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Winter 2003 Hiring Smart

It’s probably not news that choosing the right applicant from the pool of available talent is a tough challenge when you’re filling a sales slot. You want someone who not only has good selling skills, but also the ability to develop profitable long-term relationships with your customers. But how can you know that in advance? How can you assess those strengths and abilities in someone you’re meeting for the first time—particularly since they’re on their best behavior for you? Where do you start?

You might be tempted to hire a fortune teller (or one of those pre-employment testing outfits) to get to the hearts and minds of your applicants. Most retailers actually do the opposite: out of a sense of helplessness, they rely on gut instinct and perfunctory interviews, and hope for the best. Big mistake. “Some places are so desperate for people, they’ll take anyone who is breathing,” says Ian Jacobsen, president of Jacobsen Consulting Group (Sunnyvale, CA). But (paraphrasing the old quote about marriage), “if you hire in haste, you’ll repent at leisure,” he says. The path to the right people may be thick with brambles, but advice from some leading workplace consultants helps clear the way. By following their tips, you can build a team of employees who stimulate sales and attract new customers.


Pre-screening can be a life-saver. It helps you trim the number of people you interview so you can spend more time on the most promising ones. “You can identify [ineligible applicants] on the phone before they come in,” says Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics, a Houston-based consultancy. Start by deciding which characteristics you don’t want in an employee, he says, so that you can eliminate those applicants from the start. Ask questions that identify those characteristics, such as:

  • Do you have reliable transportation?
  • Which days and hours are you available for this job?
  • What days and hours do you prefer to work?
  • Which days and hours are out of the question for you?
  • What’s your minimum salary requirement?
  • Have you ever worked in retail sales before? (If yes, ask them to tell you more.)

You have a better chance of finding top talent if you can corral a larger number of candidates. The best way to broaden your recruiting efforts is to involve your current staff, says Rochelle Turoff, president of RJ Scott & Associates (Roswell, GA). “Make recruiting everyone’s job,” she says. “If you rally your people to find new employees, you won’t have to work so hard to attract talent.” Your staff will perform a valuable screening function by recommending dependable, honest people. Encourage employees to emphasize the value of non-financial benefits of working for you, such as flexible work hours, discounts, advancement opportunities, family-friendly policies and the like. And establish a reward system for employees whose referrals you hire, payable once the new hire has been in the job for a certain length of time, such as three or six months.

Personal qualities

Productive interviews include two types of questions. The first type assesses the applicant’s personal characteristics in light of what successful retail selling requires. The second assesses the applicant’s honesty and work ethic.

“Before you think about what makes the best hire, you need a clear idea of what it takes to be successful” selling in your particular retail environment, says Turoff. She suggests conducting a “job preview” by getting input from your best sales people first. Ask them questions like, “What are the personal qualities that make for sales success here?” and “If you were to pick our next sales person, what kind of person would it be?” This way, you’ll uncover vital characteristics that you can look for in the interviews. Most likely, your staff will emphasize the virtues of being personable and friendly, and the ability to engage customers in conversation easily. There’s more to “friendly and outgoing”: you also want to be careful to avoid the overzealous or hyperactive, which customers dislike in sales people. “I temper being friendly with having good judgment,” says Turoff.

How can you tell in the confines of an interview whether someone will be friendly and customer-centered on the job? Ask questions that get the applicants to open up and assess themselves, says Jacobsen, who suggests these open-ended questions as possibilities. If you have an applicant with no retail experience but seems strong nevertheless, you can adapt these questions to fit their experience.

  • Tell me about one or two sales people you think are outstanding. What makes them so good? How do you compare yourself with them?
  • In your performance reviews, what did your supervisor identify as your strengths? What areas were you asked to work on and improve? What progress did you make?
  • What feedback did you get from supervisors, co-workers and customers about you?
  • What sales training have you had? What were you able to use from it? What worked for you? What didn’t?
  • What’s really satisfying about retail sales for you? What bugs you about it?
  • (For someone not yet in sales) What do you find attractive about sales work? What leads you to believe that you would be good at it?
  • Describe a problem you resolved for a customer. What happened, what did you do to fix it, what were the results and the customer’s feelings toward you/the product/ the retailer?

Listening skills

Successful sales people have great listening skills. They focus on what customers say and repeat it back with phrases such as “OK, you want… ” and “It sounds like you’re looking for… ” These “restatements” stimulate customers to open up and describe what they need more fully, making it easier for the sales person to meet those needs—and make the sale.

“By listening well, good sales people make sure they really understand what customers want,” says Fred Martels, president of People Solution Strategies (Chesterfield, MO). “That creates value for your store. Customers have so many shopping options today. They don’t want to be ‘sold’—they want to buy what they want. So the more questions your sales staff asks, the better.” Martels suggests these statements to encourage applicants to assess their own listening skills. Ask them to respond to each one with “Very much,” “Some” or “Very little.”

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

As the applicant answers, note the level of eye contact, which is another important element in good communication.

Jacobsen suggests another way to assess these skills: “See if the applicant starts the conversation with a pitch about themselves and why they’re good sales people before [they ask you] more about your business and the position available,” he says. “Applicants with good communication skills try to get more information so they can present themselves creatively.” A good candidate will ask questions such as: “Tell me more about the opening and why you have a vacancy now.” According to Jacobsen, “the job application process is a selling one, and the behavior of each candidate is a live test of [his or her] ability to elicit information from the customer [in this case, you, the employer], and to listen well.”

Work ethic

Finally, you want to assess the applicant’s work ethic—how hard a worker he or she is. Kleiman suggests these questions:

  • Other than being sick, what might prevent you from being on time?
  • How often did you miss work for reasons other than being sick?
  • What do you think is a fair attendance policy is?
  • Have you ever been in a job where you handled cash?
  • If so, did the cash drawer ever come up short? Kleiman says, “If the answer is no, they may be lying.” (Dig a little deeper.) If yes, how was it resolved?
  • What if a friend wanted to buy something [here] and you have a 20 percent employee discount. Would you feel comfortable buying the item for your friend? (Kleiman says this question lets you “set the applicant in a situation requiring honesty, and assess the response.”)

As with everything else, planning for success can make a tremendous difference. “Some retailers really concentrate on getting good sales people,” says Jacobsen. “They go to great lengths to hire the best. Other retailers, figuring that just about anyone can sell, don’t take the time to interview properly.” Savvy retailers who plan and focus on what they need and want will attract employees who cultivate long-term customer relationships and rack up sales and profits. You can be among them by finding the best sales people for your business—and now you know where to start.

Phillip M. Perry

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

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