Select Top Salespeople by Using Structured Interviews

Posted in: Hiring Salespeople

Want top sales performers? Use structured interviews after testing.

Do this and you will outsell the competition, every time!

With a structured interview, you ask specific questions to evaluate each candidate’s:

  • 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 structured interviews result in better hires. With practice, you will get very good at conducting this type of interview. Trust us; it is well worth the effort.

Structured interviews help you select top sales-performers by helping you to:
• 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.

On the downside, these interviews are not the warm-fuzzy interactions of old. The structured interview can seem stilted. Managers may need practice to make this type of interview work.

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 out-perform unstructured interviews in selecting the best job performers.

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

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.

The BSK Way of Conducting Structured Interviews

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

Step 1: Review the job description and flag important 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 important skills and abilities.

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

Step 3: Create questions related to 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 major 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:
Prior to 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 they were 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 is likely to be their behavior tomorrow.

Example of a motivational question:
Describe a time when you achieved a goal that 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 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 in terms of meeting your standards and give every candidate a final score.
If you are using a group to interview applicants, have each interviewer finalize their scores prior to 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 very important step in hiring top performing sales people; that is creating a successful onboarding process. We will address that in our final post for this series.