Interviewing and assessing sales talent is super hard. I've literally interviewed thousands of sales people and sales executives and I still struggle with separating the great ones from the rest of the pack. One technique that I find very helpful is role playing. For me its the absolute best way to get a preview of what the candidate will actually be like once they are in the job.
In this post my goal is to break down a fairly simple method for any hiring committee to implement role playing as a part of their interview and assessment process. The method that I outline below assumes that you have a pool of candidates that you are interested in and that also want the job.
Cull the herd
The first thing you'll want to do is reduce the number of candidates down to 3-5. It is just way too time consuming to use role playing on a group any larger. I suggest that you define a very clear set of skills and experience that you are looking for and measure all of the candidates the same way against that defined criteria. Nominate two people from your hiring committee to do the first pass on all candidates and only do role playing with those that get an endorsement from both of the interviewers.
The set up
Now that you have 3-5 solid candidates this is when role playing can be very effective. To start tell all the candidates that the next step of the interview process will require them to meet several people on your team and they should book approximately 90 minutes of time. Do not let them know that there will be role playing or a presentation of any kind.
When the candidate arrives at your office, let them know that you'd like to walk through a mach selling scenario. A good way to set this up is to use a client that you have already closed and make that client the subject of the scenario. Let the candidate know that you will be breaking the exercise up into two parts. The first part will be a discovery session where they can literally ask any questions they want. The discovery session will last 40 minutes and you will play the role of the client and the candidate will play the role of the sales executive.
After the discovery session give the candidate 15 minutes to prepare a presentation or an agenda for a second meeting. Let them know that they can use part 2 of the role playing to pitch to anyone of their choosing at the target company. The candidate should make the choice of who they want to meet with based on what they learned in the discovery session.
Part 2 of the role playing will be the candidate pitching a solution of their choice to the audience they selected after part 1. There should be a time limit of 20 minutes on part 2 and its totally fine if the candidate does not use the full amount of time.
Why this works
The above scenario forces the candidate into an actual selling situation and also provides you with a preview of what the experience will feel like for your prospects and customers. Additionally its a great way to measure the following:
During the discovery phase of a sale its very typical for the sales executive to come with a list of questions that they want answers to. Its not uncommon for them to gloss over the actual answers and jump right into the next question. As the client you have the opportunity to test for this. Here is an example of how this can frequently play out:
Sales Rep: What makes you different from your competitors?
Client (you): There are three things that make us unique. Our attention to quality and our amazing customer service.
From here its very common for the rep to move on to the next question thinking that they've checked off the unique differentiator question box. As the client you are hoping that they respond with 'what is the third thing that makes you unique?' I suggest you use a similar approach of partial or abbreviated answers to see if the rep is actually paying attention, synthesizing your answers and truly understanding. Or are they merely going through a list of questions. The best reps use discovery as a way to understand and they ask questions until they do. When selling, the best insights typically come from the follow up questions, not the pre-planned questions so you should also be looking for candidates that are clarifying your answer and giving you feedback that they understand.
It should feel like a conversation
Executives hate to be sold to... but they have lots of time for someone that seems like they can help them solve a problem. The above role playing scenario will quickly show you if your candidate can carry an executive level conversation, or whether it feels like a trip to the dentist for an extraction. When it feels like a conversation its OK for you as the client in the role play to open up more and share more details about your business.
Use of insights
One very effective way to tease critical business info out of executives is with the use of insights. For example, if I let you know that 45% of our clients don't actually have any idea what the cost of a lead is, its a lot easier for you to say 'actually I have no idea how much lead costs'. The good candidates will use insights in the role playing to make it easier for you to trust them and to open up about your own scenario.
Narrow vs broad questions
As the person playing the role of the client you should tune into why the rep is asking the questions they are. Its very typical for reps to ask specific questions with the goal of boxing you into a feature they have or a benefit of their solution. This is really F***ing annoying for clients. The rep should be asking to actually learn about what you are trying to accomplish, what's in it for you if you accomplish it, what happens if you don't accomplish it etc. Its 'OK' to ask specific questions but it should be follow on to a more broad question. Additionally the narrow questions should be used to better understand your pain or opportunity. The best reps make you feel like they are sharing your pain and that they are part of your team and motivated by the same outcomes as you. There is a ton of data that shows that reps that score high on empathy out perform those that don't. Role playing is a great way to test for this.
The actual pitch
The pitch portion of the role playing is also very revealing. You will quickly be able to see if they were paying attention to your answers during discovery. Additionally you will get a sense of the kind of language and story telling the rep uses to portray their value prop. In my opinion the good pitches should have the following characteristics.
- Review of the pain / opportunity discussed in discovery
- The implications if the pain is not addressed
- The use of some kind of insight to show you that you are not alone
- A story about a similar client that was in a similar situation
- It should be a conversation - even though its a pitch the rep should seek your input and feedback frequently
- It should feel like they are an expert at the problem
- They should attempt to close on something (even if its just another meeting).
- It should not go over time
Typically the above process is very effective at making it really obvious who NOT to hire. Don't be worried that this is too onerous or hard or that it may turn off high quality candidates. In my experience the really great sales pros love this approach as they view it as an opportunity to peacock and flex their sales muscles.
I hope that it helps you with you with your next sales hire and I'd love to hear feedback or suggested refinements to the process once you have implemented it.