9 Simple Ways to Avoid Failed Sales Hires

Written by
Lucas Price
April 10, 2024
A person in the dark with glowing pink and blue lights illuminating the outline of them holding up their hand to signal stop.

The stats for sales hiring and related processes are sobering. Over 46% of new sales hires fail. The opportunity cost of a failed sales hire is consequential, at around 70% or higher of their annual quota. And the most predictive parts of the hiring process—the interviews—aren’t used to their full capability. Left to their own devices, the average interviewer is generally only slightly better than flipping a coin. Things like questionnaires and assessments are usually only additive to their hiring process, and are certainly not as effective as interviews. 


So, what’s a sales hiring manager to do? How do you ensure you’re making the right choice when it comes to bringing new people on your team? Are you simply doomed to fail?

Fortunately, there are nine simple steps you can take to drastically improve the odds of finding the right hire. And taking those steps means better results in your hiring process, which is exactly what you’re looking for. 

1. Skip the Hypothetical Questions

The very first thing to do is to cut the hypothetical questions. These questions often come in the form of, “Tell me what you would do if you were faced with [insert sales scenario here].” The assumption is that these questions will produce answers that tell you how a candidate flexes their problem-solving muscles. 

Interviewers often get into the trap of using these questions because they appear to be easy to evaluate at first. They show you how a candidate breaks down information and tackles a given problem. But really, they just tell you how good at answering questions the candidate is.

Are you hiring someone to excel at sales or answer questions? Clearly, it’s the former but hypothetical questions only give you information about the latter. They’re really only marginally effective at showing whether the candidate will effectively solve your challenges. Sure, they might tell you a bit about the candidate’s intelligence but you’re really looking for information about their performance on the job. 

So, if you want to know more than if your candidate is book smart, it’s time to use a different approach to interview questions. 

2. Get Specific with Behavioral Questions

If hypothetical questions don’t help avoid failed sales hires, what kind of questions should you ask instead? Behavioral questions will help you evaluate a candidate’s ability to perform sales-specific tasks. These questions are usually presented as, “Tell me about a specific time you faced [insert problem candidate is likely to face in the role you’re hiring for].”

Behavioral questions are different from hypothetical questions in that they aren’t just focused on giving the right answer. Candidates can’t just come up with a hypothetical solution that sounds good. Instead, candidates must share answers about their past behavior and performance.

That’s what makes behavioral questions so effective: information about past behavior and performance helps to predict future behavior. No wonder 86% of hiring managers significantly enhance hiring accuracy when using behavioral questions in the interview process. 

The specificity of behavioral questions also makes a difference. Hypothetical questions are vague, which makes it easier to evaluate them on the surface. The problem here is that the lack of specificity doesn’t produce any valuable information about performance. 

As you formulate behavioral questions for your sales role, lean on specificity with questions such as:

  • Tell me about a time you had an opportunity that took many unexpected turns.
  • Tell me about a time you had an opportunity into a very complex buying organization.
  • Tell me about a time you had an opportunity you knew you couldn’t win without changing the buying criteria.

There’s something else to note about effective behavioral questions other than the specificity. They don’t accidentally give away the answer in the question. Here’s an example of doing so: “Tell me about a specific time when you overcame a challenge at work.” Instead, try saying, “Tell me about a specific time you faced a challenge at work.” 

Finally, less is more when it comes to these questions. Focus on specificity and precision — in other words, quality over quantity. Ask a few questions that give the candidate time to expand on past behavior and experience. Leave 10 to 15 minutes for each question you ask. So, for an hour-long interview, ask three to five questions, max.

3. Standardize Your Questions

As you build out your behavioral questions, make sure you’re asking the same questions to each candidate. We tell ourselves we can compare candidates accurately when we’ve had conversations on different topics with each, but this is a cognitive bias. People are much better at comparing and evaluating candidates when there is some standardization to the process. When you ask different questions, you end up just relying primarily on a gut feeling about who will be the best candidate. 

Throughout the interview process across candidates, you should definitely lean on using variation in follow up questions to have a full discussion about each topic. You don’t want a rote “question and answer” experience that avoids meaningful discussions. However, keeping the core set of questions the same for each candidate ensures you can compare candidates accurately.

4. Prepare for Follow-Up

Next, make sure you have follow-up questions at the ready as well as an idea of what you’re looking for from each answer. Making the effort to prepare on the front end creates a better candidate experience and demonstrates that your hiring process is rigorous and repeatable. Quality candidates will expect follow-up questions so don’t be shy about asking.

Follow-up questions also allow you to again evaluate candidates more effectively. You can dive deeper into answers, ask for more specific examples, and get a better understanding of a candidate’s capabilities by going beyond the surface. 

5. Leave Time for the Candidate’s Questions

As you prepare your own questions, leave time for the candidate to ask questions. Well-prepared candidates will have things they want to know about the role and your organization. It’s wise to leave at least 10 minutes for these questions at the end of the interview.

This is a good opportunity to evaluate their suitability for the role further and gauge their interest in the position. A candidate who has nothing to ask may not be as invested in the role at hand as a candidate who comes prepared. 

6. Yes to Notes; No to Judgements

There’s a bit of a technique when taking notes during the hiring process. The key is to focus on taking notes, not making judgments. If the candidate feels your judgment, they are likely to clam up and you may not get the information you need to make a great hiring decision. You want to capture what the candidate says during the interview. That way, you can use these notes to refresh your memory later as you assess candidates. 

So, do take notes on their answers; don’t make judgments or assumptions. And don’t strike out a candidate based on one not-so-great answer. Instead, focus on their overall performance in the interview and qualifications. That way you’re evaluating the bigger picture.

7. Evaluate through Mock Scenarios and Role-Playing

Work samples are essential for the sales interview process. Role-playing mock sales scenarios is the most effective option and one of the best predictors of future performance. They can help you predict as much as 29% of the candidate’s future success in the role

As you develop your interview process, include mock scenarios. Some examples of role plays for sales include:

  • Mock cold call: These mock scenarios are a good choice for roles with prospecting. They can help you assess the candidate’s ability to cold call and assist in weeding out candidates who are not interested in making these calls. They’re also useful for gauging openness to coaching and adaptability.

  • Mock discovery call: Mock discovery calls are useful for evaluating candidates who are in positions that rely on understanding customer needs. Instead of using a mock demo tailored to customer needs, mock discovery calls can uncover how well candidates can uncover prospect pain points. They also give candidates a chance to demonstrate their knowledge about how your company provides solutions to those pain points.

  • Mock negotiation: Mock negotiations work well for evaluating candidates who engage at later stages in the sales process. Use these scenarios to evaluate emotional intelligence, ability to work under pressure, and adapt in real time.

8. Use a Scorecard

How do you stay objective during candidate evaluations? An interview scorecard can help. This tool encourages interviewers to think systematically about each candidate. Key elements of interview scorecards include:

  • The goals of the position
  • Your company’s cultural competencies
  • Competencies specific to the role 

Interviewers often fall into the trap of evaluating candidates based on how much they like them. Some people are likable but not prepared for the job. Other people might be more reserved but have the qualifications and past experience to succeed in the role. Lean on interview scorecards to get everyone on the same page about what should be evaluated. Hiring managers can use interview scorecards to assess trends in ratings from interviews as well. 

9. Debrief Individually and as a Group

Gathering feedback doesn’t just end with the interview scorecard. You can get feedback from stakeholders at both the individual and formal levels. For individual written debriefs, have stakeholders write down their assessments and initial impressions. This helps to gather information while it’s still fresh. It also improves independent opinions because interviewers can express their impressions freely without outside influence. 

A formal debrief provides an opportunity for stakeholders to share impressions together in an organized fashion. For best results, have the most junior stakeholder share their assessments first. Then, move on in seniority until you get to the most senior stakeholder last. That way, the person with the most influence does not sway the opinions of others. Your stakeholders will have an opportunity to align on next steps without falling prey to groupthink. 

The key behind each of these nine steps is that they create a structured hiring process. This is the secret to getting consistent evaluations, which helps to increase objectivity, reduce bias, and yields foster impartial decision-making. The result? A better selection of candidates and hiring outcomes. Organizations have the structured process they need to select candidates based on their demonstrated ability to fulfill the role's key competencies.

Spot A-players early by building a systematic interview process today.

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