One Sales Interview Question Best Unasked

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My point of view often differs with opinions that I read online. No biggy. Much rarer is when I read business advice so ill-conceived that my forehead collides with my keyboard.

“awfjsoefivfdljkmdvfl;jkvxcljkvxcljk;m,..,m.” You can quote me.

Even rarer are situations when I believe the writer’s advice is so dangerous that I must speak up. That happened today when a colleague shared an article on LinkedIn from Inc. Magazine titled, Recruiters Share Can’t-Miss Interview Questions to Disarm Candidates. A banal topic, but the word disarm piqued my curiosity. I had to read on.

At the top of the article appeared a paragraph, For sales positions. More curiosity. But I unintentionally created that character string when I got to the last sentence. Actually, the whole paragraph is just wrong:

“We interview candidates for both our internal company and for clients throughout the US. If someone is interviewing for a sales position, we’ve found that this question provides a lot of insight: What is the most expensive item you’ve ever purchased? The rationale behind it is that salespeople typically stop producing when they are ‘comfortable’ with their income, so this question provides insight into what may be ‘enough’ for them. For example, if I said that the most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased is a pair of $50 shoes, I may potentially not strive to make as much money as someone who answers, ‘I splurged and purchased a $500 pair of shoes because I knew that wearing them would be my motivation to make even more’.” 

Do top producers make a lot in order to spend a lot? Or, do they spend a lot, and therefore, they’re uber-motivated to make a lot? Either way, the notion that proclivities for acquiring expensive things predicts sales success is absurd, and perpetuates a horrible stereotype about salespeople.

At best, the recruiter’s question is misguided. At worst, it’s patently discriminatory. People who grew up with limited means are less inclined to make self-indulgent purchases than those who grew up wealthy. What about people send a chunk of their monthly income to family in their home country? What about solo-breadwinner parents who save every month to provide a college education for their children? My bet is that you’ll find them shopping at Target for footwear, not Neiman-Marcus. This recruiter wouldn’t understand their motivation or hunger for income because her myopia doesn’t allow her to. “Stay in your lane.” Not a good mantra when your raison d’être is discovering the talent in others.

I don’t buy the rationale for her advice. I know top-producing salespeople whose penury makes Jack Benny look like a spendthrift. And I’ve met others who couldn’t sell their way out of a wet paper bag, but that didn’t prevent them from hurling themselves into a consumption trap. A sales candidate whose appeal comes from the fact that he swaggers in wearing a pair of $800 Santoni Darian Cap Toe Oxfords?  Are you kidding me? He’s been paying the minimum on his credit card balance for the last 25 months, and lives with his parents!

Maybe for this interviewer, the best evidence of potential motivation shouldn’t be the candidate’s shoes, but his physical behavior. For that, I’d suggest she seek someone who chugs a bottle of Maalox daily, and chain smokes. Now there’s someone outwardly nervous! About what? Making money? Well, the clothes will add another data point to the fact pattern, affirming the logic.

But is that aggressive, stressed image really what companies want? Is that the face vendors want to project to customers? And, more ominously, what does an employee’s insatiable drive for disposable income portend for the safety of organizations, customers, employees, and other stakeholders? The questions are not intended to be facetious or hypothetical. I see the aftermath whenever I read about sales scams and betrayals of customer trust.

If you seek the One Best Question to ask sales candidates in 2019 – and there really isn’t a single question – I suggest ditching “what’s your most expensive purchase” for “when do you plan to retire?” If the candidate is 30-ish and says “not one minute past 40,” hire that candidate immediately! I don’t care whether he or she wears $4.99 flip-flops, and drove to the interview in a Hyundai Elantra. Or rode a bike.  F-I-R-E: it’s the new expensive wardrobe.

Online, you can find loads of more useful questions to ask sales candidates. In practice, however, I don’t believe sales interview questions need to differ much from those you’d ask a non-sales executive. The best guide I found comes from Harvard Business Review (7 Rules for Job Interview Questions that Result in Great Hires, by John Sullivan, February 10, 2016).

  1. Avoid easy-to-practice questions
  2. Be wary of [answers to] historical questions
  3. Assess their ability to solve a problem
  4. Evaluate whether they’re forward-looking
  5. Assess a candidate’s ability to learn, adapt and innovate
  6. Avoid duplication [by asking for information that’s already on a candidate’s resume]
  7. Allocate time for selling [your organization to the candidate]

I’d also ask the candidate to talk about resilience.  Salespeople experience frequent setbacks. So, in addition to learning how goals were over-achieved, find out about responses and reactions to failure.

For many interviewers, the last rule represents an often-missed opportunity. Not only does it help reveal whether your organization matches what the candidate wants, but it offers the interviewer a reciprocal chance to convince the right candidate to join. And if the candidate isn’t right, he or she could share that information with a friend or colleague who is.

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