By Marty D. Blake, Chief Operating Officer, Optimé International Inc.
It used to be, that a salesperson would walk into a customer’s place of business – and tell them what they needed. The balance of power in that sales/customer relationship was based on knowledge. The seller had it – and the customer bought it. A salesperson could bring a product or service to a customer, introduce it as something brand new and do their best to influence them that their business needed it. This, fundamentally, is how selling was done. The balance of knowledge was on the seller’s side.
So… that has changed.
Listen. Analyze. Develop a solution.
Today, the balance has tipped. It is the customer that now has the knowledge. The knowledge of how their business operates and what its needs are. They also usually know what other solutions are out there for them, who sells them and how effective they are. That is why it is incumbent upon sales professionals to spend more time fully understanding their customers’ businesses and challenges before introducing a product or solution. Ideally, they will do as much research as they can before they even walk in the door. To be successful in today’s hyper competitive environment there is a premium on new skills and capabilities, we need to be able to analyze information and insights, have a deep understanding of our own business and capabilities (beyond just the products) and be able to translate and synthesize that using critical thinking into a solution that aligns with our customer’s unique needs and requirements. And what does that in a nutshell sound like? – The ability to solve problems quickly, efficiently and effectively, great sales people are extraordinary problem solvers. Those sales people who can demonstrate that skillset will be inherently more successful than those who can’t.
In our information-based, ‘insta-world’, this frequently needs to be done in real-time – sitting in front of the customer. They have to be on the ball and prepared – because sometimes, it’s their only chance to make the sale. At other times, and based on the relationship they might have with their customer, they have the opportunity to absorb what the customer is really saying – and explain that they need to take that learning back to the experts within their own company – so they can spend some time devising the right way to move forward with an ideal solution. Sales reps that have those opportunities more often than not, are the lucky ones.
Regardless of which scenario they are faced with – problem-solving and the ability to think critically, are capabilities that will set the top sales people apart from the pack. Sales leaders need to have their eyes wide open to this as they are recruiting and hiring team members, and they have to be able to interview and assess each candidate for these traits. For successful sales reps seeking a new challenge – it’s no longer enough to show up with a slick presentation and charm their way into a job. They need to be able to demonstrate their analytical and problem-solving skills during the process.
How to interview for critical thinking
1 – First, is the age-old behavioural interviewing technique of asking a candidate to describe an experience they have had in which they needed to solve for a problem a client had. And, if the candidate is a good talker, which face it, many sales candidates are – often the interviewer stops there – satisfied that they have done their due diligence. It’s the next level questioning that a hiring manager needs to take that separates those who can fake it from those that actually have the strong analytical capabilities required for the job. Questions like “tell me more about how that experience made you feel and where you felt pressure”, “tell me more about what the steps were that helped you overcome that” and “what was the end result of that situation.” You might even ask them “looking back on it – is there anything that you would do differently now, than you did previously” and “what were the things that you feel you would definitely do again.” This type of questioning will help give you a sense of their awareness of how they solve problems and what their thinking process was. It’s not even about what the problem was. You’re looking for how they approached it and if they in fact were the true critical thinkers in that situation – or had they relied on someone else in their organization.
2 – Try a case study. Give them a problem that you would like them to solve and give them the chance to work on it. You might give them the question in advance, or you might give them time during the interview to work on it. You want to make sure that the problem you posed to them is sufficiently difficult. When they come back to you with a solution, again, you aren’t really listening for the solution itself, you’re wanting to see how they approached the situation and their ability to strategically work through the steps of solving a problem. Remember in high school math? How the teacher always wanted you to show your work because the answer to the problem wasn’t enough? It’s the same thing here. There may not even be a viable solution – again – that’s not what you are looking for. You want to see their mind at work – and assess their ability to articulate their thought process in a meaningful way. And I’ll let you in on something – the best critical thinkers will ask more questions than you do. They will want to make sure that they understand all of the variables before making any suggestions.
3 – For crucial positions, leaders and executives or high profile sales roles, you’ll need more than just a list of critical thinking interview questions or case studies to establish if a candidate is a good fit for the role. Psychometric assessments can give you more insight into a candidate’s personality and capabilities. Past employment references are also an excellent tool to establish how a candidate has handled pressures in similar situations previously. Past behaviour can be a predictor of future behaviours but is not foolproof either. As people mature and environments change, so can their attitude and their aptitude in the workplace.
No matter how you decide to approach building your team with critical thinkers – it will be a significant step towards a more successful sales team if you do.
Check out www.optime.com to find more tools and tips to take your sales organization from good to outstanding.
Good luck and good selling!