Interviewing Sellers for Adaptability: A Crucial Skill for Dynamic Sales Environments

Written by
Lucas Price
September 29, 2023
8 minutes

The sales landscape is anything but static. At its core, it’s about connecting with customers, solving their problems, and forging enduring relationships. While seasoned sales professionals from established companies often excel at following a well-trodden playbook, these tactics might not be as effective in a rapidly evolving, dynamic organization. What works in a structured corporate environment may not necessarily translate to success when you're tasked with adapting to the ever-shifting demands of the market.

Every sales opportunity presents its own unique set of challenges, customer needs, and market dynamics. This inherent variability makes adaptability an indispensable skill for sales candidates. It's not merely a bonus attribute but a foundational element that can determine an individual's ability to thrive in the sales landscape.

To succeed in a dynamic sales environment, candidates must be able to adapt to what customers are looking for. This becomes especially critical where big brand names and extensive marketing assets are absent, leaving sellers to set their own path to a closed deal. It’s at this point that adaptability becomes the secret sauce that separates the average sellers from the exceptional.

The challenge for businesses and hiring managers lies in discerning whether a particular candidate can thrive in a dynamic and growth-oriented environment. When each deal could be a little bit different, how can you tell if the candidate will be able to navigate through them all?

It starts with your interview process and developing questions that will help you target how adaptable the candidate is. Adaptability is a necessity, so it’s critical you ask the right questions during interviews.  

Using Behavioral Interview Questions to Identify Soft Skills

Failure to recognize and prioritize adaptability in sales hiring can have profound consequences for a sales team. Picture this scenario: a sales manager hires a candidate based solely on their prior success in a stable, unchanging sales environment. However, once onboarded, the new hire struggles to adapt to the fast-paced and evolving nature of the job. They become flustered when confronted with unpredictable customer demands, market fluctuations, or changes in the competitive landscape. 

Not only does this individual's inability to adapt hinder their own performance, but it can also have a ripple effect on the entire sales team. Morale may suffer, and opportunities may be lost, ultimately impacting revenue and market share. It underscores the critical importance of hiring adaptable candidates who can meet the specific nuances of each deal.

So, build your hiring process to be able to find those adaptable candidates. 

When hiring, it's clear that not all interview questions are created equal. The good news is that there are interviewing techniques and question types that fit particularly well when hiring for sales roles. This isn't just some trendy HR technique; it's backed by solid research, and it's particularly indispensable when it comes to the intricacies of recruiting for complex roles, such as sales.

In fact, research shows that behavioral interviews help predict future behavior, with 86% of hiring leaders significantly enhancing hiring accuracy, especially for roles that demand intricate skills and nuanced decision-making, like sales. These types of questions force candidates to get beyond rehearsed response and allow them (and hiring managers) to really understand how their past performance will predict future results. 

Here are some tips to help you produce quality behavioral interview questions.

“Tell Me About a Specific Time…”

Behavioral questions have a distinct formula. They often start with the phrase, "Tell me about a specific time when..." This formulation is a calculated strategy to elicit real, unvarnished responses. Why does it work so well? Because it invites candidates to reflect on their past experiences, draw from their own narrative, and provide concrete examples of their abilities and decision-making.

Steer Clear of Leading Questions

When crafting behavioral questions, it's essential not to telegraph the desired answer. For instance, instead of saying, "Tell me about a time you overcame a challenging situation," opt for the more neutral, "Tell me about a specific time you faced a challenging situation." This subtle shift avoids planting ideas in the candidate's mind, ensuring their response is a genuine reflection of their experiences and abilities.

Precision and Insight

Behavioral questions are your pathway to precision. Instead of relying on vague hypotheticals or general inquiries, these questions zoom in on the specifics by compelling candidates to recount real scenarios, discuss their actions, and reveal the results of those actions. Moreover, they open the door to understanding how candidates learn from their experiences and apply those lessons in their ongoing journey.

More Is Not Always Better

When interviewing candidates for competencies, including adaptability, focus on quality rather than quantity. Instead of bombarding them with a long list of questions, choose a few carefully crafted ones that align with the role's requirements. This approach allows you to go deep into each question, extracting valuable information and insights.

Adaptability-Specific Interview Questions

Behavioral interview questions in and of themselves aren’t going to help you find the exact right candidate every time. But when you use them as part of a structured hiring process, they can be a powerful tool in helping you identify sales leaders who will adapt in a dynamic marketplace. 

As part of the structured process, make sure you’re asking each candidate the same questions. Presenting the same questions to each candidate eliminates the potential for bias or unintentional discrimination in the hiring process. This consistency helps hiring managers avoid falling into the trap of favoring candidates who excel at answering particular questions or who simply present themselves in a more charismatic manner. By treating all candidates equally, organizations can ensure that the selection process is based on merit and alignment with the role's requirements, enhancing the chances of hiring the most qualified and adaptable sales professionals. 

Here are some tried-and-true, research-backed, and tested questions specific to adaptability that you can ask candidates:

  • Tell me about a specific time you faced many obstacles on an opportunity.
  • Tell me about a specific situation where your manager had unrealistic expectations on an opportunity or forecast.
  • Tell me about a specific time you were working on a deal that didn’t go according to plan.
  • Tell me about a time you worked on a deal with a complex buying organization.
  • Tell me about a specific time when you had your annual or quarterly goals changed mid-period.
  • Tell me about a specific time in your career that was especially difficult.
  • Tell me about a specific time when you didn’t have enough pipeline. 

Notice that these questions are open-ended and encourage the candidate to discuss their behavior and decisions in past scenarios. They don’t lead the potential hire to talk about successes or only discuss situations that they benefited from. These questions provide the starting point to allow a hiring manager and candidate to have a real discussion about how and why they performed in a specific way in past roles. This then allows hiring managers to get an idea of how the candidate could respond in other challenging situations they may face with your company.

But remember, the goal is quality over quantity; don’t ask all of these questions. Choose (and modify as needed) just a few that fit best for the role you are hiring for, and make sure you’re prepared with appropriate follow-up questions. 

The Art of Follow-Up Questions

Asking the right questions is just the beginning. To truly assess a candidate's adaptability, you need to be prepared with follow-up questions that can serve as the bridge between a candidate's initial response and a deeper understanding of their experiences, behaviors, and thought processes. 

Why do they make behavioral interview questions better? Simple - they unveil the nuances of a candidate's actions and decisions, offering a more comprehensive view of their competencies.

Imagine asking a candidate to describe a specific challenging situation they've faced. Their initial response might provide a surface-level overview, but it's the follow-up questions that truly enrich the narrative. They allow you to delve deeper, dissecting the specifics of the situation, probing into the candidate's thought process, and examining the actions they took. This level of detail is invaluable, as it not only reveals their problem-solving abilities but also their ability to reflect on their experiences and learn from them.

Here are some examples of questions you can ask after the initial response:

  • What were the specifics of the situation you just described?
  • Tell me more about the actions you took.
  • What were the results of those actions?
  • Have you applied any lessons learned from that situation since then?
  • How have you demonstrated adaptability in your subsequent experiences?

These follow-up questions transform a standard interview into a dialogue that uncovers the candidate's genuine qualities and potential for success in the role. 

The Art of Hiring Adaptable Sales Professionals

Adaptability is a fundamental competency that sales candidates must possess to excel in the modern business landscape. Hiring managers should prioritize identifying this key characteristic during interviews, as it can make or break the performance of an entire sales team.

In your quest to find adaptable sales professionals, pay close attention to a candidate's ability to navigate unpredictable sales scenarios. Look for signs of resourcefulness, a knack for thinking on their feet, and an openness to learning from challenging situations.

By asking the right behavioral questions and conducting thorough follow-up interviews, you can identify candidates who possess the adaptability required to thrive in your specific marketplace. Make sure you ask these same questions across all candidates so you can create a reliable benchmark for comparing candidates and making informed decisions that benefit both the organization and the individuals involved. 

So, gear up, prepare those questions, and get ready to build a team of sales superstars who can adapt and conquer in any situation.

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