Assessing Candidates for Sales Positions Requires Active Listening and Attention to Detail

Picking the right job candidate from the pool of available talent is a tough challenge no matter what position you're trying to fill. Your task is particularly difficult, though, when hiring someone to handle membership sales. You want someone with the skills to develop long-term relationships with members. But how can you assess such capabilities in individuals you are meeting for the first time, particularly when they are preoccupied with presenting a favorable image?

It's no wonder many club owners throw up their hands and hope for the best, relying on gut instinct and perfunctory interviews to fill sales openings. Big mistake. "Some places are so desperate for people they will take anyone who is breathing," says Ian Jacobsen, president of Jacobsen Consulting Group in Sunnyvale, Calif. "But if you hire in haste, you will repent at leisure."

If you're looking for the path to the right salespeople, consider these five tips suggested by top workplace consultants:

1. INVOLVE YOUR STAFF. You have a better chance of finding top sales talent if you can access a larger pool of candidates. The best way to broaden your recruiting efforts is to involve your current staff, suggests Rochelle Turoff, president of R.J. Scott & Associates, a Roswell, Ga.-based consulting group. "If you rally your people to find new employees, you won't have to work so hard to attract talent," she says. "So make recruiting everyone's job." Your staff will perform a valuable screening function by recommending individuals who (one presumes) are dependable and honest.

Establish a reward system for employees who bring in talent. Emphasize your interest in a long-term approach by requiring new hires to stay a certain number of months before the referring staff member receives the reward. And encourage your employees to emphasize the valuable non-financial benefits of working at your business, such as flexible work hours and child-friendly policies.

2. PRE-SCREEN YOUR APPLICANTS. To spend more time on the most promising candidates, trim the number of people you interview. Pre-screening can be a lifesaver.

"You can identify your rejects on the phone before they come in," says Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics, a Houston-based consultancy. "Start by asking yourself what characteristics would eliminate people from the available job. Then ask applicants some questions that identify those characteristics."

Kleiman offers the following examples of questions that help winnow the field: • Do you have a reliable means of transportation? • What hours are you available to work? • What hours do you prefer to work? • What hours can't you or won't you work? • What is your minimum salary requirement? • Have you ever worked in any kind of sales position?

3. ASK QUESTIONS THAT ASSESS THE QUALITIES YOU NEED. Successful employment interviews include two types of questions. The first assesses the applicant's personal characteristics in light of what is required for sales success. The second assesses honesty and work ethic.

"Before you think about what makes the best hire, you need a clear idea of what it takes to be successful on the job in your particular environment," says Turoff, who suggests you conduct what she calls a "job preview" by obtaining input from your staff. "Ask your best people: What are the personal qualities that make for success at our club. If you were to pick our next salesperson, what kind of individual would it be?"

By this procedure you'll discover vital characteristics that you can test for in your interviews. Most likely, your staff will emphasize the virtues of being personable and friendly, and being able to engage people easily in conversation. These are important, within reason. "I temper being friendly with having good judgment," says Turoff. "Most prospective members don't like overzealous people."

So just how can you tell that a person will be friendly and customer-centered, within the formal confines of a job interview? Ask questions that get the candidates to open up and assess themselves, suggests Jacobsen. For example:

• Tell me about one or two salespeople you believe are outstanding, and what makes them so good. How do you compare yourself with them? • In your past performance reviews, what have been identified as your strengths? What have you been asked to work on What progress do you feel you made? • What feedback have you gotten from supervisors, co-workers and customers about working with you? • Describe for me the sales training you have had. What were you able to use from it? What should it have covered, but didn't? • What do you find really satisfying about sales work? What bugs you about sales? • Describe a successful interaction you have had with a customer. What did you do to get the customer to come back?

For someone not yet in sales, you can always ask, "What do you find attractive about sales work?" Or, "What leads you to believe that you would be a good salesperson?" Such questions are called "open-ended" because they encourage the applicant to open up with expanded responses rather than with short, yes-orno responses. They are bound to reveal critical attitudes toward customers.

4. ASSESS CANDIDATES' COMMUNICATION SKILLS. Successful salespeople have great listening skills. They repeat what customers say with such transitional phrases as "Let me make sure I understand," "What I hear you saying is" and "I think you are interested in X." Such restatements stimulate people to open up and describe their needs more fully.

"By listening well, good salespeople make sure they really understand what people want," says Fred Martels, president of People Solution Strategies in Chesterfield, Mo. "That creates value for your club. People have so many options today. They don't want to be 'sold' - they just want what they want. So the more questions your staff asks, the better off your club will be."

What questions will encourage job candidates to assess their own listening skills? Martels suggests applicants assess the following statements about themselves, responding "very little," "some" or "very much":

• "I remember the main points about what I hear." • "I wait to hear the speaker's full message before answering." • "I don't jump to conclusions or argue."

While the candidate responds to these statements, assess the level of eye contact, an important element in good communication.

Jacobsen suggests yet another way to assess communication skills. "See if the applicant starts the conversation with a pitch about him- or herself, and why he or she is a good salesperson, before finding out more about your business and the position available," he says. "Applicants with good communication skills try to get more information so they can present themselves creatively. The job application process is a selling one, and the behavior of each candidate is a live test of their ability to elicit information from the customer - in this case, you, the employer - and to listen well."

5. ASSESS CANDIDATES' WORK ETHIC. Finally, you want to ask questions that will help assess the individual's work ethic. Kleiman suggests these:

• Other than being sick, what is a reason you might not be on time? • How many times have you missed work for reasons not related to illness? • What do you think is a fair attendance policy? • Have you ever been in a cash-handling position? Did the drawer ever come up short? "If the answer to the second question is no, they may be lying," Kleiman says. • What would you say if a friend wanted to join the club and asked if you could get him or her a special discount? ("You want to put the applicant in a situation requiring honesty, and assess the response," Kleiman says.)

Too many business owners make the mistake of believing that just about anyone can sell and make that their excuse for conducting perfunctory interviews. It's a shame, because as the above tips suggest, a club owner doesn't even have to go to great lengths to conduct interviews properly.

You need only keep in mind the particular skills needed for sales success. They're the same skills needed of you as an interviewer - active listening, attention to detail and an engaging personality. If you find yourself in a pleasant, interesting and wide-ranging conversation with a prospective employee, you might have already found the person you're looking for.