Career Advice Mar 15 2012

How to Ace the Sales Job Interview

By Geoffrey James

Being interviewed for a new job is always challenging, but interviews for sales jobs are in a class of their own. Not only must you pass the normal hurdles that all job seekers face, but you must demonstrate your sales skills by selling yourself as the best candidate.

To do this, you must treat the sales interview as a chance to show your ability to accomplish ?consultative" selling. You'll need to do up-front research on the company you want to join, build a customized and compelling case, present yourself flawlessly, and execute an appropriate and immediate follow-through. Here's a step-by-step approach:

Research the hiring firm

Examine the company's website. Notice how they communicate about themselves, how they view their market, and whom they see as their primary customers. Use Wikipedia and other online resources (like to learn the basics and the background of the industry and market. Then use LinkedIn and online news stories to learn about key individuals in the hiring firm, especially those working in sales and marketing.

If it turns out that you know people (or know people who know people) already employed in the hiring firm, contact them. Find out what it's like working there and what a hiring manager might be looking for. To really stand out, contact some of the hiring firm's customers and ask how they perceive its sales practices, suggests Mary Delaney, chief executive of Luceo Solutions and former chief sales officer at "The hiring manager will be impressed that you made the effort and you may be able to bring some fresh perspective, providing value from the very start of the relationship,"she says.

At the end of the research process, you should be able to articulate intelligent answers to the following questions:

-What do you know about this company?

-Why are you interested in working here?

-What is your view of our market?

-What is your opinion of our products?

-How do you view our chief competitors?

Create your personal story

The interviewer will want to understand how you'll fit into the organization. Communicating this effectively requires more than the information covered in your resume. You need a"narrative"-- story about yourself where the natural conclusion is being hired by the interviewer's firm.

This is important. The interviewer will see your ability to tell a coherent, compelling story about yourself as evidence that you can do the same for them."Managers are looking for people who can establish an emotional connection with prospects, and story telling is a good way to accomplish this," explains Mike Bosworth, author of "Solution Selling" (McGraw-Hill, 1994).

Your personal story should begin with some event in your life that inspired interest in the firm's business and market. It should then go through your life and job experience, showing how you've been preparing for a sales career in the hiring firm. For example, if you're interviewing for a job in the chemical wholesale business, start your story with the chemistry set that you had as a kid. Explain how you've always been fascinated by how the chemical industry is at the foundation of every other industry.

Does this mean you should simply make up a story? Not at all. Presumably you've acquired some interest in the company and industry prior to interviewing. If not, you're probably interviewing for a job that you won't enjoy, and you probably won't be very good at it.

Arranging your experience into a narrative also allows you to explain problematic gaps in your employment history. For example, suppose you were unemployed for six months soon after accepting a new job. Without a narrative, this seems a bit flaky. With a narrative, you can explain that you were so eager to start the new job that you didn't do enough research and, when it didn't work out, you decided to take as much time as necessary to find the exact right position.

Anticipate the Inevitable Questions

The interviewer will also want to know specifics about what you accomplished."Salespeople must be able to tell detailed accomplishment stories that clearly illustrate the sales challenge, what they did about it, what results they produced, and what skills they demonstrated,"explains Ford R. Myers, author of the newly published"Get The Job You Want, Even When No One's Hiring"(Wiley, 2011).

Expect specific questions that delve into the information on your resume, like:

-What were your goals for the year?

-How did you perform against them?

-What commissions and compensation did you get?

Depending on the sales environment at the hiring firm, you might be asked for an example of how you used networking to prospect, how you prepared for a major presentation, or how you closed a complex sale.

Naturally, you must also be prepared to answer the panoply of cliche interview questions, like:

-What is most important to you in a job?

-What drives you?

-Who was an important person in your life?

However, these questions provide the opportunity for you to segue into the narrative that you prepared previously.

If the interview goes well, you may also be asked for some references. Have a list ready, and be sure to give the people on that list a heads up that they might be contacted. Make sure they're prepped to reinforce your story.

Conduct Yourself Like a Pro

At the risk of stating the obvious, you don't have a second chance to make a first impression. Get lots of rest the night before an interview, wear your best clothes, leave plenty of time for traffic, and arrive at least ten minutes early.

Just before the interview starts, take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand, which is not"getting the job,"but determining whether your capabilities and interests match the position you are exploring."The best way to interview is to treat it like the most important sales call of your life, which makes sense because the right job can certainly change your life!"says Nancy Martini, CEO of PI Worldwide, a company that provides employment testing.

When answering questions, you should be clear, specific, and concise, according to Linda Richardson, founder of Richardson, the world's largest sales training firm."Pay attention to posture, tone, and content,"she advises."Be polite, confident, and keep good eye contact."This, of course, is good advice for any job interview, but it's particularly important for a face-to-face sales job because the hiring manager will be assessing how the firm's customers will perceive you.

The flip side to how you conduct yourself is observing how you are treated. The sophistication and professionalism of a company's hiring process speaks volumes about how they operate as a company. If the interviewer or the interview is sloppy and unprofessional, or if you're treated with less respect than you know you deserve, you might want to reconsider whether you want to work there!

Ask Thoughtful Questions

In addition to answering questions, you'll be expected to ask questions that illustrate your sales and business acumen. These questions play a dual role; they show your ability to probe in a sales situation, while their answers will help you better assess whether this is a good fit...for you. Some typical questions are:

-What makes people successful here?

-What was it about my resume (phone call, email, etc.) that intrigued you?

-Where do you see the firm heading in the future?

Don't ask any questions that could be answered with a little research on the Web. Instead, ask questions, and start conversations, that build on the research that you did earlier.

It's also a mistake to ask about salaries and commission too early in the conversation; such questions make it seem as if you're only interested in the money and not as much in the job or the company. Similarly, avoid questions about vacations, health plans, or retirement, until after you're fairly certain that you'll be getting an offer."Hiring managers view interest in such subjects as red flags,"Delaney warns.

Once you've gained a more nuanced picture of the hiring firm and feel comfortable that it's a good fit for you, it's time to"sell yourself."Provide relevant examples of what you've done in the past and tie them into the requirements of the specific sales role, as you now understand it."The key is to keep the conversation in a context that makes sense to the hiring manager,"says Martini."The less guessing they have to do about your fit, the better off you are."

Close on the Next Steps

As the interview comes to its conclusion, it is perfectly appropriate to ask questions about the process in order to move the opportunity forward:

-May I ask where you are in the interview process?

-What are the next steps?

-Can we schedule the next interview?

In essence, these questions are like"closing"on a sales opportunity. And, yes, you will lose points if you lack the courage to go for the close.

Following the interview, send an individualized, well-written email to each person you met at the company."A prompt response tells the hiring team that you're interested and lets them know that you'll treat customer opportunities with the same dedication," says Delaney. Offer to provide additional information as needed. "Then relax, let it go, and turn your attention elsewhere,"Martini says." Your goal is to look serious and interested, but never desperate."

When you get the offer, your final interview task is forging a mutually beneficial relationship."Know your financial needs, your market value, and your wiggle room" says Martini, who advises against taking a position that's a bad fit because the pay is good, or losing a great position because the compensation is not high enough."Focus on your career and see if you can bridge the gap so it works for both parties,"she advises.

Geoffrey James is an award-winning journalist and author of's daily Sales Source column. Previously, he wrote Sales Machine, the popular sales-oriented blog. James has written hundreds of articles on sales and marketing and has helped thousands of sales professionals communicate more effectively. His newly published book is "How to Say It: Business to Business Selling" (Prentice Hall, 2011)

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