A Really Tough Screening Process That No Salesperson Can Bluff

June 22, 2017

When it comes to hiring salespeople, I say throw out nearly everything you know about hiring, and start fresh. Quite simply, salespeople are a species apart: the truly great ones treat sales as a discipline, not a born talent. They live and die by their numbers, and they can be trained and cultivated to produce—or else flounder. So it makes sense to test their mettle in a way that addresses these skillsets, over and above the hiring processes you’ve already developed.

As a sales manager and motivational sales speaker for the past 10 years, I do know a little about this. In the last few years, my company, eCenter Management, has hired 50 B2B sales reps on behalf of large and middle market companies; in turn, they’ve exceeded client quotas and wowed us with their resourcefulness and extreme desire to win.

I’d start by recommending you refrain from hiring a single salesperson, but hire three at a time. This way: a) you have backup, in case one of your new sales trainees doesn’t work out, and b) if two or all of them don’t work out, you know to look to your training and onboarding system as the potential culprit.

Next, I’d recommend the following hiring process, which my company developed after time-tested, battle worn trial and error. If you adjust it to your company and then execute it well, you’ll find a team of great people that will produce and deliver.

Step 1. Phone Screen (15 minutes).

Maybe a phone screen is already part of your sales hiring process. My version keeps these to a quick 15 minutes—and focuses more on the way candidates answer, rather than what they say. Look for three things:

1. Energy. This is crucial: prospects respond favorably to an energetic pitch. Does the candidate emit enthusiasm and excitement? Is their energy vibrating through the airwaves...or do they give you lackluster ‘dead’ air?

2. Delivery. Even with great energy, you want to make sure your candidate is able to articulate meaningfully--and shift gears if needed. Are they good at being spontaneous? Can they articulate well on a dime?

3. Good attitude. As a sales manager, I want to make sure I’ve got someone I can actually manage. Are they thoughtful but agreeable? Do they have great passion and spirit, regardless of the subject matter?

To gauge these items, you might ask:

  • What are you looking for in a sales position?
  • Tell me a little about you. Where are you from? What do you do for fun?
  • What type of workplace environment do you want to work in?
  • Do you have any questions for me?

Because none of my questions are rocket science, I try to keep the tone lighthearted, casual, and fun.

Step 2. In-Person Interview (30 minutes).

First, study the candidate’s resume and research him or her on social media (including LinkedIn and Facebook). We want to know how candidates showcase themselves publicly.

For the interview itself, limit the conversation to 30 minutes. I typically ask three questions, spending 10 minutes for each. Sample interview questions include:

  • Tell us about a sale you recently made that you believed followed the perfect process.
  • If there were only three traits that you thought made up the best salesperson in the world, what would they be?
  • Tell us about a sale that you lost. How did that process go and what was the specific objection you could not overcome?

I really love asking that last question. I want to know how badly that lost sale hurt. The more it hurt, the hungrier they are. The hungrier they are, the better they are likely to perform.

I use this round to get a gut sense if I think the candidate will crush it. And I do that by looking for five traits: confidence, diligence, honesty, thoughtfulness, and a positive attitude. In particular, thoughtfulness isn’t something candidates can easily fake; if they’re opening doors, lending you their pen, asking you where they should sit, then you can assume they’ll be just as considerate to prospects and clients.

Step 3. Face-To-Face Live Testing (55 minutes).

Now here’s where things really diverge from the “normal” process. To see if the candidate can talk the talk and walk the walk, we give them our 55-minute live test and coaching session (the coaching means candidates get something from the experience no matter what happens). I provide candidates with a background on the company, cold calling scripts and rebuttals, and an outline of our testing process so they know what to expect. Then, I follow these steps:

  • Mock cold calls. I play first a gatekeeper and then a prospect, and say, “call me” (across the table). By role playing, we test them out in a low stakes way. I may leave them with a coaching tip or two (my personal goal is to leave them better off than before they knew me). The goal is to complete 10 “calls” quickly.

  • Real cold calls. In the past, I’ve been apprehensive that a candidate might mess up a live calling situation--but in 10 years, it’s never happened (after all, these professionals have been screened). If they fall on their face or get hung up, I’ll be there to help them. Then, I debrief my candidates, providing coaching and feedback in between calls. Sometimes, I’ll provide someone with a mediocre sales script and then swap it out for a better one just before the actual test. A good salesperson can pivot quickly to the new, better script; a mediocre one may be tripped up.

  • Spontaneous communication challenge. For B2B companies, sales reps have got to be great at explaining the abstract—and selling visually. So I give candidates a dry erase marker, a whiteboard, and three minutes to explain “success,” using words and pictures.

  • Reflections. I explain to candidates that they’ve just experienced a short hour in the life of the new hire. Then, I ask candidates a few follow up questions to assess their interest:

             - What did you like about the live test?
             - What did you learn about me as a leader and this brand?
             - Why is working here important to you?

I’m on the lookout for people who go all-in: people who can be coached and make changes quickly, people who have talents I can leverage. This sort of in-person testing helps me evaluate for that.

Step 4. Drinks.

Take your candidates (just them, sans families) out on the town and see how they handle themselves. Bring them to an event or meal with someone important to your business. By this step, we are getting close to a hire, so I start to look for any holes they may have in their personal development. Can they hold a conversation? Do they eat or drink too much? I try to get candidates drunk to see if they’re responsible, exhibit good manners, and have the fortitude to say no.

Step 5. Meet-and-greet.

Introduce them to your CEO. This is the candidate’s chance to put a face to a name for the leadership—and the leadership’s chance to give me a green light. It’s my job to find a great candidate (or three), but it’s the leadership’s job to approve budgets and new hires.

Step 6. Repudiation.

You read that right. Just when you know you’ve found a great candidate, talk them out of the job. If you’re a stringent hiring manager, tell them how testy you can get, how mean you’ll be when the numbers are bad. If you’re a recruiter with a formidable or tightly strung hiring manager, tell them about that. If you’re neither of those things, tell them how much depends on their acing this job, or how competitive the job is--particularly if you are measuring them against tried-and-true sales reps, or two other new hires. I let candidates know not to expect a 9 to 5 lifestyle—I will ask for weekends and late nights or early mornings.

When I do this, I lose 3 out of 5 candidates: I’ve scared them so much they walk away from the offer. And I’m okay with that because I’m looking for someone who wants this job and has the unshakable character and resilience to perform.

It takes a certain kind of person to succeed in sales. Personally, I don’t care about the best education, or the most interesting work experience. I’m looking for people who are passionate, quick on their feet, and excited to learn—and my interview process is structured accordingly. By the end of these six steps, I know whether a candidate is a good fit for the job and the candidate knows whether the job is a good fit for his or her career. Mission accomplished.

* image by thecollectivity

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.

Topics