Which senior salesperson has not attended an interview only to be asked a variation of the “do you have contacts/do you know anyone in industry X/at company Y?”
It is a common interview question for candidates for sales positions. The hiring manager wants to know whether the candidate for the open sales position is going to be able to do what he or she is being hired to do, which is maintain and expand the business, and preferably to do so rapidly. In that context it makes sense to ask the question with a genuine interest in the answer. After all, companies and their sales managers likely see a salesperson who starts there and soon books business as something akin to a birthday present.
While the question makes sense for the short term, the answer for employers is more complicated in the medium and long term. Studies show that the best marker of a salesperson’s success is nothing more complicated than (a) hard work. Aside from that, what will create a winning condition for the salesperson and the company is going to be (b) having a proven sales process that includes alignment of goods and services with the buyers’ stated or latent needs or pains. This includes studying and understanding the account base’s needs and verticals. Moreover, (c) the company’s sales enablement will play a critical role in the success or failure of the sales process.
Even in the short term any buyer is unlikely to purchase something just because he or she is on the seller’s rolodex. Again, the question is valid. Also again, assuming a salesperson A is better than salesperson B because A knows someone and B does not is short-sighted. Sales leaders should look at the salesperson’s knowledge and commitment to the aforementioned (a), (b) and (c) first and foremost.
As an aside, a few sales leaders may identify with me when I recall seeing sales candidates being emphatic and positive during their interview regarding the many contacts they possesses. The thing is that while it is very likely true, it sometimes is not. It goes without saying that a candidate should never fabricate answers at an interview. It is clear why this is done on the hopefully very rare occasion, but it is important that honesty and integrity be the hallmarks of an interviewer and interviewee. A salesperson joins a company and the contacts do not materialize and everybody feels disappointed. It does not have to be. As said, the name dropping and close contacts are not leading indicators of success to begin with.
The last time I was interviewed for an individual contributor role I was subsequently given a surprise vertical and account base and did well bringing in large enterprises as customers without knowing anyone there to start. We have all met sales folk who knew everyone and everybody and things were not going smoothly for them. These are not blanket statements of course, but rather cautionary tales in the world of sales. As a sales manager one has to be sympathetic to the needs of the company and the sales team.
With that said, what should candidates do when faced with the question? After all, senior sales candidates who are asked who they know and how many contacts they bring with them may feel the same way a new or junior salesperson at the dawn of his or her career feels when every job requires a minimum three years of selling experience.
The answer firstly is to rationally explain that the candidate believes in and practices the aforementioned qualities of hard work, implementing a sales process and leveraging the sales enablement processes at their disposals. That is not enough however. Candidates should not stop there. They should proceed with citing examples yielding success based on their personal work experience and additionally delving into how their methodology works, how they will apply it and within which time frame. The salesperson has to explain to the interviewer’s satisfaction how a lack of contacts will be overcome. It is the job of the salesperson to persuade the interviewers that he or she can successfully get around the lack of a ready network. The salesperson has to ‘sell’ a methodology for messaging, prospecting, closing and keeping customers at the interview.
So what is your strategy?
*Things That Need to go away: Enterprise sales with an exclusive focus on the very short term only