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Sales Interviewing


Sales Interactions Are More Manageable If One Approaches Them As Two-Way Communication Processes.

By Thomas J. Roach

Memorizing and using a pitch is one-way communication. Interviewing the subject to learn about preferences, biases and needs, and then responding with a proposal that is uniquely phrased and adapted to the other party is a two-way communication process.

The only skill required for the sales pitch is memorization. The advantage of a memorized pitch is it allows a lot of people with limited communication skills to be trained and put to work selling a product or service. The drawback is that it doesn’t allow for adaptation, so it can only be effective with people whose profiles match what the author of the pitch had in mind.

No matter how friendly it is, arguing with a customer is also problematic. This is more interactive, but it turns the dialogue into a contest. Typically each party will use logic to advance an argument, but really it is emotions that are driving the discourse, and as it develops each party becomes more and more entrenched in his or her stated position.

Another Approach

Another kind of approach that has very limited potential is the pseudo interview. In this case one asks a series of leading questions and attempts to steer the other party to particular conclusion. This is like a bad movie script; everyone knows where it is going.

These methods are like alchemy; they try to create motivation. Real motivation isn’t created; it is discovered like gold. When one wants to affect perceptions or influence decision-making in a sales or negotiation situation, it is preferable to learn something about the other party before making a proposal.

The learn-before-you-pitch approach is essentially an interview with a proposal at the end. After a series of questions and answers the interviewer learns what motivates the interviewee and can articulate a proposal that meets the interviewee’s needs.

The sales interview is in some ways more difficult and in some ways easier than other kinds of interviews. It is difficult because it needs to focus on underlying needs or values, not on the product or service that is the subject of the interaction. This requires a series of open-ended accounting questions.

The Easy Part

The easy part is that the sales interview doesn’t have to start with a discussion of the product or service; the same values influence all of the interviewee’s actions, so talking about coaching little league may reveal attitudes about coworkers employees and customers.

The basic accounting question is why. It might seem rude to ask people why they said something, but most interviewees appreciate an opportunity to explain themselves and will provide deeper insights.

The interviewer listens for values that are consistent with the proposal. If the underlying value expressed is security, then the proposal is linked to security; if the value is safety, then the proposal emphasizes safety; if it’s profit, then profitability, etc.

A sales interview can be organized into six steps.

  1. The opening introduces the topic, but more importantly it should build rapport.
  2. The research phase probes for underlying values that might serve as motivators. 
  3. The interviewer tests what he or she is hearing by asking a couple summary probes: “so it sounds like you are mainly concerned about…” If correct, move on to step four. If not, repeat. 
  4. One establishes criteria. This can be a discussion of timing, quantity, quality, cost, etc. 
  5. The proposal is communicated by summing up what was learned in step four. 
  6. Closes the interview with more rapport building.

Interestingly, the memorized sales pitch and step five are the same action. The difference is that in the sales interview steps one through four have allowed the interviewer to adjust the proposal to the client.

Building rapport is extremely important. Unlike job interviewees the subjects in sales interviews have little or no interest in being interviewed. Exhibiting honesty and good will are the main ways to develop rapport and keep the interview flowing.

It might seem counterproductive, but a willingness to not make the sale or win the argument is one of the best ways to build rapport. Research indicates that we appear most trustworthy when we take a position against our own best interest.