3 Sales Interview Questions that Test for Customer Relationship Skills

October 13, 2014

It takes a particular combination of traits to be a stellar salesperson, so it makes sense that it would also take a certain level of interview sophistication to identify a superior salesperson.

Neil Peek, a sales recruiter for Brocade, has been honing his recruiting interview skills for 17 years at companies like Nortel, Ericsson, Lucent Technologies and Cisco Systems and has gained insight into the process.

During an interview it’s important to get a candidate’s work history and credentials nailed down, explains Peek, but what’s become more crucial is narrowing in on interview questions that reveal how a person interacts with and values customers. “If they have those customer skills down, sales and quota fulfillments are going to be automatic.”

Here are three interview questions he focuses on when it comes to nailing a sales candidate’s relationship with the customer:

1. Can you tell me about a time when you were able to tell a customer something that they didn’t already know?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question says Peek. Instead he is looking to understand the salesperson’s ability to differentiate the product they are selling from other products, and offer a unique perspective that relates back to the product or service.

Peek will often follow up this question with: “Did it create tension between you and the customer?” “Was the tension positive or negative?” “How did the customer respond?” “What were the outcomes of the deal? Were you comfortable with the situation or was it too confrontational?”

“What I’m doing with these questions,” says Peek, “is listening to how the salesperson interacts with his customers in terms of presenting the product.” Is the candidate really dedicated to serving the customer with helpful information, or is he/she just focused on filling his quota?

2. Have you ever been in a situation where you were trying to get your point across to someone but they appeared not to listen or not understand?

What are the cues that you picked up on that told you that they were unclear? How did you address the situation to ensure clarity and comprehension?

Peek asks these probing interview questions in order to assess the candidate’s skill for effective two-way communication. “I’m looking for examples from the candidate where they quickly noticed that the other person didn’t get it, and then demonstrated an ability to change their communication style by articulating themselves differently to get their point across.”

“If I’m the only one talking in a sales environment, you’re not buying,” says Peek. “If a salesperson can get the customer talking, they’re going to start asking questions that are important, and then they’re either going to buy or not buy.”

But you’re certainly not going to buy if I’m not communicating with you effectively, he explains. “So effective and impactful two-way communication is one of the key components I seek out in sales candidates.”

3. Have you ever spent time selling to someone who wasn’t a decision maker? Why did you spend time with this person? Did you think they had the power to influence the sale? And how did you come to that decision?

These interview questions are seeking to nail down a salesperson’s ability to “tailor for resonance,” explains Peek, “meaning, someone’s ability to hone in on who the people are that make decisions or drive values within a client company.”

“As a recruiter I’m looking for the candidate who can demonstrate the ability to link solutions to specific stakeholder objectives,” says Peek. “So whether they’re talking to the CIO, or the CEO, or whomever, they can recognize that the individual they’re talking to is someone who has a stake in the organization and the power to influence others.”

In the end, all of these questions point toward our number one focus, the customer, says Peek, “because when you serve your customer appropriately, you’re also serving the corporation and the shareholders appropriately as well.”

“For that reason, I’m focused on asking questions that reveal how a salesperson views and manages their relationship with their customer. Are they just hoping to get a purchase order signed and move on, or is it really about valuing and understanding the customer? And that relationship skillset applies whether you’re selling widgets or Internet solutions or used selling cars. It doesn’t matter.”

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