This is part 2 of my post on questions to ask during a sales position interview.
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.
The purpose of this question is 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.
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?
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 on 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?”
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.
If you like this post, please read my book Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career for more help.
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.
This question is important because it will give you a 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?”
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 on the competition and determine if their perceptions match reality. If not, don’t jump on their fantasy bandwagon. Go to another interview.
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 to 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 saleswoman 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 with 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.
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 into 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 to 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.