Change the World: Treat the Interview as a Sales Call

Most employment interviews are a waste of time. Candidates think they’re about correctly answering the interviewer’s questions and interviewers think they’re designed to figure out if the candidate meets the requirements listed in the job description. They’re not.

Google just found out after exhaustive research that brainteasers don’t predict on-the-job performance. (To be a bit cynical here, this is not new news. I read about this classic problem in the mid-1990s doing research for my first book.) The bigger news at Google is that they found that very few of their hiring managers have a good track record using the interview for predicting on-the-job success. Google’s revelation is not uncommon.

Given that the common and traditional interview is flawed, including the vaunted behavioral interview (see below), what is a job-seeker, hiring manager, recruiter or anyone on the interviewing team to do? I suggest all parties take a page from any well-trained sales department and convert the employment interview into a discovery call. Here’’s blog describing this core activity. In essence, the idea is to use the sales call to find out the customer’s needs and then craft a solution that demonstrates your product is a perfect fit. Whatever side of the desk you’re on, this is what interviewing should be about.

During the interview the buyer and seller roles often switch, so conducting parallel discovery can become a bit unnerving – similar to dating. Regardless, here are the basic steps.

The Discovery Process for the Job-seeker

Step 1: Find out what’s being sold. Don’t assume the person interviewing you is competent. If the interviewer is either box-checking skills, asking pointless questions, or asking brainteasers, begin your discovery right away. This starts by asking questions at the beginning of the interview to uncover real job needs. Here are some questions that will get you started:

  • What’s the focus of the job?
  • What are some big problems or issues the person will face right away?
  • How will performance be measured?
  • Are there any team related challenges?
  • Why is the position open?

Step 2: Prove you’re the solution. Once you have some understanding of the job, you’ll then need to describe some past accomplishment that demonstrates you’re capable of doing the work required. Use the SAFW two-minute response to form your answers. This involves providing a 1-2 minute overview of a major past accomplishment with just enough details to naturally prompt the interviewer to ask some clarifying follow-up questions. You’ll need to do this for at least 2-3 of the most important aspects of the job during the interview in order to “win the sale.”

Step 3: At the end of the interview ask for the order, or at least find out the next steps. Something like, “Based on what we’ve discussed, do you think my background is a good fit for the position? (Pause) What are the next steps in the process?” If you are a good fit for the job, the interviewer will be specific about the next steps. A vague response is not a good sign.

The Discovery Process for the Interviewer

Step 1: Be different. Don’t ask behavioral questions since all candidates have practiced answering these. (Here’s Google’s multi-million answers.)

Step 2: Figure out what you’re selling. Start by making sure everyone on the hiring team is familiar with the performance-based job description listing the top 4-5 performance objectives required for on-the-job success. Interviewing accuracy is dramatically improved when everyone knows what they’re evaluating.

Step 3: Early in the interview find out why the candidate is looking for another job, most likely it’s something involving economic need or lack of sufficient career growth. You’ll use the balance of the interview to determine if your position meets these needs. This will be essential for negotiating the offer, especially if the person is a passive candidate and/or has multiple opportunities.

Step 4: Validate what you’re buying. Use The Most Important Interview Question of All Timeand the associated fact-finding questions to find out if the candidate is competent and motivated to do the actual work required. This involves describing one of the performance objectives and then asking the candidate to describe a comparable accomplishment. You’ll need to do this for the 3-4 most important performance objectives to make an accurate assessment. From this you’ll be able to determine if the gap between what you’re offering and what the candidate has done is a career move, a lateral transfer or something below or beyond the candidate’s current abilities.

Step 5: Determine thinking skills. Rather than using brainteasers to figure out thinking and problem-solving ability, ask about a real problem the person in the role is likely to face. (This is the second half of the two-question Performance-based Interview.) The purpose is to get into a back-and-forth dialogue to determine if the candidate’s approach to solving the problem is appropriate. Focus on the process of getting the answer, not the answer itself. Then Anchor the question by getting an example of what the person has done that’s most comparable to the problem being discussed. (See Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern.)

Step 6: If the candidate is someone you’d like to consider, describe the opportunity gap and present your job as a true career move. Then find out the candidate’s interest in further discussion. (Here’s the complete explanation behind the selling process involved in negotiating offers.)

Whether you’re on the hiring or job-seeking side it’s important to recognize that an interview is a sales call. While figuring out who’s the buyer and seller is a function of supply and demand, meeting the performance objectives for the job is what’s being bought and sold. Unfortunately, too many companies, job-seekers and interviewers lose sight of the core purpose of the interview. You won’t, if you put yourself in the shoes of a top sales rep on a 100% commission plan, and are always fully prepared.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the creator of Performance-based Hiring and the author of the Amazon Top 10 business best-seller, Hire With Your Head (Wiley, 2007). His new book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, (Workbench, 2013) has just been published. Feel free to joinLou’s new LinkedIn group or ‘like’ us on Facebook to discuss all types of hiring issues.