Hire Intelligence: Hearts On Fire’s Peter Smith Spills His Staffing Secrets

The four interview questions you can’t afford not to ask

Raise your hand if this has happened to you. You hire a sales superstar—A+ résumé, with the right experience at all the right places. References? Out of this world. You dig deep to meet his steep price tag—but hey, he’s worth it. You’ll have your biggest year. Ever!

Except, time and again, the dream derails, and it’s heartbreak hill all the way for a very expensive year.

What could you have done differently? And are there any shortcuts to landing a stellar salesperson? Absolutely, says Peter Smith, executive vice president of Hearts On Fire, which rings in $350 million annually in global sales and has turned retailing into a science at its Hearts On Fire University in Las Vegas. JCK sat down with Smith to ask: After three decades of hiring top performers, what are your four go-to questions to identify star sellers and sidestep the self-deluded nonstarters?

Question No. 1: “Tell me about your client book.”

“It’s a powerful question,” says Smith. “Doesn’t matter whether [it’s] an index-card file or an actual physical book or their own software program. What you’re really saying is: Talk to me about how you think about that process.

“If they are somebody who understands and is excited about making a living in sales, jewelry or otherwise, they ought to be able to talk for some considerable period of time. You’re asking them about their philosophy on the client development process. People who are not salespeople are going to have a really difficult time answering.”

Question No. 2: “What part of selling ­motivates you the most?”

“Much of the interaction in interviews tends to focus on ‘I love product’ and ‘I’ve always liked the ­jewelry ­business.’? It’s not relevant,” says Smith. “Don’t fall for it. What I want to hear is: I love the challenge of persuading somebody to do X. You’re looking for that intuitive sense—that ego drive. If that comes across in an interview, there’s a pretty good likelihood this is somebody who’s going to demonstrate…those traits in interactions with their customers.”

Question No. 3: “Tell me about a sale you lost.”

Smith likes to cite baseball legend Ted Williams, “who, in the best season in the history of Major League Baseball, batted .406—meaning six out of 10 times he went up to bat, he failed, right? So what drove him? He had that expectation that 10 out of 10 times, he was going to get that hit.… And because he had that kind of motivation, he ended up making history. I think great, great salespeople are wired that way.

“One of the ways to get at that is to ask interviewees to tell you about a sale or sales they’ve lost that they think they should have gotten.… You don’t want somebody who is totally cool with not making a sale. You want it to hurt a little bit. But you want somebody who understands that’s part of their role, that they’re not going to close 10 out of 10—they’re going to learn from the ones they missed and get back with gusto on the very next opportunity.”

Question No. 4: “How would you rate your closing skills?”

“If somebody says, ‘Oh, very good,’?” says Smith, “you need to say, ‘What is it you do that makes you very good?’ In sales, you want someone who will be in the game every chance they get.

“I want a good risk tolerance, a good sense of urgency, and a good ego drive. I think we become a bit seduced by intellect and sociability.… Without the other characteristics that are so funda­mental to be good in sales, you’re focusing on the wrong things.”

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