20 Questions to Ask during a Sales Position Interview, Part 1

Questions to ask during a sales job interviewWhen it comes to job interviewing, asking questions is a two-way street. In fact, most career counselors encourage you to ask questions during an interview. Why? Because it shows the potential employer that you are interested in the position and that you’ve done your homework.

Below is a list of questions that I recommend you ask. I will explain why each question is important and help you determine if the answers you receive are red flags.  Part 2 of this post will be published next week.

Question 1). I notice based on my research that there appears to be a high turnover of salespeople in your company. Is that true and could you explain to me why that is the case?

If an employer admits turnover is high, that’s actually a good sign. At least he’s being honest with you. I actually had one potential employer tell me up front there was high turnover. He had just taken over the department a few months earlier, and felt it would be better to be honest and let me know what I was getting myself into.

But few of us are that lucky to have a potential employer tell us the truth. So in most cases, you need to dig deeper and find out what is causing the high turnover. Some companies may tell you turnover is high because they have “high expectations” of salespeople; if they don’t achieve their goals, they are asked to leave.

What they are really telling you is that the quotas are extremely or unrealistically high, and frankly may be out of reach for most salespeople. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some companies are looking for the crème de la crème. If you can’t hack it, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Selling is hard work. Maybe they are not looking for glorified order takers, but real hunters and aggressive closers. Maybe they are looking for salespeople to work late hours, or be road warriors and travel to all parts of the country or world. Just know that if you accept this job, you had been warned up front about the high turnover. Be prepared for a major sales workout.

If a company doesn’t admit it has high turnover, or brushes off the question, they are not telling you the truth. If a company isn’t honest with you on that question, they may not be honest with you about your other questions. My advice: don’t work for them. Politely leave the interview and don’t look back.

Of course, there may be other reasons for high turnover. Sometimes bad management plays a major role in people leaving. Some companies may be reluctant to fire a bad manager because he has strong relationships with major accounts, or he’s married to the boss’s daughter. Whatever the reason, companies may look the other way.

Other reasons for high turnover may be a bad compensation plan, or a poor allocation of accounts, or territories that are not paying out well. We all get dealt a bad hand of cards in life. It happens. You may be good at your job, but no matter how many sales calls you make, or how thoroughly you know your product line, you’re not cutting it. As the say in poker, you have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

As I mentioned earlier, turnover may be high because companies are not successfully qualifying job candidates, or not setting the right expectations about a sales position. For example, I worked for a cruise vacation company that would cast a wide net to bring in several salespeople at once. After a two-week training program, you had three months or less to prove yourself. The turnover rate was so high that after a few months maybe one or two employees were left standing. The rest either quit or were fired. There were situations where entire training classes were gone in a few months.

Why did this happen? Because the company believed quantity was more important than quality when hiring salespeople. If they had invested the time to screen job candidates more carefully during the interview process, they may have hired fewer salespeople, but would have had lower turnover.

slicing up or dividing prospects or sales leadsQuestion 2). How are accounts and leads assigned or divided up?

Unless you are coming on board with a stellar resume, or left a competitor to work for a new employer and can bring your old accounts with you, chances are you will not be assigned large accounts or prime leads right away. Until an employer believes you are thoroughly knowledgeable about the product line, and have demonstrated good sales skills, you will be assigned old expired leads and smaller accounts. Don’t be offended by this. You are on your training wheels right now. Before you can start contacting and working with the big boys, you have to prove yourself to a new employer. This is true even for someone who has been in sales for a while. Don’t walk into a job expecting large accounts and great leads to be handed to you on a silver platter. It’s not going to happen. With every new job, you have to prove yourself all over again. However, if you know what you are doing, and can demonstrate solid sales skills, a good employer will move you to the fast track right away.

With assigned accounts, you are looking at the projected sales. While this is not always very scientific, if an employer has been managing those accounts for a while, they have a pretty good gauge on their potential. They may at first assign you to smaller accounts. As you develop and demonstrate good sales skills, they may gradually assign you larger and more profitable accounts.

Sometimes smaller accounts or leads can yield surprises because the previous account manager didn’t work those accounts or leads thoroughly enough. I once worked for a company where a new sales rep was assigned a “double zero” account. That means a prospect that had never placed an order. The account was transferred to him from a senior sales rep. A few weeks after the transfer, that account ordered more than $5,000 worth of products, a big order by our standards. What happened? The customer got fed up waiting for back orders from a competitor and decided to order our products. Lucky? Maybe. But this underscores why you shouldn’t thumb your nose at smaller accounts or leads. Because in sales, sometimes luck is all you have to keep you going until you build your pipeline.

Besides luck, sometimes it’s all about timing.

I know a young sales woman who started her first real sales job at a publishing company. She was selling and managing accounts for an online subscription service. She wasn’t making much money and was becoming discouraged. However, within a few months a senior account manager resigned, and she was assigned all the departing manager’s large accounts with better sales potential. The manager decided it was easier to assign her the large accounts while the outgoing account manager was available to help her, than to replace her. (In fact, many sales managers are reluctant to post help wanted ads for new hires. If they can hire someone internally for the position, or get a good referral, they will move quickly to fill the open spot).

When it comes to finding out how accounts and leads are assigned, don’t be afraid to get down to specifics. Are accounts assigned by market segmentation? Are accounts assigned by geographic territories? Account assignments by market segmentation normally are based on the revenue size of the account in a specific industry. Generally speaking, smaller accounts are assigned to new sales representatives, and the larger accounts to the more senior ones. Market segmentation accounts may also be assigned by the account’s field. For example, some salespeople will focus only on law firms, while others will focus on non-profit organizations or medical facilities. It comes down to what type of services and products your company is selling.

If the accounts are assigned by geographic territories, then you probably will get a mixed bag of small and large customers.

Some companies do not rely on territories at all, but divide up accounts based on the percentage of leads you currently have. One way to think of this is that each salesperson has a lead bucket. If your lead bucket is too full, you will get fewer or no leads for a while. Conversely, if you have very few leads, you will receive more leads until your bucket is almost full. Usually the most senior salespeople have the highest number of leads because they have been with the company the longest. A few new leads will trickle in from time to time, but those top performers are expected to devote most of their time to managing what’s already in their large buckets.

This system of allocating leads works well when you are selling products with a long sales cycle, and where not having a territory really doesn’t dramatically affect your sales.

Regardless of how accounts are assigned, you need to have a thorough understanding before accepting a job offer. You don’t want to get burned or be caught by surprise.

paid training for sales peopleQuestion 3). Do you offer paid training? If so, for how long? What type of training is involved?

Are they going to throw you into the fire, or offer you some good product training? Generally speaking, the more complex the products or services you sell, the more training you will undergo. If you are selling software or cars, you will probably take extensive in-person and self-study courses before you meet your first customer or prospect. If you are selling subscriptions or advertisements, your training will be shorter and not so extensive.

Before I sold durable medical equipment and software, I went through two weeks of paid training. Some of my training was class work, but most of it was from reading the company’s product and sales material. I had to study the company’s catalog inside and out. I also had hands-on training by working in the company’s warehouse. For example, I would work with a specific product one day like hand rims, and then work in the shipping department the next day. I found this to be very helpful and gave me a better appreciation of the shop employees’ work.

Before I sold any software, I would also take some course work. But most of what I learned was from studying online material, watching demos, and listening and watching other salespeople work.

While product training isn’t going to make you a better salesperson per se, at least you will start out with a strong grounding in the products you are selling.

After my formal training, my studies did not stop. I continued to learn more about my employer’s product line on my own time. I also spent time studying the competition and the industry in general.

are you hitting your quota?Question 4). Is there a quota? If yes, how is that quota determined?

I’ve discuss quotas before in a previous post.  You should always know up front what type of quotas you are expected to meet. Are quotas measured on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis? This could be a good measuring stick on whether they company has realistic expectations, or pie-in-the-sky goals.

For example, I know an old-school salesman who once sold cars for a very popular dealership in Maryland. His sales manager had a very strict quota system: Every month the salesperson with the lowest numbers would be fired. It made no difference what his sales had been year to date, or his level of seniority. In fact, a five-year veteran car salesman was fired because he had the lowest sales one month. He cried at his desk because he was afraid his wife would divorce him for being unemployed.

When my friend asked his boss why he has such a strict quota system, his reply was, “I want to keep everyone on their toes.”

Nice guy.

The salespeople tolerated the strict quota system because the dealership offered good benefits and a good compensation plan.

No matter what type of quota system you work under, just know up front what you are getting yourself into.

Related to this, you may ask what percentage of salespeople meet or exceed their quota. This will give you a good indication of how realistic or doable the quotas are at your prospective employer. Obviously, if only a small percentage of salespeople are meeting or exceeding their quotas, this may be a bad sign that the turnover rate is high, and you may find yourself working in a “churn and burn” sales department.

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If you like this post so far, please check out my book Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career for more help.
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improvements in products or servicesQuestion 5). What plans do you have to improve your products or services down the road?

Most interviewers like to ask what you plan on doing in the next five years. Well, you can turn that question around and ask what the company plans on doing in the next five years. This question shows you want to know if the company has a good roadmap for developing its product line. And more important, it shows whether you are hooking on to a company with a bright future, or one with static business plans.

If you have done your homework, you may already know about a company’s plans. You may want to bring this up during an interview, and ask a potential employer to provide you with more details. However, some privately owned companies may not be very public with their plans. In that case, you will have to dig a little deeper. You are not trying to be nosy. Your goal is to see if the company is growing, and if your income will grow with it.

did a salesperson leave the company?Question 6). Why is this sales position open? Are you expanding or did someone leave?

If you have done your homework, you may already know the answer to this question, but it doesn’t hurt to ask anyway. Your goal here is to see if the employer is telling the truth. But you also want to get a sense of what direction the company is going, and if hitching a ride with a potential employer will help you with your financial success.

As I mentioned earlier, a high turnover rate is not necessarily a bad thing. You just need to be prepared for a hectic ride. If the position is open because someone found another job, no big deal. It happens. If the company is truly expanding its sales staff because they can’t keep up with all their leads, and they expect more sales in the near future, then you could be in the catbird seat to rake in some big bucks.

Be careful if you are told you are replacing someone currently employed but who may soon be fired. While it may be your ideal job, be prepared initially to deal with some cold shoulders and evil eyes from the previous employee’s friends and co-workers. While they may not blame you for your predecessor’s downfall, you will feel their wrath at his boss’s decision to terminate him. If you find that you are replacing a current employee, find out why. You have to right to know if you are walking into a minefield. If you do replace a terminated employee, stay cool, keep your nose to the grindstone and do your job. After a while, your colleagues will come around and respect you. We all have to make a living.

Even if you are not told that you are replacing someone who will be fired, you can pick up on certain signs. For example, I was once asked to go to two interviews for a company: one at 7:00 a.m. on one day and one at 6:00 p.m. the next day. It was very clear to me that they were trying to replace an existing employee and didn’t want him to see me walking in wearing my interview suit.

Related questions would be:

“How many salespeople do you have on your staff?

“Has the number of salespeople increased or decreased during the past few years?

This is a good question because it will give you a sign of whether the company is experiencing growth or has been downsizing its sales team.

“Are you planning to hire more than one salesperson at the same time?”

The answer to this question will determine if you are walking into a “churn and burn” sales department. I once knew someone who moved to California after accepting a job selling digital advertisements. When she arrived at her new job, to her amazement, she found herself joining several other new salespeople who had accepted the same job offer. It turned out she was part of a class of newly hired salespeople who were all going to do the same work. She quickly realized that she was being roped into a high-turnover sales department with tough quotas. After working for a few weeks, she quit and found another job.

Sometimes owners will be sneaky and hire two new salespeople at the same time without telling you. The goal is to pit one against the other and see who wins. Right out of the front gate, you find yourself competing with another new hire, crawling and scratching your way to obtain only one sales job. In a few weeks or months, the best person wins while the loser is licking his wounds and taking the long walk

typical day of a salespersonQuestion 7). Can you describe for me the typical day of a salesperson at your company?

The goal with this question is to get a sense of what you are getting yourself into. You want to find out what the work load is like, learn how you are supposed to set your priorities, and get a better understanding of what your potential employer expects you to do. How much time are you expected to be on the phone or making outside sales calls? How much administrative work are you expected to do each day? How many sales meetings are you expected to attend?

This is a good time to get down to specifics here. How many outbound phone calls are you expected to make? How long does it take to enter orders? Are you expected to do your own research for prospects, or not? Do a lot of sales reps work overtime? Is there a lot of traveling involved?

Also, try to find out if any tasks will require your immediate attention once you come on board. This will give you an idea of whether you are coming aboard a well-run ship, or a rat’s nest of problems.

For example, when I applied for an exhibit booth sales position for a non-profit organization, I found out the person I was replacing had been fired. Her supervisor was trying to clean up the mess she had left behind while selling booths for a major trade show. In short, her mess was going to become my mess. I didn’t mind that too much, but then I found out it would take more than a month before they would even consider me or others for a second round of interviews. That meant more of a mess piling up that I would have to deal with when I joined the company. I politely took myself out of the running, and declined to come back in for a second interview.

when are commissions paid outQuestion 8). When are commissions paid out?

Although most career interview advice books discourage you from bringing up salary until you get an offer, or at least until you feel you are close to getting a job, in sales it is almost expected that compensation will be on the forefront of your mind.

Some employers may already tell you up front how much you will be expected to make. They may even give you detailed (and sometimes confusing) charts to show you how and when you will earn commission.

My point is: don’t be shy about asking about commission up front. The better you understand how commissions are paid, the better off you are in making an intelligent decision about accepting a job offer.

I once worked for a publishing company that created a new advertising position for our biweekly newsletter. Most of us thought the job was an uphill battle. We believed the new position wouldn’t generate enough advertising revenue to support a salesperson. We were right. They hired a young woman with little sales experience who quickly became discouraged. She became even more frustrated when she realized she wouldn’t get paid any commission until the company collected the revenue. To make a long story short, she lied about getting paid by advertisers so she could collect her commission. When this was discovered, she was fired.

The moral here is simple: she didn’t ask in advance how commissions would be paid. If she had known from the beginning, she may not have accepted the job.

(By the way, after she was fired, the position was never filled. The publisher quickly dropped the idea of selling ads for the newsletter.)

Related questions would be:

“How much is an average sale?”

“How many salespeople achieve bonuses for high level of sales?”

If only a handful of salespeople are achieving a high level of sales, ask why. What makes them better than the other salespeople? What are they doing differently than the average or less than average salespeople? Or do the salespeople achieving the most bonuses have better territories or account assignments? Dig deep here. You have a right to know.

advancement opportunities in salesQuestion 9). What kinds of advancement opportunities, if any, are available?

Are you eager to move ahead in your career at the company? Most companies have only one sales manager. Some may have an assistant sales manager or two. But beyond that, if you want to remain in sales, your advancement opportunities may be limited. It depends on the type of sales environment. If you are working in the Inside Sales department, and you decide to work in outside sales, this may offer greater opportunity for advancement and more income. It doesn’t hurt to ask this question. It shows ambition.

However, if you want to move up the corporate ladder and become a VP or director of something, working slavishly in the sales department may not be your ticket to the top. Some companies like to promote from within while others hire from the outside. Ask the right questions and do some research and you will find your answer.

ramp up time to do well in salesQuestion 10). What is the ramp-up time before I’m expected to meet my quota or earn commission or bonuses?

The purpose of this question is to determine how much breathing room you have before you are expected to earn your “keep” in the company. Most companies expect you will go through a learning curve before hitting your stride.

At one company, I earned a higher than expected base salary for the first two months on the job, but my base salary was lowered once I began earning sales commission.

At another company, I was actually paid a small fee for every trial I generated from a prospect. This was on top of the commission I earned for my sales. This fee was paid during my first five months on the job.

If you are working for a company that pays straight commission, in some cases it may pay you a small base salary for the first two or three months to give you time to build up your pipeline.

Some companies may not give you any breathing room at all, and you are expected hit the ground running. If that’s the case, ask yourself if it is the right job for you. If not, move on to the next interview.

Look for Part 2 of this post next week. 

Note: The above questions were published in my e-book Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.

photo credit: 178/365 – Don’t Be Blinded via photopin (license) (cash in hand photo)

2 thoughts on “20 Questions to Ask during a Sales Position Interview, Part 1

  1. These won’t work with everyone as some interviewers will take offense and will feel like you are “drilling them and being a smart ass” and this in turn will cause your application to go into limbo. You won’t officially be rejected until they find someone else, but at the same time they won’t be moving forward with you either.

    • Hi Mr. Goldstein. Good point. I agree. Because of time constraints and other factors, you are limited to how many questions you can ask an employer during the interview process. I would recommend that people pick and choose the best questions that are relevant to them in their job hunt, e.g., if you are concern about high turnover in the sales department, ask questions related to that topic, or if you want specific details on how accounts are allocated, ask questions related to that topic. Thank you for your comment. Don

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