The best sales interview question ever

posted: February 24, 2018

tl;dr: You’ll stump a good percentage of sales candidates by asking them this one question...

My most popular blog post so far (I think, I don’t actually do tracking) is: The best technical interview question ever. I’ve also interviewed many candidates for sales and marketing positions. At the risk of tipping off candidates in future interviews, I’m going to divulge the best interview question I’ve come up with for determining those sales candidates who are best able to think and behave in the most holistic manner, meaning they able to consider the constraints imposed upon them by reality and the company.

It a very simple question, just nine words: “Tell me how you say ‘no’ to a customer”.

With sales people this question runs absolutely counter to their training and perhaps all their prior behavior. Salespeople are supposed to say ‘yes’ to customer requests, right? The salesperson is supposed to be a customer advocate, to please the customer, to delight the customer, to form a long-term relationship with the customer, right? You don’t win any new business by saying ‘no’ to a customer, right?

Sometimes this is the reaction I get

The responses I get to this question are enlightening. A certain percentage of candidates will immediately get a dumbfounded expression on their faces and start stuttering as they attempt a response which is typically along the lines of “But salespeople never say ‘no’ to a customer.”

Salespeople often have good poker faces, and some have even developed acting abilities, so many are able to keep a straight face. Sometimes I’ll get a full explanation as to why a salesperson should never say ‘no’ to a customer, which usually is something along the lines of the salesperson needing to maintain his/her relationship with the customer and always being seen by the customer as taking the customer’s side. Sometimes this will become a lecture, as the salesperson tells me that “you’ve never been in Sales, you don’t know what it is like, so your question is ridiculous”.

A slightly better answer is when a candidate admits that sometimes the customer needs to be told ‘no’, as in “no, the company cannot deliver everything you want within that timeframe for free”. Some candidates will admit this but then hold fast to their position that salespeople cannot tell the customer ‘no’. They’ll tell me that if the customer needs to be told ‘no’, they will bring in someone else from the company as the bad guy to tell the customer ‘no’. This tells me that the salesperson does not like to deliver bad news, and will dodge the responsibility of doing so, which burdens others within the company. This is the most common response, and causes me to immediately calculate that the company needs to hire two people for the position: one to tell the customer ‘yes’, and another to tell the customer ‘no’.

The best candidates, in my humble opinion, are those who view the sales process as a negotiation, with give and take on both sides between the customer and the company. They can cite examples of difficult deals that they had to close which required prolonged negotiation.

Negotiation scares some people, as they view it simply as a zero sum game, so if the company gains something, the customer must lose something. That is usually not the case. In the best case negotiation allows the two sides to explore options across multiple variables and determine the best possible outcome which maximizes benefits to both sides (the proverbial “win-win”), where each side gives up something of small value to them but of high value to the other side. In a negotiation, sometimes the best option for either side is to walk away. The best candidates will be able to cite examples where they walked away from a deal that wasn’t going to happen, and focused their time and energies on better opportunities.

The question works best with sales candidates, but I also usually ask it when interviewing candidates for marketing positions. One marketing role in particular, that of product manager, often is the person back at the company whom the salespeople use to tell the customer ‘no’, so product manager candidates are usually well-acquainted with this situation.

If you want to put a sales candidate on the spot, ask him/her those nine simple words.