Summer 2004
Hiring for the Sales Floor

Finding and choosing the right person to work for you is a tough challenge. It’s particularly tough when you’re hiring someone to sell for you in your cart or store. Obviously you want someone with the skills and personality to develop profitable relationships with your customers. Someone who will work “for” you—not just taking orders and direction, but working toward your goals for your retail business.

But how do you assess those capabilities in someone you’re meeting for the first time? Especially when they’re bent on creating a favorable image? Sounds like you need to be a mind-reader. No wonder many retailers throw up their hands, rely on gut instinct and perfunctory interviews to fill staff openings, and hope for the best. Big mistake. “Some places are so desperate for people, they’ll take anyone who’s breathing,” says Ian Jacobsen, president of Jacobsen Consulting Group. “But if you hire in haste, you’ll repent at leisure.”

Here’s some advice from leading workplace consultants to build a team of staffers who will stimulate sales and attract new and repeat customers.

Finding them

Get your current staff to help you find potential new sales employees. You want as many applicants as you can find, because the larger the pool of candidates, the better your chance of finding great talent. The best way is to involve your current staff, says Rochelle Turoff, president of RJ Scott & Associates, a consulting group. “Make everyone’s job recruiting,” she says. Your staff will perform a valuable screening function by recommending people who meet your needs. Also encourage them to emphasize the pluses of working for you, including any valuable non-financial benefits such as flexible schedules, advancement opportunities, and child-friendly policies.

To get the staff motivated, create a reward system for those who bring in
talent you hire, and make it so that you pay the reward once that new hire stays for a certain period of time (60 days, or three months, or to the end of the season; you can even specify the date, if you’re seasonal).

Pre-screening

Spend more time on the most promising candidates by pre-screening to trim the number of people you interview. Pre-screening can be a life saver. “You can identify your ‘kick-outs’ on the phone” first, says Mel Kleiman, president of the consulting firm Humetrics. “Start by asking yourself what characteristics would eliminate people from the available job.” Then on the phone, ask questions that identify those characteristics. Kleiman offers these examples of “kick-out” questions:

  • Do you have reliable transportation?
  • What shifts are you available to work?
  • What work hours do you prefer?
  • What hours can’t you work?
  • What minimum salary do you need?
  • Have you ever worked in retail sales?

Interview Qs

Successful interviews include two types of questions. The first type assesses personal characteristics for sales success. The second type assesses honesty and work ethic.

“You need a clear idea of what it takes to be successful on the job and selling in your particular store environment,” says Turoff. She suggests conducting a “job preview” by getting input from your staff. “Ask your best sales people, ‘What are the personal qualities that make for success at our store? If you were to pick our next sales person, what kind of individual would it be?'”

This way, you’ll discover vital characteristics you can test for in the interviews. Most likely, your staff will emphasize being personable, friendly, and able to engage people in conversation. These are important—within reason. “I temper being friendly with having good judgment,” says Turoff. “Most customers don’t like overzealous people.”

So how can you tell if someone will be friendly and customer-centered in the formal confines of a job interview? Ask questions that get them to open up and assess themselves, says Jacobsen, questions like these:

  • Tell me about one or two sales people you believe are outstanding, and what makes them so good.
  • How do you compare yourself with them?
  • In your past reviews, what did your supervisors identify as your strengths? Areas to work on? What progress did you make?
  • What feedback did you get from your co-workers about working with you?
  • Describe the sales training you’ve had. What should it have covered but didn’t?
  • What do you find really satisfying about sales? What bugs you about sales?
  • Describe a successful interaction you had with a customer.
  • Did you have repeat sales? What did you do to get customers to come back?
  • For someone not yet in sales: What do you find attractive about sales? Why do you think you’ll be good at it?

These are all “open ended” questions: they force the applicant to open up and expand their responses instead of giving a simple yes or no. By answering open-ended questions, applicants are bound to reveal their sales aptitude and critical attitudes towards customers.

Can we talk?

Successful sales people have great communication skills—listening and talking well. The good ones repeat what customers say with “transitional” phrases like “OK, you’re saying you need… ,” or “Sounds like you’re interested in… ” Restatements like this get customers to open up and describe their needs more fully. And that lets the salesperson meet that customer’s need with your product.

“By listening well, good sales people make sure they really understand what customers want,” says Fred Martels, president of People Solution Strategies. “That creates value for your store. Customers have so many shopping options today [that] they don’t want to be sold—they want to buy,” he says. “So the more questions your sales staff asks, the better off your store will be.”

How can you assess the applicant’s listening skills? Martels suggests having them read the following statements and respond to each one with “Very little,” “Some,” or “A lot.” While the candidate answers, notice the degree of eye contact, another important facet of good communication.

  • I remember the main points about what I hear.
  • I wait to hear the speaker’s whole message before answering.
  • I don’t jump to conclusions.
  • I don’t argue.

Jacobsen has another way to assess communication skills: “See if the applicant starts the conversation with a pitch about themselves and why they’re good sales people—before [they learn] more about your business and the position available.” He says that applicants with good communication skills “try to get more information so they can present themselves creatively.” A good candidate will ask questions like, “Tell me more about the job and why it’s open.”

“The job application process is a selling one,” he says, and the way the candidate handles it is “a live test of their ability to elicit information from the customer [in this case, you, the employer], and to listen well.”

Work ethic

Finally, you want to ask questions to assess the candidate’s work ethic. Kleiman suggests these as examples:

  • What might make you late for work?
  • How many times did you miss work for reasons other than being sick?
  • What do you think is a fair attendance policy?
  • Have you been in a cash-handling job before?
  • If so, did the drawer ever come up short? (If they say no, they may be lying, says Kleiman.)
  • What if a friend wanted to buy something and knows you get an employee discount. How do you feel about buying the item for him with your discount? (“You want to put the applicant in a situation requiring honesty,” says Kleiman.)

Winners

Planning for hiring success—”informed hiring”—can mean the difference between success and disaster. Some retailers, “figuring that just about anyone can sell, don’t take the time to interview properly,” says Jacobsen. But “some retailers really concentrate on getting good sales people. They go to great lengths to hire the best.” They’re the winners in the hiring game.

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.
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