An Effective Technique For Hiring Sales Candidates

An Effective Technique for Hiring Sales Candidates

When sales managers are interviewing for their team, often everything looks great “on paper”, but how do they uncover true talent from just a good first impression? Here is a simple and effective technique that gives sales leaders a strong indication about the potential for future success with a sales candidate.

We interviewed Mark Kesti, Chief Revenue Officer at Innovo, about the origin of this idea, and best practices for implementing it at any organization.

As a sales consulting organization, what is your involvement in the hiring process of sales professionals at your client companies?

Our focus is to help our clients grow sales. Of course, a big part of that is making sure we have the right talent to execute the sales strategy. At Innovo, we aren’t recruiters, but our clients do depend on us to make recommendations. Once they have a few pre-qualified candidates, though, we get deeply involved in the assessments.

What have been some of the challenges that you've had in interviewing salespeople?

It’s been more difficult to get the level of quality we need. There is a tremendous amount of churn. I recently read that 67% of the professional labor pool is considering a move. Right now, in 2022, the challenge is getting enough qualified salespeople to apply. It’s a “seller’s market”.

What are some of the unique considerations of interviewing salespeople?

Sales professionals make their living convincing people of things that they didn’t originally believe were valuable. So if they’re not presenting well in the interview, when they’re basically selling themselves, that’s certainly a red flag to start.

The real challenge is to dig deeper and really understand the motivations and the specific skills and experience they have. We do this by asking them to create a presentation to demonstrate how they would approach a sale. This exercise is usually further down in the interview process when we have a short list of high potential candidates.

The candidate can share a previous actual presentation, or they can create a new hypothetical presentation. Either way, it should be a common scenario that requires a conceptual sale. Ideally, we want them to demonstrate their skills specific to a longer-term strategic sales price and where there is a higher dollar value proposal.

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What inspired you to take this approach?

I’ve seen it done a few times before. In one particular company they sent a very detailed scenario with specific numbers, names of different job titles, etc. I did think that was a little too much. However, I liked the idea that we could see someone’s thought process and actual selling skills by having them construct a prospect-facing presentation.

A good presentation is more like a conversation—it should tell a story. It’s typically used early in the sales process, and is key to the initial interest generation with a prospect. If we can’t get some sort of traction—or identify some opportunity for both parties to work together—we’re not going to get to the end where we might actually get a new client. So using a selling scenario really flushes that out quickly and exhaustively.

What are you looking for in these presentations?

The scenarios we offer them are a little vague by design. This is on purpose because—just like in any sales environment—you usually don’t have all the facts from both sides of the table. So it’s also interesting to see how they respond to that, and position their presentation in light of the unknowns.

We ask them to create a presentation that demonstrates 5 key areas:

What we’re really interested in are fundamental skills, which aren’t necessarily easy, but are critical in order to achieve success in a longer-term complex strategic sales environment. Often we’re not selling a specific product or a widget. It’s an idea or a concept.

We’re looking for a few key things. Is it professional? Is it credible? Is it enhancing the value of the offering? Are they presenting it well verbally? Is it conversational and engaging? Is their body language effective? Does the presentation highlight value? Are they creating a vision for the prospect or the customer? And of course, sales success can never happen by one person. Do they effectively convey the team involved?

Also, when a candidate uses a past presentation, it also opens up conversations about what leads up to a presentation like this. In other words, what prospecting and approach activities tee up this moment in the sales process.

How much time do you give them to complete the assignment?

It’s not intended to be a snap quiz. I usually give them a week, and if they need more time, that’s fine. Plus, the fact that they can use a prior presentation means that no additional time is actually required by them. Either way, we give them enough time to prepare and deliver.

Do you have them send the deck in advance of presenting?

I do not, because I try to experience the presentation as a prospect. If you think about it, most of the time, particularly early on in the sales process, you’re not sending the deck beforehand. You’re just trying to get a conversation going to uncover what might be of interest to this particular prospect and generate deeper interest.

When you're evaluating the candidate, how much is based on what's on the slides, versus how they are presenting it?

The evaluation factors in about 25% of what’s on the slides. We make it very clear to them, though, that the job isn’t being a PowerPoint graphic designer, and we’re not evaluating their design skills. How the slides look is NOT the key part, it’s how it’s presented. PowerPoint itself doesn’t sell anything. It’s how the tool is used, how it is organized, how it is presented, and does it take someone through a story to motivate them to take some action.

Has anyone come back and done something that really surprised you?

I wish! But no, I haven’t had that experience. Usually what we get is kind of run-of-the-mill stuff—not very inspiring, no special talent, no real thought process, and actually a little disappointing. But at least now we know more about a particular candidate. That is a big part of the value of this exercise!

After seeing their presentation, what are some indicators that this candidate might not be a good fit?

The first test is: are they even going to do it?

For example, recently we had a really strong candidate, we provided instructions for this next step, but we never heard back from them. So, to some degree, this is a measure of how committed they are to moving forward with us.

Sometimes the delivery is scattered and not well-considered. Sometimes, instead of a presentation, we just get a 30/60/90 plan that describes their sales process, which is not what we were looking for.

How long of a presentation do you ask them to create?

We let them know that it can be short, probably about 10-20 minutes maximum. We’re not interested in a diatribe, or a deep dive into some sort of subject. It’s about the basic skills. Frankly, usually the better presentations are the shorter ones. The slides aren’t going to sell anything, it’s the story you weave around it.

Do you record the presentation?

I have not recorded them, and I’m reluctant to do so because I don’t want to create any more pressure for the candidate than they are already experiencing. It might raise HR issues as well.

Do you ever ask a candidate to repeat the presentation to other managers?

There hasn’t been a need to do that. When making my hiring recommendations, though, I do pass along a copy of the presentation to senior management, along with highlights and objective feedback.

How has this process proven out? Is it providing good indicators for the candidate’s success?

So far, it’s worked out well. I interviewed a candidate recently for a senior VP of Business Development role in a life sciences software development company. They sold a conceptual product to a sophisticated audience.

This candidate chose to deliver a presentation from a past sales role. First, he wisely incorporated the SOAR framework—which is a presentation methodology that stands for Situation, Opportunity, Action, Result. He even used the velvet rope concept, positioning it as “perhaps this solution is not for everyone” to draw them in. It was really well done—short, engaging and compelling. The presentation actually had nothing to do with the industry he was interviewing for, but for the sake of the interview it delivered on the intent and illustrated his thought process.

As it turned out, we did hire this particular candidate, and he’s actually doing quite well.

If sales managers wanted to take this on, what advice would you give them as they begin incorporating presentations into the interview process?

While there can never be certainties, it’s advantageous to take as much risk out of the hiring process as possible. That benefits the candidate as well. We want to make sure that they’ve found the right place where they will be successful, because every company is different.

So any tool that provides objectivity in the interview process is valuable…as long as it’s consistently used. For example, if several people are involved in interviewing, we’ve used simple scorecards. This provides a consistent way for each person to measure their view of how the candidate did with various aspects of the presentation, and then we can compare and combine the scores.

For me, it’s also important that I do not know anything about the candidate before I interview them, other than what I see on their resume. I prefer to have an unbiased, fresh, and objective perspective. Getting feedback from others who already interviewed the candidate before I have, creates bias. When all the interviewers maintain an unadulterated perspective, the scorecards and notes become more valuable. The interviewing team can then compare scorecards, notes, and observations to identify alignment. If the interviewing team uncovered similar strengths and weaknesses, we’ve done a good job for the benefit of the company and the candidates.

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If sales managers wanted to take this on, what advice would you give them as they begin incorporating presentations into the interview process?

Yes, this is something I was taught a long time ago. It’s not revolutionary, but I’ve never forgotten it. And it’s simply this:

Hire Slow, Fire Fast.

That may sound a little crass, but taking your time with the interview process, thinking it through, getting multiple points of perspective, and collecting objective data is only going to help to reduce the risk of bringing someone on board only to find out later that it wasn’t a good fit. Especially when hiring sales people. Remember that they are professional “convincers”. They may have a compelling resume, and say all the right things, so using a tool such as a presentation interview can help provide a realistic indicator of their skills and aptitude. The better sense you can get of who they really are in the interview, the better indicator you’ll have of how they will perform when they join the team.

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