Is hiring sellers like rolling the dice in your organization? You can do better and increase your odds of getting sales superstars with a solid sales selection process.
Here are our sales manager tips for what you need: well-defined sales competencies, behaviors that exemplify each competency, and a behavioral question set that reveals whether or not a candidate has that competency.
Sales Manager Tips for Hiring
Here’s a sample with three competencies illustrated in a basic way.
SAMPLE: Recognize and Hire Sales Superstars
Behavioral Interview Question Sets
Assesses Buyer Needs:Asks thought-provoking, open-ended questions & listens attentively to identify buyer needs
- Questions uncover specific buyer needs.
- Questions are open-ended and probe to discover buyer’s most pressing need.
- Describes a specific sales process that includes a step for needs discovery.
- Does not ask questions that identify buyer needs.
- Only asks questions that are product- or purchase-specific.
- Does not use a sales process with a discovery step that is designed to advance the sale
Situation: What is the sales process used or suggested by your current employer?
Behavior: Using an actual customer as an example, walk me through each step of the sales process and explain specifically what you did and said.
Result: With that customer, what was the outcome?
Business Knowledge: Understands how businesses make a profit, what influences purchasing decisions, and the pressures facing business decision-makers.
- Can see the situation from the perspective of senior management.
- Knows what factors influence a purchasing decision and how to talk about those on “an even footing.”
- Knows the pain points decision-makers in this field are most likely to experience.
- Does not know how businesses make money.
- Does not understand the variables that influence purchasing decisions and how to discuss those openly.
- Does not express understanding of what is going on “behind the scenes” for decision-makers in this field.
Situation: In your current role, how much time do you spend with executive-level decision makers?
Behavior: Business decision makers face a number of pressures in their daily work. Tell me about a decision-maker you’ve worked with and how their challenges and pressures influenced your working relationship.
Result: Over the long-term, how did this impact the work you did for them?
Assured and poised, does not doubt own abilities, willing to try new things and take risks, self-reliant
- Does not retreat from a challenge, is not easily gripped by fear of failure.
- Independent even when abilities may be inferior to others. Trusts self to learn by doing.
- Hesitant and overly cautious about trying new things.
- Apprehensive about taking risks and learning by doing.
- Dependent on others with superior abilities. Defers to others rather than plunging in.
Situation: Tell me about a time when you had to work out a challenging problem on your own and could not rely on others.
Behavior: What steps did you take and how did you know when and how to proceed?
Result: What happened as a result of that?
If you’re not familiar with Behavioral Interviewing (BI), this chart may need a little explanation. Here goes.
What Is Behavioral Interviewing?
Behavioral Interviewing (BI) is not the same as traditional interviewing. The questions you ask will be different, and the insights you get about your candidates will be more comprehensive and more useful.
BI is a technique for gathering specific information about what a candidate has actually done in the past. By probing real situations, you’ll ascertain whether or not a candidate has the skills, knowledge and traits needed to do the job.
When you ask BI questions, you won’t get scripted answers that fool interviewers. Instead, you’ll get examples and stories that illustrate exactly what the candidate did in a situation. The premise here is that past behaviors are the best indicator of future behavior.
Here’s what happens in a traditional interview. You ask questions like “How effective are you at prospecting?” The candidate replies “I’m the best in our organization. I always have a full funnel, and I prospect every single day.” You like that answer, hire that candidate, and find out after they’ve started that their prospecting skills are grossly inadequate.
They gave you the answer you wanted to hear. It might even have been true. “Best” in their organization can still be worst in yours. “I prospect every single day” gives you no information about the quality of those calls or what they produce.
For contrast, here’s what happens in a behavioral interview. First, you ask situational questions like “In your current job, how much time and attention is needed for prospecting?” When the candidate replies, you listen for a situation that is similar to the one you’re hiring for. If you need an experienced and confident “hunter,” you’ll know it might be a poor fit if the candidate says “all our leads are prequalified by marketing” or “we’re mostly responding to inbound leads.”
No matter what the candidate says about the situation, you’ll follow up to find out about the candidate’s own specific behavior. If the candidate described a situation where prospecting is required, you still need to know more about what this candidate actually did in that situation.
You’d ask, “What were your own routines or practices for generating new business?” You’re looking to hear details that describe what the candidate did -- not what was measured, what was ideal, or what others did. You want to hear a response like, “Each day, I ...” followed by specific actions. If you hear, instead, descriptions about generic guidelines, you press for specifics. If you hear “we” or “they” instead of “I,” the you press for specifics about the candidate’s own behaviors. If the candidate fumbles to try and give the “right” answer, it will usually be a series of generic ideals without personal, specific behaviors. That’s a clear sign, for you, that the candidate hasn’t mastered this competency or resists prospecting altogether.
Finally, in a behavioral interview, you’ll also ask about results. You need to know if the candidate understands the cause-and-effect between their behaviors and the outcomes produced. A question about results also clues you in on whether the situation and behaviors are being accurately portrayed. With a candidate in a role that demanded prospecting and describing behaviors that sound like the ones you want to see in your sellers, the results question would be something like “With those daily activities, what did you see long-term in terms of customer acquisition” Once again, you’re looking for very specific examples and details.
Using these three questions, you have a BI Question Set. For each competency, you’ll develop a question set with a Situation, Behavior, and Result question (as shown in the table above).
Behavioral interviewing is proven to identify “best fit” candidates more accurately than traditional interviewing. Hiring for specific competencies also boosts the success rate of hiring. BI begins with determining the competencies needed for the job you need to fill.
What Is a Competency?
Competencies include skills, knowledge, and traits that are proven to enhance employee performance and success in a job role. Competencies are objective expressions of what it takes to be effective in a particular job.
There is no universal set of competencies that fits all sales jobs. Within your organization, different sales roles require different competencies. This will depend on the sellers’ interaction with clients, the sales cycle and complexity, the industry you serve, and more. SDRs and account managers, for example, rely on different skill sets and need different knowledge to excel. Sales competencies may include:
SKILLS: Making cold calls, conducting discovery meetings, making compelling presentations, etc.
KNOWLEDGE: Business acumen, understanding of the market, sales psychology, buyer industry, etc.
TRAITS: Resilient, perseverant, competitive, empathetic, analytical, etc.
To determine which competencies are the right ones for each of your sales roles, observe the most successful sellers in those roles. What skills enable them to outperform others? What do they know that makes them more effective? What traits or characteristics do they display? Use this information to select no more than 10 core competencies for each job role.
Here’s something else to consider. You can, if you choose, develop sellers’ skills and knowledge through training, coaching and practice. You cannot, however, build traits in someone else. They either have these or they don’t. For this reason, many behavioral interviewers emphasize traits in their selection process.
To learn more about the sales competencies that are critical to sales success, register for this free webinar. There are numerous, well-researched competency models you can consult, too, including the widely used one from Objective Management Group. Or, if you’re an ATD member, its “world class sales competency model” is another great resource to get you started.
How Does This All Fit Together?
The process of interviewing changes when you have competencies and use BI question sets. Before interviewing begins, you’ll have 5-10 competencies that are essential for success in the job. You’ll have a question set for each of those competencies. You’ll have positive and negative examples to listen for in the interview. Finally, you’ll have a matrix for scoring candidates on each competency.
When interviewing for an open position, you’ll ask exactly the same questions and evaluate candidates based on their past behaviors for each competency. This eliminates the guesswork and gut decision making that leads so many interviewers astray.
When it comes time to advance candidates to the second interview or to make your selection, you’ll have an objective scorecard and rationale for your decisions. It will all be based on what candidates have actually done in situations like the ones they’ll encounter if they are hired by you.
Best of all, you’ll have a better fit for the job, less ramp-up time, and more success.
What Makes Some Sellers More Successful Than Others?
What a seller does makes all the difference. The seller who makes more calls, establishes stronger connections with buyers, creates compelling value, and asks for the sale will outperform the seller who makes fewer calls and half-heartedly suggests products to buyers. These are all behavioral choices.
You want to hire the sellers who already demonstrate the behaviors that generate more sales. That’s why behavioral interviewing is such an important skill for you to learn and master.
Some would say that the best sellers are “natural born” with certain personalities or qualities. If that is true, then behavioral interviewing is still the best way to select those sellers. That’s because the traits that make sellers successful can also be identified and are expressed through outward behaviors.
If, for example, you need sellers who are self-motivated (a personal trait), then you can ask behavioral questions to find out who is and isn’t self-motivated. Here’s a sample question set that would give you this information:
Situation: Tell me about a time when there wasn’t any special incentive or commission offered in your current role but there was still an expectation that sellers respond.
Behavior: What, specifically, did you do?
Results: What was the outcome?
In this situation, someone who is self-motivated would:
- Not complain extensively about the lack of an extrinsic motivation
- Describe personal reasons for doing work that was not incentivized
- Complete the assigned work or meet the expectation without “carrot or stick”
- Take pride in completing this work even though there was no reward
- Understand the value of the work in relation to the results achieved
Someone in this situation who is not very self-motivated would:
- Put a lower priority on the work that does not offer an extrinsic motivation
- Justify not doing the work with statements like “show me the money”
- Not understand the value of the work in how it might drive results
- Complain about situations where there was no clear reward
- Express some justification for underperforming that’s linked to extrinsic rewards
A sales manager could look at this scenario and come to two conclusions. The first would be that a sales organization needs to offer more external rewards to motivate sellers. The second would be that the sales organization needs to hire more people who are self-motivated and don’t rely so heavily on external rewards. If the most successful sellers in this organization exhibited self-motivation, it would be smart strategy to hire for more who also exhibited this trait.
Select the Right Talent With a Better Way of Interviewing
Once you know what makes sellers successful in your organization, you can develop a profile of the ideal candidate. Your ideal seller has certain skills, certain knowledge, and certain traits. You know what they are because your top sellers exhibit these.
In hiring, your objective is to find the candidate who is the closest match to the ideal seller in your profile. You may not find the perfect candidate who has top ratings in every competency, but the one who comes closest is the one who’s most likely to be a superstar.
As you create your candidate profile and competency model for the open position, you’ll do it without bias. In other words, you won’t have a specific candidate in mind and then select competencies because that candidate exhibits them. Rather, you’re doing this work before you begin interviewing and even before you post the job. This keeps it objective and ensures you select competencies for the role, not for a person.
You may wish to prioritize or weight your competencies, too. If you have a robust training program and will teach candidates certain skills and knowledge, you may put more emphasis on hiring for traits. After all, traits are not something you can teach or build. People bring those in with them (or not). Here’s an example: You may want all sellers to know about your industry, but it might be especially important for the ones who handle your top-tier accounts. Therefore, the weight of this competency might be stronger when you select for senior-level sellers than when you select entry-level sellers.
Once you select the competencies for a job, they should not change until the job is filled. You wouldn’t use one set of competencies and questions in one interview and then switch to a different set for another candidate. That would make it impossible for you to compare “apples-to-apples.” It would also be unfair for the candidates and could cause difficulties if someone felt they were held to a different standard.
Let’s look at the BI process step-by-step. These are the 10 BI-specific steps. There are other routine steps not listed here that are also of value (i.e. pre-screening, reference checks, offer letter, etc.).
1. Identify competencies that lead to sales success.
Observe your most successful sellers. What do they do differently that makes them more successful (skills)? What do they know that makes them more effective (knowledge)? What mindset, attitude, or characteristics set them apart from other sellers (traits)? Be sure what you’re observing and identifying as competencies truly impact sales success.
2. Develop a competency model specific to the job role.
As described above, list the skills, knowledge and traits you want your new seller to bring in with him on day one. Narrow this down to the top 5-10 competencies your ideal seller will exhibit in the first round of interviewing.
Note: if you have a second round of interviews, you can add a few more competencies there -- just be sure they’re not your highest-priority ones.
3. Write a job description that will attract people with those competencies.
Job descriptions that are generic bring in candidates who require more screening. Try to be specific in describing your ideal candidate. The job description sets expectations for the seller, so it should be an accurate representation of what’s required to do the job.
4. Form an interview team and assign competencies to each interviewer.
The hiring manager and at least one other person should be included on the team. The team should be the same for every interview related to filling this one job opening. That’s fair to candidates and also ensures an apples-to-apples comparison of candidates.
Each interviewer will ask prepared question sets for their assigned competencies and follow-up questions, if needed. All interviewers will take notes and score candidates during the interview.
5. Create a selection matrix with weighted competencies.
The matrix includes information like what’s shown in the table, above. It lists the competency and describes it. It includes positive and negative examples so interviewers can use that information as evaluative criteria. It also includes a scoring guide, like a 1-5 Likert scale. If any competency is to be weighted, it also includes a multiplier (like x1.25 so a score of 4 becomes a 5 because this competency matters more than others).
6. Write an SBR question set for each competency.
Without telling the candidate what competency you’re looking for, you’ll be asking questions that provide information about whether or not the candidate has that competency. You wouldn’t say, for example, “I’d like to know more about your knowledge related to this technology…” Instead, you’d be asking for situations and behaviors that reveal the depth of knowledge (or lack of knowledge).
For each competency, you start by asking about a specific situation. These are to be real examples from the candidate’s experience. Once you have situational context, you ask about the candidate’s own behavior or actions in that situation. Finally, you will ask about the outcome or result of the behavior in that situation. There are samples of SBR question sets in the table above.
7. Familiarize the interview team with competencies, questions, & evaluation criteria (on matrix).
Before interviewing, talk to the other members of the interview team to be sure there is common understanding about your ideal candidate profile.
Everyone should be looking for the same competencies, as described. Make sure the team knows you want an objective and narrow scoring and do not want scores to be influenced by gut instinct or other variables.
8. Conduct behavioral interviews.
This isn’t the same as traditional interviewing. In a behavioral interview, you’ll ask your prepared questions plus any follow-ups you need to fully understand whether or not the candidate has that competency. You won’t ask anything else. These replace traditional questions like “what are your strengths?” They are not used in conjunction with those questions.
Interviewers take turns and complete one question set at a time. Each competency has a question set, and interviewers have assigned competencies where they lead the interview.
At the start, it’s helpful to tell the candidate that you’ll be looking for specific, real examples. Tell them to take their time and think about actual situations they’ve been in. If they don’t understand at first, they might give answers like “Well, I’d probably ...” or “If that happened, I think I’d ...” If they do, redirect them by saying “We really want to hear stories about actual times when something like this occurred. Take your time to think back.” If there are no examples they can provide, it tells you that this candidate might be unprepared for situations like this in the future.
9. Score candidates objectively and record rationale for scores given; compile scores after all interviews have been completed.
As the interview proceeds, one competency at a time, all interviewers will be taking notes and scoring the candidate on the matrix. Notes should be brief and are to be used only for documenting why the rating was chosen by this interviewer.
There is no need to compare scores after each interview. In fact, doing so will influence future scores. Having more than one interviewer provides multiple perspectives, and keeping perspectives separated will prevent merging or blurring them in future interviews (thereby diminishing their value).
Since you’ll be waiting to discuss candidates or compare scores, the notes they take will be important to remind interviewers why they chose the score they did. Scores should not be changed at any time after the interview.
10. Advance candidate(s) with the highest cumulative scores.
This is an objective process, and scores are the objective indicator of which candidate(s) should advance.
You may, at times, be disappointed because a favorite candidate did not score favorably. Avoid the temptation to override the process and others’ perspectives. That gut instinct is based on your unconscious biases (we all have them!). Liking someone, feeling comfortable with someone, or having “a hunch” about someone are not valid reasons to choose that person over other candidates who score higher in the competencies that are linked to success. You might even find yourself in legal hot water if you’re hiring based on something subjective like the way you feel about a candidate.
If you have a second round of interviews in your selection process, bring in different interviewers. Have different question sets even if you’re still evaluating the same competencies. If you have a role play, design it to reveal selected competencies. Establish your evaluation criteria and matrix for this phase of the process, too.
Find Future Stars With a Proven Process for Sales Selection
Ultimately, you’ll pick the candidate who is the closest match to your ideal profile. That’ll be the candidate who scores highest and, therefore, is strongest in the competencies you’ve identified for this role.
Using a proven process that includes behavioral interviewing will improve your outcomes for sales selection. You’ll get the right people right away. You won’t end up with sellers on your team who are unable to do the job and then require a lot of time and effort to manage, release and replace.
A comprehensive study by Oliphant, Hansen, and Oliphant found that structured behavioral interviewing is an “effective selection tool for predicting sales success and improving salesperson retention.” Their review of others’ work also revealed that:
- Finding a reliable selection process is very important due to the high costs of hiring and training new employees.
- The estimated cost to replace an employee can be up to 4x his earnings.
- Lost opportunity costs associated with an empty or underserved sales territory may take years to recoup.
- Poor selection can wreak havoc and cause irreparable damage to a sales territory.
In short, getting it right is critical to your long-term success. Initially, it will take longer to prepare for a behavioral interviewing process. You will, however, save time in the long run as you reuse question sets and become more facile in creating new ones. You’ll also save time in getting the right sellers right away vs. time spent churning through sellers until you get lucky. Think of it this way -- if you don’t have time to do it right, you certainly don’t have time to do it wrong over and over again.
With BI, you’ve found a superstar, best-fit candidate when:
- You hear stories where the candidate has been in situations similar to the ones they’ll encounter with your company, and they competently handle the situation and have successful outcomes.
- In real selling situations (not just in the interview), the candidate displays the same traits that make your top sellers so successful.
- Multiple interviewers also rank the candidate high in the selected competencies. You’ll have objective, affirmed, documented reasons for selecting this candidate.
There are additional benefits of BI, too. Among them:
- Objectivity in your process
- Fairness in your hiring practices
- Best fit vs. best feeling about a candidate
- Expanded candidate pool (now that you’re not limited to experience alone)
- Past behaviors are the best indicator of future behavior -- no more “rolling the dice”
- Rigorous process lets candidates know you’re choosy so they’re proud to be selected
- Selected competencies also guide you on training and coaching
- Fewer hiring mistakes improves sales performance, saves you time, and reduces expenses
- You’ll know a lot more about each candidate than you do with traditional interviewing
- Candidates can’t “fool” you when you use BI
Need Help Developing Your Model?
With this, you’ve got a starting point for shifting to a behavioral interviewing approach. As a sales manager, your success depends on the capabilities of your team. BI is the best way to bring in sales superstars and ensure success!
"Contact PFPS to develop a comprehensive, customized competency model and selection guide for your organization."
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