How to avoid bad hires for sales positions: Can this person really do the job?
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How to avoid bad hires for sales positions: Can this person really do the job?

You know the problem with hiring salespeople? The very fact that they’re salespeople – and so are good at persuading sales managers in job interviews that they can do things they can’t.

Meantime, sales managers, under pressure to fill positions and meet sales targets, often let their emotions and biases sway their choices without even realizing it.

The result: Too often sales managers end up hiring unqualified or unsuitable candidates that they have to replace within a few months. That’s both a setback and a black mark on the manager’s reputation for good judgment.

So when you’re interviewing candidates, you need to be able to winnow out those who only say they can – let’s call them impostors – from those who really can. Let’s look at a realistic scenario to see how you might proceed.

A strong candidate – or so it appears

You have a job selling machine tools that’s been vacant for three months, and you really need to fill it. You finally receive an application from a candidate who offers a strong resume. This person – let’s call him Richard – has worked for two manufacturers that use machine tools. Plus, he has the engineering background you want in your salespeople. Richard’s recommendations from his previous sales managers are good. You think hopefully, “Maybe this is the guy, and we don’t need to look any further.”

Unfortunately, that’s your biggest danger going into this interview. You feel urgency to fill the job right now. Richard is impressive on paper and in person – smart, polished and confident. You want so badly for him to work out that you avoid asking tough questions because you might trip him up, realize he’s wrong for the job, and have to start over again.

Psychologists call this confirmation bias.

In one study, researchers from the University of Missouri analyzed eight months of taped job interviews by three interviewers at a large corporation. They found that when the interviewers formed a favorable first impression of applicants, they asked fewer questions about their qualifications. Instead, they spent time selling the company as a great place to work. That’s a recipe for bad hires.

Inputs vs. outputs

Anyway, you’re about to interview Richard for your sales job. Think of the interview as having two pieces: 1) Inputs, meaning the candidate’s experience, education and qualifications, and 2) Outputs, meaning the goals you want the candidate to achieve.

If Richard is an impostor, he’s delighted to have you focus on inputs. He’s got education and experience in spades. What impostors don’t want is to be questioned deeply about outputs. But that’s just what you need to do, by digging into two areas: Responsibility and Knowledge.

First, find out whether candidates in their last sales job had primary responsibility for the needed output. For your job, you need someone who has made complex sales by persuading multiple buying influencers at prospect companies.

To determine whether Richard has done this, use the Responsibility Drill Down technique. Here’s how it might work:

The conversation

You: “Have you negotiated and closed sales where you had to win over multiple influencers, including in the C-Suite?”

Richard: “Yes.”

You: “Tell me about one of them.”

Richard: “I closed a five million dollar contract with Betadyne Industries. We had to convince the CEO, CFO, and operations manager that our product was superior to two competitors.”

You: “Did you personally initiate the contacts and lead the presentations with these people?”

Richard: “I had a key role.”

You: “Was your sales manager involved, too?”

Richard: “Yes.”

You: “So was he primarily responsible for landing the sale?”

Richard: “Technically, yes.”

A red flag

With five probing questions, you’ve learned that Richard didn’t win the sale. His sales manager did.

Does that mean Richard isn’t qualified to do the job you’re filling? Not necessarily. But the way he presented his level of responsibility raises a red flag.

Your next step is to move to a Knowledge Drill Down, to assess whether Richard knows what he needs to know for the job you’re filling. Use the same technique as in the Responsibility Drill Down, asking questions that burrow successively into his answers to the previous question. Either he’ll have the requisite knowledge, or he’ll give himself away.

Some final advice: Whatever sales job you’re trying to fill, and no matter how badly you need it filled yesterday, don’t give in to confirmation bias. Sure, verify inputs by checking experience and credentials. But spend more time on outputs. Find technical questions that only a qualified candidate could answer. That way you’ll know whether your search is over, or not.


This blog entry is adapted from the 6-minute Rapid Learning video module “How to Smoke Out Impostors in Interviews for Sales Jobs.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Dougherty, T., et al. (1994). Confirming first impressions in the employment interview: A field study of interviewer behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 79, No. 5, 659-665.

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