Interviewing a Sales Candidate by Telephone: What to Look For

By Adam Robinson,
August 20, 2012

The telephone interview has a singular goal:  determine whether or not the sales candidate should be granted a personal interview.  The sales interview approach that we teach is designed to elicit the information that you need in order to make this decision. Let’s take a closer look at the must-get information and analyze how you decide whether or not someone should move to the next stage.  (see this post for more on telephone interviews)

1.  The Introduction.  This is the one of the only points in the conversation at which you should be talking more than 10% of the time, the other time being the reading of the job profile.  Unless your candidate commits an egregious affront to common decency such as chronic interruptions or overt disinterest in what you’re saying, then you’ll probably not give too much thought to this part of the interview.  Pretty standard stuff. 

2.  Career Plan.  In this section, the candidate will give you the road map that they’ve created for themselves.  That road map may be incredibly detailed, with clear milestones and objectives, and have a level of specificity that will be quite impressive.  If this is the case – and you’ll know it when you hear it – then it’s time to really think about what they’ve told you.  Does the opportunity that you’re presenting line up with their one year and five year career plan?  Do you see a major divergence between the career path you’re offering and the career plan that they’ve discussed with you?  

The most common red flags at this stage involve the hiring manager’s realization that their company can’t deliver the career path that this candidate desires.  Most managers pay lip service to the candidate’s five year plan, and then promptly forget what’s told to them.  What you should do is ask yourself, “can my company retain this person, given what I’ve just learned about this person’s career plan?”  

As an aside- there are many factors that explain why the average tenure of a degreed professional in the United States is just under 3 years.  Failing to understand your employee’s career needs is at the top of that list.  While this step is designed to point out obvious disconnects between your open position and the candidate’s career plan, don’t pass up this opportunity to really understand your candidate from a career plan standpoint.  You’ll be that much more effective as a manager if you have this information upfront. 

3.  Best At / Don’t Like.  The answers to these questions are of paramount concern.  The more of these sales interviews that you conduct, the more you’ll begin to recognize patterns of behavior across the career histories of your candidates.  The ability to uncover your candidate’s Best At and Don’t Like is the most critical skill that you need to develop.  Without this skill, the rest of the process is suspect.  Why?  Because nothing else matters if you’re offering a job that the candidate either doesn’t want to do or isn’t very good at doing.  Here is where they’ll tell you whether or not that’s the case with your open position. 

In many respects, humans are pretty easy to read.  We all have preferences about the type of work that we like to do, and it’s not exactly a stretch to say that most of do better work when we enjoy the work that we’re doing.  What’s also generally true is that we are better at some things than others, and that there are certain types of work that we really dislike doing.  People tend to not enjoy doing work that they’re not very good at.  To use a really simple example, if someone tells you that they’re terrified of making cold calls, then don’t hire them as a salesperson.  Yet, it happens all the time.

If the person’s Best At is a core competency of your open position, proceed.  Conversely, if their Don’t Like is a core element of your open position… Houston, we have a problem. 

4.  Job History.  The Hireology approach to discussing job history is very different than the conventional approach that most entrepreneurs and business managers are accustomed to taking.  Notice that we spend no time talking about the “what did you do at ACME Incorporated” type of information, but instead immediately ask them who their supervisor was while working at ACME Incorporated.  What we’re looking for is something called an Interview Tell.  

Most of us are familiar with the concept of “reading someone” made famous by the game of poker.  In poker speak, a “tell” is a way of acting or speaking that gives away a person’s true motive or disposition.  In hiring speak, an Interview Tell is a way of acting or speaking that tells us as a hiring manager that the candidate’s answer was less accurate or truthful than they would have us to believe.  

There are a number of common Interview Tells that you can observe, but the candidate’s answer to the “Who was your boss at…” question is the easiest one to read.  Top candidates will likely enjoy talking about significant accomplishments during their interview.  If the candidate was a top performer and they know that their former boss will gush about their work, then the candidate’s answer will be immediate:  they will give you their boss’ name.  If the candidate says something like, “I can’t remember,” that’s a huge red flag.  

A more common reaction will be a mix of skepticism and distance:  “Why do you ask?”  If you get that question as an answer, your reply is simply, “as part of our interview process we’ll want to talk with your former supervisors.  If we get to the point of issuing an offer, we’ll ask you to set up reference calls with these former supervisors.  I just want to get that information down early in the process for future reference.”  Pause for a moment, and gage the candidate’s response.  If it’s, “Oh, okay, no problem.  Their name is John Smith,” you’re in good shape.  If it’s, “I can’t really remember” then you have the double red flag of skepticism and instant amnesia.  

These are not hard-and-fast rules.  They’re data points.  And we’re collecting as many of them as we can.  Great employees have great relationships with former supervisors.  Mediocre employees typically don’t.  The telephone interview will likely tell us which type of salesperson with which we’re dealing. 

5.  Discussion of Your Open Position.  This part of the call is straightforward, and is the point at which you make sure the candidate knows the basics of the open position.  Watch for social miscues like interruptions. 

6.  Wrap-up and Next Steps.  The answers to these questions are relevant only if you’ve decided to move forward with the candidate.  If they’re a “go,” then these questions are critical to your understanding of what will drive their decision to choose an employer.  If they’re a “no-go” these questions are compulsory but not really material.  Cut your losses. 

¥ “What’s your time line for making a decision on a new job?” – Firm answer:  good.  Wishy-washy answer: less good. 

¥ “Do you have any offers pending that will make it hard for you to complete our four week interview process?” – Firm answer with detail and specificity:  good.  Wishy-washy answer:  less good. 

¥ “As you evaluate your next move, what things are most important to you?”  Firm, reasonable answer:  good.  Uncertainty, or unreasonable answer:  less good. 

¥ “Is there anything that you feel is relevant to our conversation that we haven’t yet discussed?”  Pointed questions about your company that demonstrate this person’s interest and preparedness:  good.  Anything else:  depends. 

You’re not going to figure out everything there is to know about someone with a one-hour telephone sales interview.  You can, however, learn enough to make a no/no-go decision, and save yourself a ton of time in the process. 

Adam Robinson is the CEO of Hireology – a web-based tool that provides customized interviews, job profiling, and one-click background checks to help companies hire the right person. Start your free trial at today!

About the Author

Adam co-founded Hireology with the mission to help growing companies make better hiring decisions through data and better technology. Adam is passionate about entrepreneurship, donating time to a number of organizations that support the entrepreneurial cause. Adam completed his undergraduate study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and received his MBA from DePaul University in Chicago, IL.

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