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The Single Best Sales Interview Question |  April 01, 2015 (1 comment)


Boston, MA—A retailer friend once lamented the challenges of finding great salespeople. Her search for great sales talent all too often came up empty, resulting in a frustrating cycle of interviewing/hiring/training/firing.             

She conceded that she wasn’t a good interviewer. She had trouble determining whether a candidate was the real deal or just a good interviewee; i.e. someone who looked the part and said all the right things, but whom later proved that the interview itself was their best work.

“How do I know whether that candidate will be good or not?” she asked.             

First, her entire hiring process needed to be reviewed and overhauled. The proof was very much in that pudding! But then I told her the most important thing to ask when interviewing an experienced sales candidate is, “Tell me about your client book.”               

Whether a candidate has one year or 10 years’ experience, they absolutely should have a client book and they should be able to talk about it. To me, this question is the single most important way to determine whether an experienced candidate is the real deal or not. If the candidate does not have a client book—if they haven’t figured that out in their first year—or worse, after 10 years—then I am certain you are not looking at a sales driver. There is literally no scenario that I can envision where a successful salesperson does not have a client book. That’s what separates a sales clerk from a sales star.

Great salespeople often believe they are really independent operators working in your business. That’s not necessarily bad, because consistent with that view, great salespeople invest time and energy building their client books to drive business. They do not sit around during down times wondering how they are going to make a living; they proactively reach out to their customer base and they make things happen.

Peter Smith

As a point of clarification, a client book doesn’t have to be an actual book. It could be a book, a CRM program, a box of index cards, whatever. It’s the same principle. What you are really asking with that question is for the salesperson to speak to you about their approach and their philosophy with respect to client development.  A driven salesperson ought to be able to passionately talk about the importance of his or her book and how they use it to build and mine that customer base. When I think about the very best salespeople that I have worked with over the years, I can say that 100% of them had client books, and those books were as important to them as any other tool in their professional lives.

A word of caution, however: many retailers ask candidates about their client books thinking that the candidate will bring business with them from their previous place of employment. But rarely have I seen any meaningful numbers of customers following salespeople from one store to another; it’s more wishful thinking than a realistic expectation. It is not the customer base you are looking for (any traction in that area should be viewed as a bonus) but the mindset of that salesperson to building and managing a customer base and creating business.

So strongly do I believe in the importance of this question that I would make a “no-hire” decision if a candidate doesn’t have a well-managed client book. If you are interviewing someone who has been in sales long enough to have figured this out but they haven’t done so, that is not a person I would want to hire for a sales position, no matter what else he or she brings to the table.

As Dale Carnegie said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” Great salespeople figure that out very quickly and they have the client books and results to prove it.

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Peter Smith, author of Hiring Squirrels: 12 Essential Interview Questions To Uncover Great Retail Sales Talent, has spent 30 years building sales teams at retail, and working with countless numbers of independent retailers as a brand-executive, to offer his counsel and advice on personnel matters. A graduate of Boston College, he has served on the Advisory Board of Caliper’s Global Conference and is a contributing panelist on the KR Executive Group’s Talent Blog. Smith has worked for Tiffany & Co., and was executive vice president of brand development for Hearts On Fire, where he authored the Menu For Success, a roadmap for retail success.  Smith’s book is available in print or Kindle digital edition on 

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Comments (1):

In the last 3 years we have had 4 different sales associates. The longest lasted 8 months, then three months, then 1 month. This one now might not even make it a month.  All of other employees have been with us over 10 years.


By Susan rona kasson on Apr 3rd, 2015 at 6:13pm

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