Interview Q&A - Part 3: Sales Interview
By Mike Rollins, vice president of sales at RecruitMilitary and a veterans of the United States Navy.
This is the third of a series of articles in which I will provide questions that are typical of job interviews, along with answers of the kind that veterans should provide. Between each question and its answer, I will make a comment or two
Dorothy, the veteran hiring specialist in a company’s human resources department, is interviewing Joseph for a sales position. The district HR manager, the district sales manager, and Dorothy have read Joseph’s resume. All agree that he has the necessary qualifications. The interview began with basic questions like those in parts 1 and 2 of this series.
Dorothy: What do you find attractive about sales?
Dorothy wants to know whether Joseph is strongly attracted to highly productive aspects of sales.
Joseph: Building volume, always building volume. I am attracted by the social aspect because I am gregarious and I enjoy conversation. Also, the intellectual content – educating the customers and leads. But building volume, constantly surpassing my personal bests, is what makes me go. I learned that approach in the Army – in the physical training, the marksmanship, and everything else. I figured that if I kept surpassing my own personal best, I wouldn’t have to worry about what the other guys were doing.
Dorothy: Do you think of yourself as mainly a farmer or a hunter?
Joseph is applying for a job as a hunter, a salesperson who primarily brings in new customers. However, he should also leave an impression that he is adept at farming – increasing sales to established customers. Why? Because, in the future, this position or another position with this company might call for some farming. Joseph must be truthful with Dorothy – and with himself; if he is not primarily a hunter, he should not have applied for this job.
Joseph: A hunter of big game – who will settle with a high volume of smaller game if he absolutely has to. That said, I make it a practice go touch base at least twice a year with all the contacts that are still around at the accounts that I brought in. I check with our own people who are working the accounts before I do that.
Dorothy: What is your routine for working the phone?
Dorothy is interested in the content of Joseph’s conversations, the duration of his calls, the gaps between calls, and Joseph’s record-keeping procedure. The question is very open-ended so, to keep his answer from running too long, Joseph needs to focus tightly on his strong points.
Joseph: Let me say first that all of my prospects are people who have responded to our marketing pieces or something on our website, so I don’t have to do a whole lot of heavy lifting up front. So when I make contact, I try to get a sense of the potential volume of business right away. Depending on what I get, my next step can range all the way from a quick, low-volume transaction to an extended conversation leading to drafting a proposal off-line and setting up an appointment for an in-person sales call.
Over the years, I have become pretty efficient at typing in my notes as I talk, so get back on the phone right away. Around four in the afternoon, I will take 15 or 20 minutes to go back over my records for the day, just to see whether anything fresh occurs to me. That’s a routine I developed when I was doing the administrative work that shows up in the Army part of my resume.
Dorothy: Would you give me a couple examples of your most effective ways of closing a sale?
Dorothy wants to know whether Joseph proceeds to the close methodically and at a good pace. Because Dorothy did specify a type of sale – e.g., a quick transactional sale or a comprehensive sale made in person – Joseph must make a choice.
Joseph: If I sense that my best bet is to close something low-volume on the phone, I will describe our most suitable product and explain how that product will meet the prospect’s need. I don’t push for an immediate decision, but I do say how quickly we could draft the deal and make delivery. Then I give our base price and ask whether I should figure the total amount. That has been pretty effective for me.
On a major in-person call with a big proposal, unless the prospect wants to see everything up front, I will dole out the various elements one or two at a time and get a tentative assent. So, in effect, I am getting a sequence of “mini-closings,” even though nothing is formalized until we talk everything through at the end.
This is similar to what I did in the Army when I was in charge of vehicle maintenance. I would tell a soldier part of what I wanted done, then test for comprehension before going on to the next part. That was pretty effective for me.
Dorothy: Let’s get back to that phone conversation. How often do you ask directly for the sale?
Dorothy is interested in more than a number. She wants to know what Joseph says before he asks for the sale each successive time.
Joseph: After I figure the total price, if I don’t get an immediate OK, I will ask in an informal manner – “Are we good to go?” or “Shall we do it?” – something like that. When I get a “no,” half the time the prospect wants more information. I make it a policy to provide more than enough, then ask, “Does that give you what you need to know?” I may go through that routine again, but I never ask more than three times. Either the prospect really doesn’t have much of a need, or the contact is hesitant to make a decision. If I sense it is the latter, I ask for another name or I tell my contact that I can follow up in a couple days.
Dorothy: What about a “no” or a hesitation based on price?
This is a big test for Joseph. Is he a reflexive price slasher / discounter? Not good if he is.
Joseph: I should have said earlier that I am always selling value, and we are awfully hard to beat when it comes to value – if it’s presented right. In our case, I can put together good value calculations based on product reliability and durability. If I get a strong budget objection, I usually go into give-to-get mode. We offer good dollar-volume discounts and extended payment terms, so I add on more products and then tell the prospect his savings per unit per month. Sometimes, I top it off by rounding the total down a little to a nice even number. But I never compromise our price table.
Dorothy: How about selling against the competition?
The main competitors of Dorothy’s company are good companies with good products. Joseph should know this, based on his research. So he should not come across as an attack dog.
Joseph: When the name of a competitor comes up, I don’t downgrade them. When you downgrade a company that your prospect has been using, in a sense you are downgrading your prospect. I will stress the service I can provide and what our product specialists and support staffs do on a regular basis. So essentially I make my best presentation, and I don’t worry about what the other guys are doing – just like in the Army.
Dorothy: What kinds of prospects are the hardest for you to sell?
Dorothy wants to hear that Joseph recognizes his own shortcomings – a good indicator that he would be straightforward in dealing with sales management. She is not especially interested in any particular type of prospect.
Joseph: With me, it’s not so much the prospects – meaning the kinds of companies – as it is the kinds of contacts. Down through the years, I have had problems with contacts that are very passive on the phone. I am basically a person-to-person conversation guy, so when I get dead silence or “OK” or “uh-huh” on the phone, sometimes I’m not very effective. The best way I have dealt with such people has been to get them talking about their needs.
Dorothy: At what point do you take a prospect off your list? Other than when the prospect has gone out of business or something like that. Or when the prospect is obviously not serious.
The district sales manager happens to be almost fanatical about persistence. But for all Joseph knows, the manager is fanatical about paring down the sales queue. The best advice is for Joseph to level with Dorothy.
Joseph: Well, time is money. But if I know it’s a good prospect, I won’t let it go. I will fish around for a better contact and invest a little extra research time. I may also move the prospect down a few notches in my line-up. I have had a few of those classic cases where a prospect has been doing business with the competition for years and I happen to call at a time when there is some dissatisfaction in the ranks. I believe in hanging on, basically – those experiences just give me reinforcement.
That approach also comes from my Army days, when I had to work with the personnel and materiel at hand.
Dorothy: On one of your in-person calls, did you ever have a make a major change of course?
Dorothy is looking for flexibility, product knowledge, and an ability to work under pressure.
Joseph: Yes, a couple years ago. I was asked to put together a proposal for a rehab project involving a dozen old apartment buildings. The prospect asked me to quote on replacing all the doors and windows. All the buildings were alike, so the project manager just showed walked me through one building, and then she gave me a set of plans.
I presented my proposal the next week, and then the project manager drove me around the entire site. I saw that the driveways and most of the other concrete surfaces were in terrible shape. I asked about that. She said they were going to talk to a couple contractors about pouring new concrete everywhere.
So I immediately got out our brochure for our paver products – those are stone and brick and concrete shapes for driveways, walkways, patios, and so on. I explained how really attractive we could make the whole area look. She liked the idea. So I worked half the night and presented a fresh proposal the next morning. I was able to work up some deep discounts because so many dollars were involved with the pavers and windows and doors. I got the contract.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN.
Read the first question below and my comment.
If you have a recording device, record an answer immediately – playing the role of Joseph. Do not think long before answering, because you would not want to do that during an actual interview.
Go through all of the questions in this manner.
Listen to yourself.
Type out an improved answer to each question. Take plenty of time with this step.
Repeat Step 5 until you are satisfied with your answers.
If you do not have access to a recording device, type out your first answers as rapidly as you can, then go to Step 5.
How do you react when you put a lot of effort into a proposal and then get turned down cold?
Dorothy wants to hear about a courteous follow-up some time later asking what he could have done better. Also, evidence of self-analysis.
What visuals do you use in a major in-person presentation?
Dorothy is looking for a good mix of visuals and personal salesmanship.
What was your biggest mistake during a sales call?
Joseph needs to lay out the embarrassing details, then explain what he did to correct his mistake.
In your jobs where a large part of your sales were seasonal, how did you invest your time during the sales cycle?
Dorothy is especially interested in what Joseph does to get off-cycle business.
How have you worked to resolve account conflicts with your sales colleagues?
Dorothy wants Joseph to tell her that, when he spots a potential conflict, he refers the matter to his manager.
By Mike Rollins