in selecting the best job performers.

Industrial-organizational psychology has proven that you field the best-possible sales force when you combine pre-testing with structured interviews.

A bonus: you’ll beat your competition because most folks still cling to the unstructured interview as their preferred selection tool resulting in hiring weaker sales reps.

Structured interviews help you find top sales performers
Structured interviews help you find top sales performers

The BSK Way of Conducting Structured Interviews

We suggest a 6-step process for honing an effectively structured interview process to select sales staff.

Step 1: Review the job description and flag essential skills and abilities needed for top sales performance in your company.

To get an overview of writing a job description, visit our post on interviewing the job to select the best salespeople.

Look at your job description and list all skills and abilities of your top sales performers. Use this list as a benchmark.

Don’t have a benchmark to use? Have your best and worst salespeople take tests to identify these benchmark traits. See our post on testing sales staff.

Step 2: Rank all skills you identify and select the six to eight most essential skills and abilities.

After you’ve taken inventory of the skills, establish a rank order. You will typically find those top performers consistently possess some skills that lower performers do not.

Step 3: Create questions about the sales skills and abilities individuals need to achieve top sales performance at your company.

Ask three types of questions to interview sales candidates:

Behavioral (tell me when you did this)

Behavioral questions reveal how applicants behaved in the past. Just remember, as finance experts say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.” Example of a behavioral question:

“Tell me about a time you faced a significant obstacle at work. What was that obstacle? How did you confront it?”

Situational (what would you do if)

Situational questions ask applicants to explain or, better yet, to demonstrate how they would handle a specific circumstance. Example of a situational question:

Before the interview, give each applicant a description of a target account or market. Ask them to develop a strategy for how they would approach the account or market if hired.

Motivational (why do you do that)

Motivational questions will show if the applicants have the proverbial “fire in their belly.” If the applicants are highly motivated, their past behavior will likely be tomorrow’s behavior. Example of a motivational question:

“Describe a time when you achieved a goal people said would be impossible or unlikely. What motivated you to make it happen?”

Step 4: Establish a grading score for answers

(Example: 1=does not meet the standard | 3=average | 5=excels)

For the questions above, the standards could be:

Behavioral question (meeting obstacles)
Score 5 if the answer discusses a major sales obstacle and their solution was exceptional
Score 1 if the applicant cannot mention an obstacle or lists a very insignificant problem

Situational question (willing to do hard work, shows grit)
Score 5 if their strategy is spot on and you could see implementing their suggestion
Score 1 if they present a poorly thought out strategy and/or show they did not do their homework

Motivational question (demonstrates a passion for sales)
Hint: Listen for passion, excitement, and visceral commitment! Top performers are driven!
Score 5 if the applicant enthusiastically recalls meeting the hard-to-achieve goal
Score 1 if the applicant seems unenthused or the goal seems very small

Step 5: Ask every final candidate the same questions in the same order

We suggest interviewers take notes during the interview by using a scorecard with a notes section. Take notes for every answer, not just the ones you like, or they will pick up on that cue (like a tell in poker.)

Step 6: Summarize your impressions at the end of each interview and complete your scorecard.

Score each candidate to meet your standards and give every candidate a final score. If you are using a group to interview applicants, have each interviewer finalize their scores before discussing applicants. Place all applicants on a rank order listing. Hire the top score.

If you need help implementing a structured interview process, please contact us.

You have one more crucial step in hiring top-performing salespeople: creating a successful onboarding process. We will address that in our final post for this series.


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