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How to Interview a Salesperson & Avoid the Hot Air

By Jenn Steele - Jul. 20, 2014
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Salespeople can really talk the talk.  That’s good.  That’s what they’re supposed to do.  If you’re not careful though, their natural ability to talk anyone into what they want can lead to their taking over the interview… sometimes without you, the interviewer, even realizing it.

When a salesperson wants something, they will, quite literally, go into sales overdrive, bombarding you with their charm and confidence, throwing figures out into the air in response to questions, and working their way into your good graces so that you just end up liking them.  This isn’t that surprising – they are in sales – but be careful that their patter doesn’t suck you in so far you can’t tell whether they, well, suck.  You need to discover what they will truly be like doing sales for your business. Just because they’re good at talking their way through an interview doesn’t mean they can pull off results. Be aware of their skills and maintain control of the interview.

To avoid a hiring/firing cycle because the last salesperson was a bag of hot air, follow these tips:

Clearly Rank the Interviewee on Non-Charismatic & Cultural Criteria

To avoid becoming enamored by charming windbags, stick with a pre-determined list of criteria. These criteria need to be based in sales numbers and quotas as well as whether they’ll play well with the rest of their team. And make sure you get past performance data from the candidates to back up their stories.

Consider the selling culture of your organization. Is your culture a hard-sell, cold-call, numbers-focused center?  Or does your product require long-term relationship building in a sensitive environment?  A sales person may have been able to move product in one environment but perhaps he or she did it in an aggressive and pushy way that was normal for that industry.  Perhaps you need someone with a lot of force who gets a kick out of running through the names on a list. Build your questions around your company’s style to ensure a good fit.

Define the Competencies and Traits You Need

What are the skills interviewers should be assessing in a sales candidate? Here’s a list that will help you begin:

Customer Orientation

How well does the salesperson deal with customers?  It’s easy to throw numbers of closed contracts out, but your questions should get to the core of how they closed those contracts & whether the customers stuck around.  Were the customers fully satisfied?  Did they come back for repeat business?  Was there ever a time the salesperson put the customer’s needs over the business’s preferences?


Communication will either build or break a relationship, and not just with prospects or clients.  Being able to communicate effectively with other members of the team will increase your salesperson’s ability to bring customer what they customer need.  Ask specific questions about how they communicate – including what their favorite communication processes are.

Sales & Negotiation

Ask questions that will really get to the core of how a salesperson operates.  Move away from numbers & figures and ask about the smaller occurrences that are part of a sales person’s daily agenda.  How did they convince a resistant person to buy their product?  How did they contact someone difficult to reach?  How did they come to agreement on a price when the two parties were very far apart?

Tenacity and Resilience

All salespeople expect to be told “no” sometimes.  Often they are told “no” many times! Great salespeople are tenacious and resilient.  Delve into how they handled a specific setback.  Discuss failures & things they tried that didn’t work.  How do they handle talking about the parts of the job that suck? A person’s response to failure speaks volumes.

Ask for Specific Examples of Building/ Executing a Sales Plan

Finally, ask the salesperson to provide you with a specific example of how they went about building and implementing a sales plan.

Many questions lead the interviewee to answer in a certain way, asking for an example about best or specific behaviors.  When you ask the interviewee for an example of how they implemented a sales plan, don’t provide any hints or specifics.  Let them choose any example they like and let them highlight the “important” parts.  Their choices of what to tell & how to tell it will tell you a lot.


A salesperson’s favorite trick is to take over the conversation in a way that time runs out and you won’t get a chance to truly grill them. This leaves you with a great impression of their schmoozing ability.  Unfortunately, it will also leave you without any data or understanding of how they measure up against other candidates. Use your list of requirements & keep an eye on the time as you move through the interview. Be polite and firm (and smile!) as you interrupt and move them on. Make sure they think you “got” what they were saying, and it will go more smoothly than you expect.

With some practice & preparation you can control an interview to get the data you need. With that, you can make an informed decision, even with a very good salesperson across from you. It takes a little thought, but you can definitely avoid the hot air!


Jenn Steele

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Topics: Hiring Talent, Recruiter Tips, Recruitment, Talent Professionals