Hiring account executives is hard since all too often they’re judged on criteria that don’t predict sales success. This includes affability, first impression, how assertive they are and how well they communicate. Regardless of this group of seemingly fine traits, none of them predicts the person’s ability to achieve remarkable sales results. Finding out if the person has a track record of remarkable sales results is the key to hiring top-performing sales reps. But getting past the veneer of superficiality is very difficult.
If you’ve ever fallen into the spell of a sales rep looking for a new job and hired a few underperforming ones, asking the following question will turn the tide in your favor. You might even want to practice it with candidates who seem less than stellar at first glance.
While the question is straightforward, getting the right answer takes some effort. Here’s the question. To see how hard it is to get the right answer, answer it for yourself first.
The Best Sales Interviewing Question of All Time
What’s your biggest sales accomplishment in your entire career? Now, walk me step-by-step through it from how you got the lead until you closed the deal.
After the first minute or two of a high-level overview, redirect the candidate to provide more details with something like the following:
Let’s start at the beginning, how did you get assigned this account and why?
Then follow-up with these fact-finding probes:
Early in the Sales Process
- What did you do first?
- How did you get the lead?
- What were the big upfront challenges involved in getting traction with this account?
- How big a deal did you originally anticipate?
- Describe the buying team and how decisions were made.
The Core of the Sales Process
- How many presentations did you make and who was involved?
- Walk me through the discovery process. What were the big gaps your product filled?
- How did you make the business case?
- Who supported you on this project and how?
- Who was the competition?
- What were the big objections and how did you overcome them?
- Why did they buy from you?
- How big a deal was it in terms of dollars and how long was the sales process?
- Describe the negotiation and closing process. How did you get support with this from your sales manager?
Serving the Account
- Explain the post-sales effort and your role.
- What were the big tipping points in closing this sales opportunity?
- Summarize your strengths and weaknesses as it relates to pursuing and closing this opportunity.
- Describe the formal recognition received for this work and was it appropriate given the level of effort required?
Now compare this sales process to the sales process involved in handling your typical clients. If there’s a fit, ask the person about another sales accomplishment for a more recent or different period of time to see if there is a trend of constant or increasing strong sales performance. Then ask the following:
While successfully managing individual clients is critical, just as important is handling your entire portfolio of accounts. Can you tell me how you do this? First, describe your basic process and how you built, managed and prioritized your portfolio to ensure you achieved your sales objectives? In fact, let’s get into your quota performance over the past few years first.
(Send me an email if you want the fact-finding probes for this question, but you get the picture that they’re as in-depth as the above.)
As important as it is for the sales manager to ask these types of in-depth performance-based questions, it’s just as important for the recruiter doing the sourcing to fully understand the job and ask similar questions. Otherwise, the recruiter will be screening on criteria that don’t predict success and it’s unlikely the sales manager will even be seeing the strongest candidates. That’s why I advise recruiters when first taking an assignment, to ask the hiring manager this question:
What does the person need to do to be considered a very successful sales rep? Now could you describe the typical sales process in detail and what the best sales reps do differently than the rest?
With the sales process mapped out this way, including how the territory is managed and how quota is met, both the sales manager and recruiter are aligned around real job needs and what outstanding success looks like. But without this part agreed upon before interviewing candidates, biases and perceptions will dominate who is seen and who is hired. This is a classic recipe for the underperformance, dissatisfaction and turnover every sales leader has experienced.
Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of Performance-Based Hiring Learning Systems – a consulting and training firm helping recruiters and hiring managers around the world source, interview and hire the strongest and most diverse talent. Lou is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, "Hire With Your Head" (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007), "The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired" (Workbench Media, 2013) and the Lynda.com Performance-based Hiring video training program (2016).
Lou Adler is one of the top bloggers on LinkedIn’s Influencer program. He writes about the latest trends in hiring, employment, and recruiting. His articles, quotes, and research can now be found in Inc. Magazine, Business Insider, Bloomberg, SHRM and The Wall Street Journal. The company’s new mobile-ready learning platform – The Hiring Machinesm – provides instant access to all of the tools needed to find and hire outstanding talent.