Should you be a hero at work?

should you be a hero at work?The following are true stories –

A saleswoman works 60 plus hours a week for a small tech company for 10 years. The company goes out of business. Not only is she laid off, but she doesn’t receive any severance. No letter of recommendation. Goodbye.

A secretary, who works 40 hours a week, decides to  work for free every Saturday at a struggling small community newspaper company. She does this for nearly five years. The company goes out of business and she loses her job. No severance. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

A grant development manager at a 7-person nonprofit organization spends more than a year working tirelessly to obtain new grants and donations. In fact, she generates more revenue than her predecessor. But when she becomes pregnant and asks the board for paid maternity leave, they string her along for 6 months. Eventually, they only offer her three weeks paid maternity leave. Angry and shocked by their proposal, she quits her job. The board of directors is stunned by her decision, but they do nothing to persuade her to return. Instead, they post an employment ad to fill her position.

What do all three of these women have in common? They are heroes. They went beyond the call of duty for their employer. But in the end, their employers screwed them over.

Which brings me to my question – should you be a hero at work?

Yes, of course you should be professional. Yes, you should do the best job you can every day. And yes, show incentive by offering ideas and occasionally working late to complete urgent projects or close deals that could help your company.

But should you constantly work overtime without any guarantee of advancement or financial gain?

For example, the saleswoman who worked 60 hours plus per week may have been better off attending networking events, or expanding her contacts on LinkedIn rather than devoting all her time and energy for one employer.

The secretary who came to work every Saturday may have been better off using that time by taking courses to upgrade her skills and market herself better in the workplace.

should you be a hero at work?And the grant development manager should have been more forceful in getting an agreement on the length of her paid maternity rather than drag out the process for 6 months.

Here’s the problem with being a hero at work – they are usually taken advantage of by their employers.

Some employers don’t give a damn about your hard work or devotion. Some are completely clueless about what you are doing. And some may care but they don’t have the financial means to award you.

Heroes are very common in the sales professional. You come in early. You work your ass off late at night. You sometimes skip lunch. You make call after call, or do a string of online demos or meet clients. We do this because we want to earn a lot of money. That’s a given. But we also do it to gain recognition in hopes of advancing our careers at our jobs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but just make sure you understand the ground rules and office politics at your job before trying to be a hero.

If you don’t, you could end up a burnt out shell. Stunned and anxious, you end up wondering what happened when the office doors close because of a merger, reorg or acquisition that leaves you out in the cold. Or a new manager comes in, doesn’t like you, and decides to hire his friends to replace you and your team. Or the company suddenly tanks for financial reasons, and you don’t get paid when payday rolls around.

The signs are there, but you are so wrapped up with work that you fail to see them. You are so blinded trying to be the hero that you don’t see reality until it smacks you in the face. By then, it’s too late. Now you have to start finding a new job.

So rather than be a hero at work, why not be a hero to yourself? Focus on developing your own professional brand that can translate into more lucrative and awarding career moves. At work, they may tell you that “it’s not about me, it’s about we” – i.e., work is a team effort. That’s true. But just make sure you find a little “me time” for yourself.

Attend networking events. Take courses. Read books. Upgrade your skills. But don’t allow any employer to take advantage of you and treat you like dirt.

Heroes belong in comic books and in the movies. Not in the workplace.

Note: If you like my post, please check out my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.

Should you work in a High Turnover Sales Department?

high turnover in a sales department is like riding a roller coasterAfter months of job hunting, you finally landed what you think is a good sales job. No more interviews. No more sending out resumes. No more writing cover letters. No more attending network events. No siree Bob, you finally arrived and are now ready to start earning serious money and move on with your life.

But after working at your new job for a few months, you begin to see a pattern.

High turnover.

At first, you don’t notice it because you’re too busy learning about the products and services, getting to know your co-workers, and adjusting to your new work environment. Plus, you wanted to find out where the best coffee shops and fast food restaurants were located near your company.

But then, about every other week or so, you start reading emails that begin with “Joe Smith is no longer working at this company. He has moved on to other opportunities.”

And then you notice the guy who helped mentor you leave. And then the sales manager, who you thought was a good guy, is no longer coming to work. He’s been replaced by an outsider who is clueless about what your company is doing or what you’re selling. You see small groups of other salespeople meeting quietly, talking in whispers, and glancing over their shoulders to ensure no one is listening. The HR director is always meeting behind closed doors, and rarely makes eye contact when you walk by.

Employees come. Employees go. It’s a swinging door.

Congratulations. You have stumbled upon the classic high turnover sales department.

Now what?

Most salespeople stay where they have a good opportunity to earn a good living. But when there is high turnover among a sales staff, it’s usually a bad sign that something is wrong. Unlike most employees, the sales team is serving on the front lines. That means if something good or bad happens to a company, they are the first ones to feel the impact.

High turnover occurs for several reasons, including

1). The products or services are bad, or little improvement has been made in recent years. This could occur because the company isn’t reinvesting in product development, or there is too much infighting within the development team.

2). The compensation package is lousy. Every other month, you receive a new comp plan, or “adjustments” are repeatedly made.

3). Management is terrible, which usually turns into a serious morale problem. The managers could be incompetent, lazy, too demanding, etc. You get the picture.

4). The Marketing Department isn’t providing you with enough good or qualified leads. For example, inbound marketing is nonexistent, or the department is not effectively using social media to enhance better branding and name recognition. There could also be cutbacks in attending key trade show or other events.

4). The company isn’t doing a good job of hiring and qualifying candidates, or isn’t setting the right expectations about its sales positions.

To learn more about the causes of high turnover, please read the following articles –

“What Are the Causes of a High Turnover Rate of Sales Personnel?” by Chris Joseph, Demand Media
“10 Causes of High Sales Rep Turnover – Which One is Yours?” by Steve Loftness

Some companies may tell you that turnover occurs 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.

But is high turnover always a bad thing? Not necessarily.

High turnover may open up room for quick advancement, or a chance to grab some large accounts or good sales territories. Just be prepared for the stress and anxiety that may follow in a high-turnover situation. If you can ride the storm and come out ahead, more power to you.

sales woman on top of victoryI once knew a woman in sales who had worked for a small family-owned business that was struggling financially and had high turnover. In fact, the entire sales staff left except her. She was the last woman standing. The other salespeople who left the company were dumbfounded when she decided to stay on. To make a long story short, the business slowly turned around, and the owner made her the sales manager. He was grateful that she had stuck it out through the bad times. As you may now guess, as the company grew, she acquired most of the larger accounts, and earned commission based on both her own sales and those of her sales team. Financially speaking, she was on top of the world. All because the other sales reps left, she was able to take advantage of a very chaotic situation, and earn herself a good living for several years. (The company was later acquired by a large competitor and the entire sales team was laid off).

High turnover is not for the faint-hearted. But if you can endure the ride, you may turn chaos into your success.

If you want to take a gamble and find a company with high turnover, make a habit of reading the help-wanted ads about once or twice a month. Look under the “sales jobs” column. If you find a pattern of companies advertising for the same position repeatedly throughout the year, chances are you found a high-turnover company. You may also want to regularly read Glassdoor.com, which provides anonymous reviews of companies. If you read a lot of negative comments from salespeople, that’s usually a good sign of high turnover.

Once you found your high turnover sales department, enjoy the bumpy ride.

However, for most of us, a high turnover rate is too nerve-wracking to deal with. If you can’t stomach the pressure and anxiety, don’t waste your time. Move on.

Note: If you like my post, please check out my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.

Are you a sales lead squatter?

I recently read comments on a discussion board from a salesperson who complained that he and his team were being laid off partly because senior “lazy” salespeople were sitting on good leads for too long. In addition, another sales office might be shut down soon.

His argument was that if the senior salespeople cannot convert leads into sales by a certain time period, they should transfer those leads over to junior salespeople who may have a better chance of converting them. He further argued that junior salespeople are more hungry and motivated to close good leads because they don’t have large pipelines to cushion themselves when meeting quota.

Are you a sales lead squatter?Squatting on good leads has always been a touchy subject in sales. On the one hand, you want to be fair to salespeople and give them enough time to work the leads. Depending on the industry you are in, it can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to two years before you can convert a lead into an order.  On the other hand, if you suspect that a salesperson isn’t putting enough time and effort in working the lead, and you feel you could do better, what should you do?

While you can privately complain to others, the best approach is to discuss the issue with your sales manager. But you don’t want to appear greedy or bad mouth your colleague. Instead, you want to take a more “we need to work as a team” or “we need to do what’s right for the company” approach. Maybe offer some suggestions on how you would approach the non-responsive lead. Chances are, if your manager is smart, he probably is already aware that there may be a problem. But if you don’t complain, he may not move quickly to resolve the issue.

Why? Because most managers know how sensitive lead transfers can be. It takes a certain amount of deftness and diplomacy to remove leads from one salesperson to transfer them to others. I’ve seen fights and arguments break out on this very issue. In fact, I’ve seen salespeople quit on this very issue.

While this problem can be handled on a case-by-case basis, the best way to avoid sitting on good leads too long is to set some ground rules from the very beginning. This way everyone knows up front what is expected of them, and what benchmarks they need to achieve in order to keep their leads.

The ground rules could include the following –

1). Number of attempts – while I don’t believe that sales is a process or a numbers game, you would expect a salesperson to make anywhere from 6 to 8 attempts, i.e., phone calls, emails, voice mail and maybe even a customized direct marketing piece. Again, depending on the industry you are in, the attempts could stretch out for weeks, if not months, before a good lead is transferred to someone else, or goes into the dormant file for a while.

2). Has contact been made? – If after x-number of attempts and time goes by, the salesperson hasn’t reached the decision maker (or even knows who the decision maker is), then maybe it’s time to hand it off to someone else. In exchange, give the salesperson some other qualified leads to pursue.

3). Contact has been made, but you’re not getting anywhere – Let’s say the salesperson has made contact with the decision maker, but an order hasn’t been placed. For whatever reason, the decision maker isn’t budging, and no end appears in sight. The salesperson has been sitting on the lead for months (if not years). At this stage, it’s usually better to have the sales manager step in and work closely with the salesperson rather than yank the lead from him. Simply handing the lead off to someone else may undermine your efforts, and force your company to start from square one. Once your manager has reviewed the situation, he can better determine who and how the lead should be managed.

a helping hand in sales4). You know someone who could help – If a salesperson has been sitting on a good lead for a while, and you know of a contact who can help you reach the decision maker, what should you do? In that situation, it may be better to hand off the lead to you. Sometimes, the salesperson sitting on the lead may be grateful that you’re taking over, because it means he can focus on more productive leads. In addition, he may appreciate your efforts because he doesn’t want to look bad to his sales manager for not closing the sale. Sure, he may have some initial resentment towards you, but eventually he may see you as being his white knight rescuing him from a bad situation.

Besides laying out some ground rules, another approach to avoid lead squatting to is hold regular pipeline meetings to review leads and accounts. Usually, pipeline meetings are held once a week. Come to your pipeline prepared. Don’t be defensive. Tell your manager upfront if you are having problems with specific leads or accounts. Ask him for his advice – after all, he’s the manager!

If you know you’re not getting anywhere with a lead, and you’ve tried everything you can, recommend that the account be transferred to someone else. While some may consider this a show of weakness, in reality, most good managers will see this as a sign of strength and maturity on your part. Better to cut your losses early than let them linger on to have your competitors pluck your sale from the company.

Remember, your leads and accounts don’t belong to you. They belong to your employer. Like it or not, your employer sometimes needs to make unpopular decisions that may not appear to be in your best interest, but what is in the best interest of the company as a whole.

Better to hand off unproductive leads to others than lose your job because the company isn’t generating enough sales. Exercising good judgement is better than squatting.

Note: If you like my post, please read my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.

Top photo credit: Brighton housing action via photopin (license)

In Sales, when do you Fold ‘em and Quit?

Most of us are familiar with Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler”.

In one of his most famous lines in the song, the lyrics go like this –

“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

when do you quit in sales?Contrary to popular belief, the best professional poker players don’t bluff their way to winning with a bad hand. When they get a bad hand, they know it’s better to fold quickly, cut their losses, and wait for a better hand. Unless independently wealthy, they realize they only have so much money to gamble with, and they don’t want to lose by bluffing. Sure, sometimes they may get lucky. After all, it’s gambling. But the professional knows that in gambling, while it’s good to be lucky, it’s always better to have a winning hand.

But what do you do in sales when you are dealt a bad hand when assigned a sales territory or group of accounts?

It happens. You start a new job, or a new sales manager is hired, or there is an influx of new salespeople, or there is a reorg of your sales department, and suddenly, all those great territories or accounts disappear, and you are left with a losing hand.

Now what?

Before quitting, access your situation and see if you can turn your bad hand into a winning one.

Here are five things to consider –

1). Is your situation only temporary? If you are working in a start-up or a fast growing company that has a high turnover rate of salespeople, chances are if you are patient and can afford to wait, the tide may turn back in your favor when other salespeople quit and you are assigned their good accounts. Even professional poker players know that you have to play the waiting game before you win a large pot. So don’t bitch or complain. Smile. Be professional. Play the waiting game. So when the bodies start falling by the wayside, and everyone else is playing duck and cover, make sure you’re in a position to pick up the good accounts and run towards success.

2). Is your assigned territory or accounts really that bad? Just because the prior salesperson didn’t do well with his accounts, doesn’t mean you can’t turn things around. Sometimes a new salesperson coming in with a different approach or perspective is all it takes to turn bad accounts into good ones. Maybe the chemistry wasn’t right between the last salesperson and his accounts. Maybe the last salesperson didn’t make enough cold or prospecting calls. Maybe the last salesperson didn’t have a good understanding of the market or your company’s products or services. Maybe the last salesperson was just lazy and coasting in his job. Whatever the reason, don’t be so quick to judge your assigned territory before you had a chance to dig in, do some research and make sales calls. There may be diamonds in the rough that haven’t been found yet.

For example, I worked at a durable medical equipment company where a new salesperson was assigned the “garbage” accounts by a senior sales rep. The senior rep had enough on his plate, so he figured he didn’t have anything to lose by dumping his crappy accounts on the new guy.

Did the new guy cry? Hell no. He worked the accounts and ended up getting one of the largest orders in the company’s history from an account that everyone thought was dead. Furthermore, the new guy blew his quarterly quota out of the water, and ended up gaining the respect of his colleagues and the owner.

Garbage in is not always garbage out.

3). Do you have great support from your Marketing Department? Has your employer finally weeded out the deadwood and hired better marketing professionals? Are you seeing an uptick in social media activity on Twitter, Facebook and other sites? Is your Marketing Department publishing quality content on your company’s website to draw in more prospects? Are you seeing an increase in your company’s trade show attendance? Are you receiving a better list of prospects to contact? Maybe the real reason why the prior salesperson didn’t do well was because he didn’t have good support from his Marketing Department. If your employer is finally waking up to that fact, you should stick around and ripe the awards of their efforts.

I once worked for a small publishing company where the marketing director worked remotely out-of-state. While she had all of the  job skills, she was spending most of her time doing freelancing work for other companies. Frustrated and angry, my employer finally canned her and hired a new marketing director. After that, our marketing efforts slowly started to turn around. Like my colleagues, my sales began to pick up with a new marketing professional in place.

4). Is your employer introducing new products or services? OK, so your accounts are crappy. You’ve done everything you supposed to do, but you’re not getting anywhere. You’re getting the evil eye from your sales manager, and the cold shoulder from colleagues because they feel you’re a loser. But wait! If your employer is introducing new products or services, that could be the ticket to save you. If that’s the case, sit tight and see if your sales will increase.

5). When all else fails, talk to your sales manager. Contrary to popular belief, smart sales managers know that high turnover hurts their bottom line, and can badly affect their professional reputation too. Like you, sales manages want to make money. They don’t want to waste their time constantly hiring new fresh blood because sales people are quitting. If you have earned enough brownie points, proved that you are a reliable and hardworking professional who “gets it”, plea your case to your sales manager. Based on your evidence and other information, he may assign you some better territories or accounts.  It never hurts to ask.

Selling is like playing poker. You have to work with the cards you’re dealt with. Sure, you could fold ‘em and quit your job.  Just make sure your cards are not as bad as you think before hitting the pavement seeking other opportunities.

Note: Like my post? Please check out my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.

20 Questions to Ask during a Sales Position Interview, Part 2

This is part 2 of my post on questions to ask during a sales position interview.

sales cycleQuestion 11). What is the average sales cycle?

This question is important because it will tell you when you will start earning commission or bonuses. If a company has a long sales cycle, chances are it may be weeks or months before you earn any commission. If that’s the case, is the base salary high enough to sustain you until you receive your first commission check? I’ve worked in sales jobs where it can take up to two months to two years before companies make buying decisions. This is especially true when you are dealing with large corporations. Can you afford to wait that long before receiving a commission? Make sure you have a clear idea of how you are expected to build up your pipeline, and the time frame for achieving that goal.

customersQuestion 12). Who within those companies will I be selling to?   

The purpose behind this question it to determine the types of clients you will be expected to deal with. This will give you a sense of how comfortable you will be working with certain groups of prospects. If you have been selling mainly to small business owners, and are now expected to sell to C-Level officers who are more powerful and influential, can you handle that? Only you can answer that question, but at least you will have some idea what you are walking into.

In relation to this, you may want to find out which is the most profitable group of clients the company is selling to. Many companies sell to different market segments, and some do better than others. For example, if you are told that law firms are the most profitable, compared to the nonprofit organizations for which there’s a sales opening, is this a job you want to pursue? Now granted, maybe the compensation package is different to make up for the fact that you are selling to a less profitable group. If that’s the case, now would be a good time to find out.

hurdles of sellingQuestion 13). What are some of the common hurdles or challenges your sales team is facing right now?

Your goal is to find out what problems the sales team is facing and what management is doing about it. For example, if their competitors are kicking their butts, how is the company addressing that problem? If the sales team is spending thirty minutes or longer processing simple orders, is the company planning to streamline the order entry system?

who is your boss?Question 14). Who do I report to?

Chances are, one of the people doing the interview will be your sales manager. But beyond him or her, will you need to report to others? If yes, now would be a good time to find out.

I once worked for a sales manager who was extremely weak. He had the title, but not the backbone to do his job. I found out the hard way that the real boss was an outside consultant who burst into our office about once or twice a week. While our sales manager pretended to be the decision maker, it was the consultant who really called the shots.

And if you are lucky enough to be interviewed by the sales manager, now would be a good time to ask your prospective boss a few questions: Why did you decide to work for the company? How would you describe your management style? Can you give me a little background about your sales career? If you did your homework, you probably read the manager’s LinkedIn profile, but it wouldn’t hurt to show some interest in the career of someone you hope to work for.

A related question would be:

“What is my sales manager’s leadership style like?”

a successful saleswomanQuestion 15). What are you looking for in a salesperson?

This is good to ask early in the interview process, because it will signal what type of candidate they are trying to hire. Are they seeking a road warrior who will travel a great deal throughout the year? Are they seeking a cold caller who will be banging the phones all day? Are they seeking someone who has a consultative sales style, or a hunter who persistently seeks new leads and doesn’t take no for an answer?

Once you find what type of salesperson they are looking for, you can either tailor your answers to match their questions, or realize you made a mistake applying for the job, and politely walk away from the interview. My advice is to walk away if you’re not a good fit. In the short run, you may get the job, but in the long run you will be miserable trying to be someone you’re not.

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If you like this post, please read my book Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career for more help.
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resources for salespeopleQuestion 16). What resources do you have available to help salespeople accomplish their jobs?

Are they using the latest and greatest CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool to manage your accounts and sales, or are they still using Excel spreadsheets? Do they have an ample inventory of office supplies, or do you have to run to Staples or Office Depot every time you need new pens? If you are dealing with overseas clients, are there any restrictions on making long-distance phone calls?

I have worked at companies where I had to buy thank-you cards out of my own pocket. I’ve even bought my own pop-up Post-It notes because the company considered the product too expensive to buy and stock.

marketing teamQuestion 17). Can you describe to me what your Marketing Department is doing to help the sales team?

This question is important because it will give you good insight into how sophisticated the company’s marketing efforts are in generating leads for the sales team. Is the Marketing Department generating leads or are salespeople expected to generate most of their own? Are they following a good social media plan? Or better yet, do they have someone on staff devoted exclusively to maintaining the company’s social media? How well is the Marketing Department working to promote the company’s brand? Are they planning to attend a lot of trade shows?

In short, the better the Marketing Department is at helping you, the better you should do in sales.

Related questions would be:

“What type of marketing does the company do?”

“Is the marketing department helpful to the sales team?”

“How does the company obtain leads?”

competitionQuestion 18). Can you please tell me more about your competitors? Which ones are you most worried about?

Ideally, you did your homework and you already know who some of the competitors are. You may even want to impress the interviewer by mentioning a few during the interview. The purpose of this question is to get the potential employer’s perception of who his competitors are and the strength and weaknesses of the major ones you will do battle with. I actually had one owner who lied to me when I asked if his company had any competitors. I didn’t find out until after I accepted the job that I was facing at least four competitors in the market. So don’t make the same mistake I did. Do your homework.

Here are some related questions to ask:

“What are your competitors doing that your company is not doing?”

“What advantage does your sales team have over the competition?”

Don’t feel that you are offending your potential employer by asking these questions. You may have done your homework, and know some of the answers, but it’s better to hear it from the horse’s mouth. All companies face competition. Your goal is to get the potential employer’s spin about the competition and determine if their perceptions match reality. If not, don’t jump on their fantasy bandwagon. Go to another interview.

knowledge and information sharingQuestion 19). How is information shared among the sales staff and various groups within the company?

The purpose of this question is to determine whether you are working in a transparent or secretive company. This is important to you because it could determine how successful you are. Working in an open environment means you have access to what is going on in other departments. As a salesperson, it would be extremely helpful to know what the marketing and production teams are doing. In marketing, what new campaigns are they planning to release this year? Are they planning to obtain new leads? Are they planning more trade shows for you to attend? About production, what new products are they planning to release this year? Are any new enhancements or upgrades on this year’s roadmap? Are they planning to discontinue any products?

Working in a secretive environment is unhealthy and counterproductive. If you have no idea what other departments are doing, or where the company is heading, it’s going to be tough to sell confidently. You don’t want to be caught off guard or look foolish to your customers if a product is suddenly discontinued, or enhancements are made without any advance warning. You will benefit when you remain in the loop.

I actually worked at one small publishing company that would not internally announce any job openings. One day you walk in, and suddenly a new employee is sitting close by. At one of my previous jobs, a sales woman was shocked to find that another salesperson had been hired without her knowledge, and that her sales territories would be divided up.

The more secretive a company, the more difficult it is to share and offer suggestions. When ideas flow, a company grows. If there is little willingness for employees to collaborate and exchange ideas, your sales efforts could be crippled.

I have worked at both transparent and secretive companies. Transparent companies are more healthy places to work. People trust each other and are more willing to work together. Secretive companies tend to make people suspicious and wary of one another.

job interview for salesQuestion 20). If you were me, what would you do differently now that you didn’t do when you started working here?

Potential employers are always surprised when I ask this question. Apparently, it’s one of those questions that job candidates rarely ask. The purpose of the question is to gain insight on the mistakes your potential employer made so that you don’t follow in his footsteps. It also puts your potential employer in your shoes for a second by reminding him of what it was like to start a new job at his company.

The questions I’ve suggested above are not in any particular order. You don’t have to ask them all. Since most interviews are normally one hour-long, you probably won’t have time to ask most of them anyway. That’s OK. Just select which questions are most important for you and be prepared to ask them.

I would encourage you to create your own list of questions. However, I hope you get the point that you need to take responsibility for your career and financial future. Put your fear and anxiety aside and ask tough questions. I guarantee that most potential employers will respect you for it. This shows you have done your homework, you are prepared, and that you take sales seriously. That’s exactly the type of salesperson most companies are looking for.

Please let me know if you have any comments.

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

 

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)