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The ONE question you MUST ask a candidate in a Sales Interview

All of us in Sales have often interviewed candidates for several sales positions in our careers and no doubt we are quite experienced at it. We look at qualifications, roles he/she has worked in, what are the most challenging situations they have overcome, how they have conquered their sales battles, what do we think are their strengths and weaknesses, how have they achieved their sales growth etc,etc.

We then form an impression based on their track record, how they have performed in the interview, seek references, see the cultural fit and if all is clear then probably proceed to make them an offer for employment.

In my experience in Sales and Sales Management spanning over 34 years, I too have done my fair bit of recruiting sales teams  – Salesmen, ASMs, GMs, Business Heads – with a mixed track record.

Many times I have recruited a smart salesperson who spoke well, was presentable and had good credentials but did not perform under my leadership. Over the years as the needle of suspicion has pointed towards me for ineffective recruitment by my bosses, I have squirmed in my seat at my mistakes. However it is only over the past 10 years or so that I have really understood how to fool proof this and get the perfect candidate by asking the ONE important question that would decide the fate of the interview.

This is the ONE question, the answer to which from the candidate, communicates in very clear terms the sum, substance and quality of the all the experience that the candidate has gained in previous companies and also is a trailer of how he/she will operate as a salesperson if brought into the new company.

Most surprisingly, it is also a question to which :

  1. 95% of the candidates give a wrong answer

  2. 4% give a partially correct answer

  3. And only 1% will ever give the correct answer 

So what is this question ?

It is very simple and innocuous :

“Tell me , in your experience is Selling an Art or a Science ?”

  • If the answer given by the candidate is that “Selling is an Art” (95%)- then the person has failed the test and should be rejected even if he/she has done earlier in other parts of the interview

  • If the answer given to this is that “Selling is more of an Art with some Science ” (4%)then you will have to think hard about the risks of taking such a person

  • If the answer given is a definitive statement that “Selling is a Science or is more of a Science than an Art” (1%) – then bingo ! you have zeroed in on the correct candidate and the person is the best candidate for employment

Why am I saying this ?

Because if you get a salesperson who is convinced that “Selling is a Science” and has accordingly gone about his sales duties in the past, you will automatically get a process oriented and execution oriented person who not only is a good salesperson on his/her own right , but is also capable of training others. You can hold up the person as a role model because when the chips are down, when the going gets tough, he/she will STILL deliver. You get a consistent performer who can be trusted to lead teams and act as a beacon for others who want to excel in the sales field – someone who covers all aspects of sales, account management and customer relationships and is delight to watch in action !

If on the other hand, you take a salesperson who thinks that “Selling is an Art” , you can never be sure of the consistency of their performance , they might exhibit individual brilliance sometimes that may not be duplicated every month or  when the going gets tough. More importantly though, salespersons flaunting this kind of badge are incapable of training others, since an Art can only be admired , never duplicated in toto compared to anything that is Science based which becomes process driven, and hence can be tutored, imparted and ingrained in other practitioners.

And what about the middle category who think that “Selling is mainly an Art with some Science thrown in” ? In my experience they will perform well only under strict supervision that does not let them deviate from established processes, but the moment this control is withdrawn, they tend to collapse. Because inherently they believe that Selling is an Art, they will tend to revert back to their old style when no one is watching them and ignore processes, spelling disaster eventually. So beware, if you need to take such persons due to paucity of available talent for recruitment , do it with your eyes open that his/her immediate supervisor is going to be taxed to keep him on track and results may not be always guaranteed!

I had to once settle for such a candidate with one of my Clients and as long I was engaged with the Sales Project I kept the screws very, very tight on this gentleman for close to 12 months so he performed well. After I handed over the reins to the Sales Director once my tenure came to an end, I was informed that within 3 months he had to leave the organisation as the performance tanked. This was inspite of the candidate having worked with a reputed MNC previously and having undergone numerous training programmes which he had certificates for ! Evidently the core of the sales training had not penetrated his style – that Selling is a Science.

And finally, the higher up you are interviewing in sales hierarchy the more important it is that you hear the correct answer. Because an “arty” VP Sales located in HQ will wreak more havoc across the country than a lowly Sales Executive who still only influence his/her area !

So to summarise when interviewing for sales positions, just ask :

“Tell me , in your experience is Selling an Art or a Science ?”

and be happy that you would have made a safe bet on the candidate who has given the correct answer.

You cannot go wrong with this simple insight.

Good Luck and Happy Recruiting !

Dinkar Suri


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