First, congratulations! The fact that you are interviewing for a sales position is a great decision on your part. Sales is a noble profession and it can be highly rewarding. Fun fact: over 12% of all jobs in the United States are full-time sales positions—that’s almost 1 out of every 8 jobs! (Source: SalesForce Training & Consulting Blog).
There are thousands of free resources on the internet that will help someone during their job search—everything from preparing one’s resume to conducting the job search to navigating the gauntlet of interviews to negotiating an offer. What I’m offering here isn’t generic interviewing advice. Rather, these are ten tips specific to interviewing for a sales position from a veteran sales manager who has interviewed hundreds of candidates over the past 15 years.
1. Put on your game face and approach interviewing like a sale
After all it is a sale! You are the product and the interviewer is the buyer. Think about all of the steps in the sales process (prospecting, establishing rapport, conducting discovery, making your presentation, closing the deal) and treat the interview process in the same manner. Don’t try and short-circuit the process by skipping important stages. It rarely works in sales and it rarely works in recruiting and hiring too.
2. Do your pre-call planning
Sales people are expected to conduct pre-call planning before going on a sales call. So, if a candidate sits before me and it is obvious she has not done any due diligence about the company or the position, than I am done with the interview. Pore through every page of the company’s website, click on every link, read every white paper, press release and customer testimonial. But don’t stop there. Look beyond the company-provided information. Conduct a Google search—go beyond the first page of results and click on the “news” tab. Research the company on sites like Hoovers and Glassdoor. Talk to people familiar with the company (for example, if interviewing for a pharmaceutical sales rep position, speak to folks in the medical profession). Don’t forget about social media sites: LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Most companies nowadays have profiles on those sites and people are certainly talking about them there.
3. Conduct a skills inventory
During your pre-call planning, make a list of the skills and attributes the hiring manager will be looking for in the ideal candidate. Not all sales positions are the same and different companies value different things. Inside sales reps, for example, require different skills than outside sales reps. Once you have a good picture of who they want to hire, make sure to demonstrate that you possess the skills and attributes they seek. To be clear, I am not suggesting that you misrepresent yourself! If you don’t have the right skillset, you shouldn’t want to continue pursuing the position. That’s the point of conducting the skills inventory. You would be doing yourself a huge disservice to take a job for which you are doomed to fail because you lack the appropriate skills necessary to succeed.
4. Organize your stories
Most companies today ask “behavioral-based questions”. This line of questioning has proven to be much more 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…” you are likely to be asked, “Tell me about a time you handled a dissatisfied customer’s complaint”, which forces you to retell an actual situation. Also, they will want you to answer using the STAR format (describe the Situation/Task, the Actions you took, and the Result of those actions). This format makes it easier for them to take notes and keeps you from rambling or going off on a tangent. Therefore, it’s important for you to organize your stories beforehand. Take your inventory of skills they will be looking for and think of one or two good examples that demonstrate each one. Flesh out the details in your mind. Now you’re ready for almost any question they will ask!
5. Bring collateral
Sales people know the value of sales collateral—a brochure, white paper, news article, or list of references or testimonials can help clarify and offer proof of your product’s value. Similarly, sales collateral can amplify your stories and help you demonstrate your expertise during the interview. I’ve always been impressed when a candidate has gone the extra distance to organize relevant documentation to share with me—things such as prior work product, authored work, letters of recommendation or commendation, and performance appraisals. Word of caution: make sure collateral is relevant and used appropriately. It should complement your stories, not be the focus of the interview.
Sales professionals know that in order to win the sale they have to answer one of the most pressing questions in the buyer’s mind: “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM). The interviewer is your buyer. Assume that everyone they are interviewing is imminently qualified and all are prepared to recount a litany of past successes. If they weren’t qualified, they would have already been screened out of the process. Who is going to be the best fit? Who will ultimately add the most value to the organization? You must convince them it’s YOU! Don’t just talk about what you did; connect your prior experiences to the present needs of the company and the future outcomes they can expect with you as part of their team. Paint a vivid picture of success thanks to their wise decision to hire you.
7. If giving a presentation, be persuasive
It’s not uncommon when interviewing for a position in sales to be asked to give a presentation at some point during the process. Sometimes you will be given very strict parameters to follow such as topic, format, length of time, etc. This helps provide a common baseline by which all candidates can be judged. I often require candidates to prepare and deliver a presentation. However, I prefer to give very few guidelines other than a maximum time limit (e.g., “no more than 15 minutes in length”). I specifically leave the topic up to the candidate. Fifty percent of the time, the candidates deliver thoughtful, elegant informational presentations (e.g., “My Vacation in Russia“). The other half of the time the candidates deliver equally thoughtful, elegant persuasive presentations (e.g., “Why You Should Spend Your Next Vacation in Russia“). All are well prepared and delivered. Guess which ones impress me and which ones depress me? When interviewing for a job in sales, always be selling! If given the choice, give a persuasive presentation.
8. Ask insightful questions
Most interviewers leave time at the end of the interview for the candidate to ask questions of the interviewer. The interview is almost over. Assuming you haven’t said or done something to rule yourself out, you’re almost home. Yet, I am amazed at how many candidates shoot themselves in the foot so close to the finish line. Everyone knows that one of the greatest qualities of a sales person—what often distinguishes the great performers from the mediocre and poor performers—is the ability to conduct effective discovery, both asking great questions and active listening. I simply want to strangle a candidate who tells me one of their greatest attributes is the way they conduct discovery, then 20 minutes later when given the opportunity to dazzle me with their discovery prowess can’t muster up a single insightful question! I can’t finish the interview fast enough at that point! Best practice: the best candidates don’t wait until the end of the interview to be invited to ask questions; they figure a way to interject questions throughout the interview so it feels less like an interrogation and more like a conversation.
9. Don’t forget to close
I don’t care how good you are at developing rapport or conducting discovery or delivering a presentation—if you can’t close, you won’t be successful in sales. Closing is ending the call with a clear understanding of the next step. It could be asking for and securing the sale. It could be securing the next appointment or asking for a referral. As Blake (played by Alec Baldwin) famously said in Glengarry Glen Ross, “A-B-C. Always Be Closing!” Any candidate for a sales position who walks out of the interview without having asked about the next step in the process, and without having attempted to secure my commitment in taking them to that next step, can keep on walking.
If it’s not obvious at this point, the interviewer is looking for clues throughout the interview process that you are who you say you are (which is typically “the greatest sales person on Earth”). Words are words. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t tell me you’re great at establishing rapport with customers; show me by making me like you. Don’t tell me you’re great at conducting discovery; show me by asking me great questions. Don’t tell me you’re a great closer; show me by securing my commitment to take you to the next step in the process. After all, I can only assume that I’m seeing the best of you. What I’m seeing now is what my customers will see from you after I hire you. I expect you to follow-up with customers after you meet with them. Thank them. Clarify and document what was discussed, especially the commitment about the next step. If you fail to follow-up with me after the interview, I bet you won’t be following-up with customers after conducting sales calls.
So, there you have it—10 tips to help you prepare for your next interview for a sales position. Before I let you go, one more piece of advice: don’t forget that just as they are interviewing you, you are interviewing them as well. Sales people are ultra-competitive by nature. We want to close every deal and win every sale. Since you’ll be approaching the interview as a sale, don’t allow your hyper-focus on winning the job offer to overlook red flags warning you that this isn’t the right opportunity for you. They should be trying to sell you on their company. Assume you are seeing them on their best behavior. Are they treating you well? Are they communicating appropriately and keeping you informed throughout the process? Are they being transparent in answering your questions and sharing information? If not, don’t expect it to get any better once they’ve secured your employment (in fact, it could get worse!). No one wants to make a bad decision—neither the hiring manager nor the applicant. The interview process is everyone’s opportunity to make the most informed decision possible.
Do you have an interviewing tip to share? If so, please leave a comment below! Adding to the conversation and helping others is great Karma.
Header image by Samuel Mann on Flickr, CC BY 2.0