Hiring someone for an entry-level sales role is a challenging task. Just ask any hiring manager and they’ll tell you the same thing: we all wish it were easier.
Why is it so hard?
Part of it is the fact that hiring decisions are made on candidates with very little experience for the job. The other part is the inexperience candidates have interviewing for a sales role. It makes our job tough to figure out who has the right mix of talent, personality, and drive, and who won’t survive their first year in sales.
What makes is worse is that every year I hear the same bad answers to common questions, especially from recent college graduates. These answers are cringe-worthy enough to prevent a candidate from ever getting a shot at an entry-level sales job.
The most common question I get a bad answer to is, ”Tell me about your job search. What are you looking to do right now?”
There are two answers that make me cringe every time.
Bad Answer #1: “The biggest thing for me is I’m looking to grow and learn.”
If that’s your answer, please, STOP.
There are two major issues with this answer coming from a recent college grad:
- Right now you have very few developed skills. College graduates have very little work experience to draw on, and sales is very different when it’s your full-time job. Even if you’ve been in a sales role you’re applying for an entry-level one for a reason, and that’s likely because you’re not ready for a more challenging sales role yet.
- Taking a job means you have to be able to produce something, not simply learn. That’s why you pay to go to college, whereas you’re paid to do a job.
Here’s the twist: I do want to hire reps who are looking to grow and learn. However, I don’t want to hire reps who give me the impression they’re going to spend their days learning and growing instead of making calls. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. You go through training and you get on the phones within two weeks, tops. There will be coaching, call shadowing, mentoring, and even continued training, but the reality is you signed up for a job with a quota. You need to start hitting that quota, and fast.
So if stating you’re looking to grow and learn is important, but not a great answer in itself, how should you reframe this answer?
Start by answering why you applied for the specific position. Not the company, or your friends working there, or the free lunch. Why do you want to take on this role?
I’ll give you my personal answer from many years ago. I was highly focused on starting a company one day and I knew the two best skill sets I could learn were sales and management. Sales was my top choice and most of the jobs I interviewed for were sales roles. My answer was framed around my long-term goal and how that aligned with the roles I was interested in.
“As someone about to graduate with a major in Entrepreneurship, my ultimate goal is to start my own company some day. Right now my focus is taking on a role that fits my skills while setting me up so I’m more likely to succeed when I start my own company, because I don’t have a company to launch today. I believe Sales is the best way for me to achieve both of those things. I will have to be able to find and sell new customers. If I want funding or a business loan I will have to sell someone on the idea that putting money in my hands is a smart decision. I’ve also enjoyed being in a customer facing situation in some of my roles and internships throughout college, which makes me believe that I will be successful in a sales role.”
Notice I never said the words “I want to grow and learn,” yet I conveyed that was exactly what I was looking to do. Come up with an answer that tells a story as to why you want sales. Think about what you’ve done and what you’d like to do 5-10 years down the road.
Bad Answer #2: “I’d like to keep my options open right now and explore different things. I’m looking at Sales, Marketing, Finance, etc”
This answer is less common… and even worse than the first one.
Yes, it might be honest and yes, you might be looking at a number of career options. The problem is that it shows you’re at best uncommitted… and at worst you’re completely lost and will quit within 6 months.
Do you still not agree? Alright, let’s consider this answer from the hiring manager’s side of the table.
I have an opening to fill: entry-level Sales rep. The role will be challenging and not everyone I hire will make it past 6 months. In fact, if I do an amazing job 80% of my hires will ramp successfully and stay with me past those 6 months. On top of that if I hire you as someone who sets appointments for the sales team, which is the most common first job college graduates take in tech sales, your only career path is to become one of those sales reps closing deals. Only my best ever make it to that seat.
I also have a pool of candidates. Dozens of soon to be college graduates have been applying, in addition to people who have been out of college a year or two.
If you were the hiring manager, who would you be more likely to hire, the person who is “exploring options” or the candidate who is dead set on landing a SALES role?
I can hear a few people in the back saying, “but what about the candidates who have the most potential? Hiring top talent has to matter the most!”
It’s easy to fall into this line of thinking. Hire the best person, regardless of their career ambitions, train them right, manage them well, and they will do an amazing job.
I wish this were true.
There’s one common theme among the best Sales reps I’ve worked with in my career: they work hard. Really hard. They make more calls, send more emails, and work as large a pool of prospects they can without being stretched thin.
Talent doesn’t matter when the person sitting next to you wants it more and will do everything they can to succeed. Odds are they’re about as talented as you. Whoever pushes harder will have more conversations, learn quicker, and become the better rep. When your job involves getting rejected far more than you hear a “yes” then you have to be committed to succeed over the long haul.
Now, what if you’re considering two different career paths? Should you mention that you’re only considering two?
It depends on the answer to one key question: can you link the two together?
If you can’t link the two then don’t do it. Seriously, don’t do it. It might feel like lying or cheating but in reality if you’re considering two fairly distinct career paths then you’re better off interviewing for each role as part of a process to figure out which one you want to do. Then when you figure it out, only pursue that job.
Let’s go back to how to link two different jobs together. My personal choices were sales or a management training program. I’m going to reword my answer so you can see how I’d tie it together and still make it sound good for a sales role.
“My long term goal is to start my own successful business, but right now I don’t have a business to launch. I decided to search for roles where I’d develop the skills I’ll need to grow my own company. The two roles that make the most sense for me are sales or a management trainee position. Both require some similar skills as well: solving the customer’s problems, getting people to buy in to my ideas, and learning how to be a leader. I also know a lot of people who start their careers in sales eventually move into management, and a lot of people who start their careers in management training move into sales. My background really suits both paths because of their similarities as well, and I want to take on a job where I’ll be able to do well and be a valuable employee.”
Depending on which role I was interviewing for, I’d add one sentence about why that path was interesting to me.
As a hiring manager I’m going to want to know which path you’re more committed to. If this role is the way you’re leaning, say that you’d really want this kind of job over the other.
Will I never find a job if I keep my answer?
The truth is you will find a job eventually, as long as you’re willing to take an entry-level job.
That job will not be one of the best opportunities out there for college graduates, though. The hiring managers with the best jobs available get to be the pickiest, and there’s no way they will take a chance on someone who’s clearly not committed and focused. They will have great candidates fighting for those spots.
Take the time to write out a thoughtful answer to this question. You will hear it in nearly every interview because it’s one of the most useful and informative questions an interviewer can ask to determine if this person is worth getting to know or not. Practice it until you can say it in your sleep. Then you’ll be ready.