6-Step Blueprint for Conducting the Perfect Interview

For those keeping track, this is the fourth article I’ve written this year dealing with the interview process. Do you think that I believe this is pretty darn important? If so, you’re right! While the first three articles offered advice for the job applicant, this article offers tips for the person on the other side of the desk—the hiring manager. I invite you to gain from my perspective from both sides of the interviewing desk, but primarily as a veteran hiring manager who has interviewed hundreds of candidates over the past 15 years. So, whether you are a rookie manager just starting your career, or a seasoned manager with many years of tenure, I offer you this simple blueprint to follow the next time you are interviewing candidates for an opening on your team.

(See also: Interviewing for a Job in Sales: 10 Things You MUST Do, 12 Killer Resume Tips for the Sales Professional, and 5 Things You Must NOT Do When Interviewing for a Job in Sales)

Why perfecting the interview is so important

Getting on the bus
Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

A wise mentor of mine told me early on in my career that of all my responsibilities and deliverables as a sales manager, hiring is the most important. It is the foundation on which sustained success in completing tasks, achieving goals and taking care of your customers is built. In his wildly popular best-selling business book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes this as the discipline of “First Who…Then What”. In other words, your vision and strategy and ability to execute on them are all dependent first on having “the right people on the bus”.

As with most things in life, I’ve found that a little process goes a long way. Having a process such as this blueprint accomplishes several key goals:

  • It makes your job easier. Nothing is more frustrating than having to recreate the wheel from applicant to applicant, or every time you have a new opening on your team.
  • It provides a certain level of consistency to ensure that all applicants are being evaluated uniformly, which allows you to make a better “apples-to-apples” comparison among a slate of candidates. This is especially important when you involve other interviewers to assist you.
  • It provides a better experience for the candidates. Trust me, they can tell when you are winging it or are unprepared. Remember, they are interviewing you too!
  • It prevents you from making “mistakes” that can lead to uncomfortable situations or potential legal actions (e.g., claims of discrimination or unfair hiring practices).

The Interview Blueprint

Step 1: Know what you’re looking for

AM ChecklistThis sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how many interviewers skip this step. Sure, most have a sense of what they’re looking for, or they have a mental picture of the ideal candidate. But few take the time to put pen to paper and create an actual inventory of skills. As a result, they often assess candidates for some of the skills, but fail to assess candidates for all the ideal traits. The image to the right is an example of a skills inventory for a salesperson on my team.

Step 2: Know how to look for it

QuestionsOnce you’ve identified all of the skills and traits of the ideal candidate, formulate questions and tasks that will allow you to assess whether or not the people you interview possess them. Behavioral-based questions are most effective at identifying real experience versus theoretical knowledge. For example, instead of asking, “How would you handle a dissatisfied customer?”, which invites a hypothetical answer such as, “I would do it like this…” ask, “Tell me about a time you handled a dissatisfied customer’s complaint”, which forces the candidate to retell an actual situation. The image to the right is an example of behavioral-based questions used to assess a specific trait. Also, ask them to answer using the STAR format (describe the Situation/Task, the Actions taken, and the Result of those actions). This format makes it easier for you to take notes and keeps them from rambling or going off on a tangent.

Questions aren’t the only way to assess candidates for the necessary skills and traits. I often insert tasks throughout the interview process. I will e-mail candidates an account scenario and ask them to draft an action plan. This allows me to assess multiple skills such as problem solving and written communications. I also have them prepare and deliver a short presentation. Again, this allows me to assess multiple skills such as preparation and organization, oral communications, and sales ability.

Step 3: Get a second opinion

Always involve others in the interview process—at least one other person, but oftentimes more. Ideally I will include at least one other experienced manager and at least one direct report (someone who would be the candidate’s peer). When I’m down to one or two candidates, I typically ask my boss to interview the candidate(s) too. Getting several sets of eyeballs on the candidates helps guard against personality bias. Every hiring manager likes to think they have a perfectly calibrated gut sense, but even the best can “connect” with a particular candidate and fail to see red flags.

Step 4: Observe from all angles

Similar to Step 2 in which you shouldn’t solely rely on questions, you should vary the situations in which you asses candidates. Don’t only interview candidates in an office environment across a desk. Talk to them on the phone and asses their phone presence. Communicate with them via e-mail and assess their writing skills. Take them out to lunch or dinner or for coffee and assess their social graces and ability to multi-task. Finally, let them spend some time with a would-be peer observing your employee at work. This gives the candidate an opportunity to see what the job actually entails and to ensure they really want the position; plus it gives your employee an opportunity to offer invaluable insight into the candidate’s qualifications.

Step 5: Quantify your decision

Interview Rating SheetA simple grading sheet such as the one you can link to by clicking on the image to the right can be a lifesaver during the interview process. If you’ve taken my advice and involved multiple people in the process (Step 3), then you need some way to objectively collect and weigh their feedback. Also, these forms can keep you out of hot water if issues arise at any point during or after the interviewing process (e.g., claims of discrimination or unfair hiring practices). Be sure to provide all interviewers with these forms in advance, with explicit instructions on how they will be used. I recommend keeping them on file for at least two years after the position is filled.

Step 6: Close the deal and close the loop

Once you’ve made your decision, you are ready to extend an offer to your top candidate. Hopefully, you have done a great job of selling them on you, the position, and the company throughout the process and they will immediately accept your offer. More likely, they will have to think about your offer and want to negotiate parts of it. Anticipate this; don’t be surprised or offended by it. In order to close the deal you must remain positive and keep selling the candidate up and to the point that the offer letter is signed. Also, keep assessing the candidate throughout this final stage in the process. I’ve been known to retract an offer because the candidate showed his true colors (and they weren’t good).

Once the offer letter is signed—but not beforehand—be sure to close the loop with any other remaining candidates still in the process. Just because you are not hiring them today doesn’t mean that you (or someone else in your organization) won’t want to hire them down the road. You have a brand to protect and your job is to leave all candidates with positive feelings about you and the company. Timely follow-up is critical. Most people who get the “thanks, but no thanks” call will ask for feedback on why they didn’t get the position. Your company’s HR department will probably advise against giving specific details—and I agree. Most likely the truth is that it came down to a couple extremely qualified candidates, and those who didn’t get selected did not do anything “wrong”, there was just one person who stood out as “best”.

There you have it: a simple 6-step blueprint to follow the next time you are interviewing candidates for an opening on your team. Remember that hiring is the most important task you perform as a manager—without great people your vision and strategy and ability to successfully implement them are like a house built on a weak foundation. This process will ensure that your foundation is strong!

Do you have a hiring tip to share? If so, please leave a comment below! Adding to the conversation and helping others is great Karma.

Header image by Will Scullin on Flickr, CC BY 2.0
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