With no undue flattery, if you will, grade me on how well I'm conducting this interview: What can you tell me about my sales and management style on the basis of the questions I'm asking you?

Why Ask This Question?

People-reading skills are critical to any sales executive's success. Because perception skills can't be taught by training, each candidate needs to have a fairly well defined ability to recognize a stranger's personality and business style. Without that innate ability to adapt to another person's mode of communication, establishing rapport remains difficult, and sales opportunities will be missed. After all, prospects shouldn't have to adapt themselves to the salesperson's style: The salesperson is responsible for breaking through communication barriers and immediately establishing common ground.

Analyzing the Response

Testing an individual's people-reading skills should provide insights into how the candidate sizes up strangers. Since you're the only person that the two of you know in common, you might as well make yourself the focus of attention. This query will then reveal how accurately the candidate evaluates and bonds with newly introduced people on the spot.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. Since the candidate needs to gauge your values as a manager to answer this question, save this query until the second half of the interview. Note the kinds of words the interviewee uses to describe you: ''You're a really nice guy and you like your job'' is a cop-out response because it's so superficial. Push the candidate further by asking for specifics regarding your management and sales styles:

''What would it be like working for me?''

''Where do you think I'd have the least amount of patience?'' ''Tell me where I ranked as a salesperson when I was on the floor.''

A candidate should be able to tell a lot about an interviewer by his attention to detail, his logical follow-up queries, and his questioning techniques. (''Behavior-based'' interviewers, for example, come across a lot differently than ''stress'' interviewers.) Similarly, a sloppy office with mounds of paperwork makes a different impression from a neat office with neatly stacked files. These follow-up queries should consequently generate some firm responses from even the most gun-shy candidates. Their answers won't necessarily be correct, but there should be a logical basis for their responses.

Good Answers. For example, a perceptive response might sound like this:

''You're meticulous because everything is in order on your desk and on your bookshelf. You're taking lots of notes, so you obviously study applicants for later comparison and approach final decisions objectively once you've collected all the data. And just by asking this question, I see that you're not afraid of hearing rejections, so you obviously feel confident that you know your stuff. Finally, you listen very intently to every word that I say without finishing my sentences for me, so you've got excellent listening skills! I bet you expect the same kind of clean operation from your sales staff, so working with you would mean that I'd have to dot my i's and cross my t's.''

Don't be surprised, by the way, to hear some undue flattery. Do, however, watch out for candidates who shower you with insincere, unfounded compliments. That's a sales style in and of itself, but that approach went the way of the dinosaur once sophisticated consumers educated themselves and learned to avoid the Slick Eddies of this world.

How important is the base salary component to you? Would you prefer a straight commission if it offered you the potential for an additional 35 percent in aggregate earnings over the base salary?

Why Ask This Question?

Measuring candidates' risk factors says a lot about their sales mentality. Those who cling to high guarantees often come from conservative, risk-averse households where stability and steady income took precedence over risk-based earnings. These people have more of a I work to live'' attitude, and they typically see their work as a means to an end—namely, putting bread on the table.

In comparison, entrepreneurs live to work'' regardless of the amount of money they make. Their parents were most likely successful salespeople who opened their own businesses at fairly young ages and perhaps experienced a bankruptcy or two. The kids opened corner Kool-Aid stands once they turned five and have been bitten by the profit bug ever since. These are the people who never give up the helm of the ship even after they've made their millions. In short, they typically define themselves by the level of material success they generate.

Analyzing the Response

Distinguishing aggregate payout potential from guaranteed earnings could be telling. A salesperson with a husband, two children, and a mortgage may opt for a higher base pay with a lower payout potential because the timing in her life dictates conservatism over risk. If that's the reason why this woman is sitting in your office for an interview (and you happen to offer the highest base pay program in town while all your competitors offer only straight commission), then you have lots to offer her. In this case, the problem that made her decide to leave her past company is solved by your organization.

Red Flags

If, on the other hand, you're interviewing someone who's fresh out of college, who considers himself a millionaire in the making, and who would opt for the $1,500/month base plus minimal bonus over the straight commission package, then beware: You're probably looking at the classic risk-averse mentality mentioned previously. The moral of the story: Even if you don't offer a choice of earnings options (among base salary, commissions, and bonuses, for example), ask candidates how they'd ideally like to see their pay structured. Obviously, the higher the risk that candidates are willing to assume, the greater the reward for you and the aggregate payout for them.

 
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