When you’re a sales candidate booked for an initial phone interview with a VP of Sales, what’s your mindset?
Are you looking to “exchange some information”?
“Learn more about the opportunity”?
“See if there’s a fit?”
Or are you planning to WIN this interview?
December marks the end of my second year at the helm of Top 10 Sales Talent, and just like 2016, this year was filled with accomplishments, disappointments, and many, many learnings.
Nothing has surprised me more than how many Top 10 sales candidates fail to advance past their initial phone screen, which is almost always a 30-minute call with the hiring manager (VP of Sales / CRO).
As a long-time software sales candidate myself, I understand that interview processes are two-way streets – heck, the unemployment rate for A-Player software sales reps is roughly negative-10% right now. So the best candidates have plenty of options, and can negotiate from a position of power.
But my advice is this: WIN the initial interview, get yourself at the top of their candidate list, and really dig into the opportunity in subsequent interviews.
Over the last 24 months I’ve scheduled roughly 1,000 initial phone screens between a Top 10 client and candidate (about 10 a week X 100 weeks).
WAY too many legitimate Top 10 Percent sales performers don’t advance past this first interaction, and it’s often because they’re just not mentally prepared.
Here are the top 7 reasons candidates fail to advance from an initial phone interview – according to the VPs of Sales themselves.
These are listed in order of most common to least – I keep the receipts.
1. “Didn’t see the energy level I’m looking for.”
Great salespeople come in all shapes and sizes, and not all top performers are maniacs like Chris Varick or Blake.
But please, show some spirit in these interviews! Above all else, sales leaders are looking for these attributes: passion, energy, positivity, heart, optimism, vigor, confidence, wow factor. Drink your caffeine and bring the heat!
This is easily the No. 1 reason given for rejection – a lack of enthusiasm and energy on the phone.
2. “Had no idea what we do.”
Most salespeople dedicate 15-30 minutes of research time prior to an initial client call … why would an interview be any different?
* What does this company do?
* What type of clients buy their stuff? What titles?
* What general space are they in? Who are their competitors?
* Why do you think people buy it?
Remember, every interview is also a role-play. VPs of Sales observe your behavior on these calls, and assume you’ll have a similar approach to client interactions.
3. “Gave generic answers and had no examples.”
This is where many candidates are unprepared. The best answer to any sales interview question is almost always a narrative, if you have one that’s applicable.
So be prepared to discuss 2 or 3 or 4 specific deals. Pick large ACV and/or complex and/or interesting deals. Size of the company doesn’t matter as much.
* How did you generate the lead?
* Who did you engage with throughout the sales process? Specific names and titles lend credibility to the story.
* What obstacles did you overcome?
* What were the deal specifics (ACV, term)?
Imagine receiving this question: “So, would you consider yourself persistent?”
Here’s how many candidates answer this: “Oh absolutely. I’m the first into the office every day and the last to leave. I’m supposed to generate 8 net-new opportunities every month, and I’m averaging 9.5, and this is due to my persistence.”
And here’s a narrative-based example: “Oh yes, let me tell you about this crazy deal with Jack-In-The-Box. This client was using our No. 1 competitor, and Jane Doe, the VP of Marketing there, had already told 2 other reps at my company to stop calling her. I was certain that our solution was a great fit for JITB, so I scrapped our normal prospecting methodology and got super creative.
“First, I sent hand-written notes to 3 people at JITB who had never heard of my company or engaged with us. Second, I invited the naysayer VP to a lunch-and-learn, where she could network with some of her peers. This led to … “”
Which answer is more compelling?
4. “Droned on.”
These initial interviews are typically 30 minutes – maybe 45 – so be crisp, succinct, and direct in your delivery … while narratives are critical, getting long-winded can be the death of your candidacy. Practice these narratives ahead of time. You can often tell the same story in 90 seconds, 3 minutes … or 5 minutezzzzzz. It’s up to you to patrol your own pace.
5. “Doesn’t seem like a hunter.”
Be prepared to discuss your prospecting approach – both science and art. You will have a large territory … how will you organize your week and build up your pipeline?
Avoid talking about the SDRs at your current company, or at your prospective employer. Yes, we love SDRs, and hopefully they generate 25%+ of your monthly opportunities – but if you want to make $300k+, a vast majority of your closed deals will be self-generated.
If you have trouble describing a science-based lead-gen/prospecting methodology, a good VP of Sales will sniff this out.
6. “Couldn’t explain short stints or gaps in their work history.”
If you’ve had short tenures, they’re going to dig into them, period. So keep in mind:
- The best reasons for short tenures are usually related to abrupt changes within the company that were beyond your control.
- Do you have a detailed (yet crisp) narrative around your short tenure(s), and the changes that caused them?
- Can you share the name of a reference at that company who can corroborate your performance there, and the circumstances of your departure?
I wrote an article about how job hoppers can improve their chances here.
7. “Asked tactical questions rather than strategic.”
The first interaction is not the time for a deep dive into salary, commission plan, benefits, commuter reimbursement, and their pet policy. There should already be general alignment in these areas before even taking the call.
Again, first impressions matter, and your questions reflect your business acumen, critical thinking skills, creativity, and curiosity. Win the first interview!
Ask the hiring manager poignant questions about the state of their company, and about the leader him/herself:
- Why did you decide to join this company?
- What do the most successful new hires do in their first month here?
- What are some of the challenges or roadblocks I might come up against in this role?
- What is the biggest challenge the sales team has faced in the past year?
- What drives your customers to buy your solution? And why do some of them say no?
- What are some of the less tangible traits of successful people at this company?
- When you’ve seen sales reps struggle here, what has been the cause?
- Do you have any questions or concerns about my qualifications?
Finally, don’t forget to close for the next step, and send a follow-up email. I’ve seen many a candidate dropped for these reasons as well!
With a little preparation and solid game plan, you can win more first interviews, shoot up the rankings, and have a larger number of offers from which to choose.
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