The Art of the Interview
The Art of the Interview
Are you a planner or a winger when it comes to interviewing potential sales associates?
Planners give careful thought to the questions they’ll ask and know which questions stray into legal danger zones. They listen carefully while candidates expound on themselves, all the while reading candidates’ nonverbal cues.
Wingers, on the other hand, breeze into interviews and ask whatever pops into their mind—without any concern that they may be straying into dangerous legal territory—and make quick work of each interview.
It’s small wonder that planners have more success when it comes to affiliating the best sales associates. The good news? It’s easy to become an interview planner. Here’s the scoop.
The Legal Fine Print
Before you interview anyone, you must know the areas that, by law, you shouldn’t broach with candidates. Although it’s possible to debate whether federal and state employment laws cover independent contractors, Charles Caulkins, managing partner of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. based Fisher & Phillips, one of the largest labor and employment law firms nationwide, advises his clients that the safest course is to assume that they do.
Employment discrimination laws protect applicants on the basis of age, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, disability, and marital status. Be sure to check your state and municipal laws, too, because some have additional protected classes, such as sexual orientation.
“The first place to be thinking about these issues is the job application,” says Caulkins. He suggests customizing your application to get the information you need rather than purchasing an off-the-shelf product. Also consider changing the form’s title to something like “Independent Contractor Prequalification Application” to avoid the implication of an employer-employee relationship.
“We also recommend you don’t just take resumes—make someone actually fill out your application because there will be questions on the application unlikely to be covered in the resume,” adds Caulkins. “I’ve yet to see someone say on a resume, ‘I’ve been to prison.’ Also be sure the candidate signs the application because that can help you if you have to defend your process.”
When it’s time to interview, ensure that your perfectly well-meaning questions don’t trigger candidates’ complaints that you veered into legally prohibited areas. “An applicant who looks Latina might be asked, quite innocently, whether she’s Latina or speaks Spanish, with the intention of knowing whether she’d be able to work ethnic markets,” explains Joseph Rand, managing partner and general counsel at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Rand Realty in New City, New York. “But that’s a no-no.”
To avoid running afoul of the law, be careful to avoid personal questions along the lines of:
- Do you have any children?
- Do you plan to have children?
- Are you married?
- How old are you?
- What religion are you?
What can you ask? With whatever information you’re seeking, find a neutral way to ask for it, and ask it of all candidates, not just those you think it applies to. For example, if your sales associates typically haul around For Sale signs and help sellers move furniture to get their home ready for sale, don’t ask candidates if they have a disability. Instead, Caulkins suggests you explain the physical tasks your sales associates often perform and ask: “Do you have any physical limitations that would prevent you from doing the job?”
What about asking that Latina-appearing candidate if she’s bilingual? “There may be a legitimate reason for your sales associates to be bilingual,” says Caulkins. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for that, but it raises the question of whether you’re using that information to screen people based on ethnicity or national origin. You could certainly say, ‘We want, even require, bilingual sales associates.’ But you must be able to prove that it’s job-necessary because a certain percentage of your customers don’t speak English. It’s better to say, ‘Do you have any special skills that enable you to market to any particular niches?’”
Sometimes candidates raise legally risky topics themselves, such as mentioning they’re pregnant. “The danger is that you get caught off-guard and say, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right job for you,’ ” says Caulkins. “Your response should be, ‘That will have nothing to do with our decision. Congratulations!’ ’’
Have a Great Interview
When you meet with candidates, body language and attitude are as important as the answers to your questions. “Body language and dress tells you a lot,” says Bill Richardson, managing broker at The Keyes Co.’s Boca Raton, Fla., office. “I’ve had people come in wearing cutoff dungaree shorts, and one guy came in wearing bike leathers and chains. If they’re doing that in an interview, what will they do with clients? You also want candidates to look you right in the eye and give you little nods of the head during your conversation.”
Richardson follows Caulkins’ advice to have candidates fill out an application, in part because he sometimes finds their reaction telling. “I put them in a room, tell them the questionnaire will take 10 to 15 minutes, and say I’m getting them a cup of coffee or bottle of water,” he says. “Then I watch how they react. One woman said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to fill something out.’ That told me she might be a prima donna or difficult to train.”
The interview process isn’t foolproof. But by planning and paying attention to detail, you can dramatically improve your skills at evaluating whether candidates will be a good fit for your company.
“The whole reason for an interview is to determine whether you and that candidate can get together and help each other build business,” says Clark Toole, Sarasota, Fla. based president of Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in Florida and Coldwell Banker Commercial NRT. “If candidates can communicate well with you during the interview, that’s a good sign.”
Questions for Newbies
What questions will help you discern whether a candidate will be successful in real estate? Here are five lines of questions for new-to-the-business candidates:
1. What made you decide to get into real estate?
“That’s a very simple question that will tell you a lot,” says The Keyes Co.’s Bill Richardson. “Money isn’t necessarily the wrong answer, but candidates shouldn’t say, ‘I like houses’ or ‘I’ve always liked real estate.’ This business isn’t just about the product. You have to be good at relationship building, networking, and time management.”
2. What connections do you have that would help you build business, and what charities or groups do you belong to? Are you OK sending a card to people in those groups saying, “Hey, I’m now selling real estate at XYZ Co., and we can help you with your real estate needs”?
“The bottom line for me is how much networking potential sales associates are willing to do to be successful,” explains Karen A. Berman, vice president and director of sales and brokerage at Argo Real Estate in New York. “If someone recoils and says, ‘I don’t think it’s appropriate to badger the parents of my kids’ friends about real estate,’ I know they’re not great at networking.”
3. If you were at a party and didn’t know anyone, what would you do? Or if you were standing in line and someone cut in front of you, how would you handle it?
“There’s a quality that good sales associates have, which you’d call something like moxie or fearlessness,” says Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Rand Realty’s Joseph Rand. “It’s the ability to ask difficult questions and be comfortable in inherently awkward situations. Any answer indicating that candidates are self-conscious or too concerned about what other people think would be red flags.”
4. What motivates you to succeed? Describe a time when you’ve had a setback and how you handled it.
“This question gets to the core of the business, which is prospecting and having the ability and energy to go out and let people know you’re in real estate,” says Coldwell Banker’s Toole. “A lot of people don’t have a real estate need right now, and new associates might think of that as rejection. They need the tenacity to continue talking to a lot of people.”
5. How do you intend to support yourself while getting established in real estate, and what concerns do you have about going into real estate?
“If candidates don’t have any concerns, and they don’t have some cushion to develop a business, that worries me,” says Toole. “They’re going to jump into something new, and if they can’t generate money quickly enough, they’re going to have problems.”
Questions for Seasoned Salespeople
Past performance and attitude are two important factors to consider when interviewing current sales associates considering moving to your company. Here are questions for those candidates:
1. What has your current company done for you in the last 12 months that has helped accelerate your business?
“I’ve yet to have anyone tell me their company has really done anything,” says Jimmy Dulin, CRS, broker-owner of the five-office RE/MAX Ability Plus in Indianapolis. “That generally points out the need for a company that offers more services that would aid them.”
2. If you were to leave your company today, what would be the reasons?
“That tells me what the sales associate’s current company is doing wrong,” says Dulin. “That doesn’t mean that 100 percent of the time I can fix it. But it’s easier to fix something if the person who’s involved identifies the problem.”
3. What kind of year are you having so far, and how does it compare to last year? Are you on track to reach your goals? What are your goals?
“I’m looking to determine if candidates have and work a plan, in addition to whether their business is increasing each year or decreasing,” says Coldwell Banker’s Toole. “That gets into why this has been their best year or why they feel as if they’re going backwards. If candidates are truthful with me, I can be a great consultant to help them build their business.”
4. How far do you want to go with this business? At what sales level are you comfortable?
“For some people, the answer isn’t that they want to sell more, but that they do 40 transactions annually, are in their mid-50s, and want to spend more time with their new grandchild,” says Dulin. “I don’t have any problem with that. I can immediately identify whether some of the efficiencies or services I offer can make them more productive so they work less but earn as much. Or maybe I can bring someone on to assist them.”
5. Why would our company be better with you as a part of it?
A bad answer to this question is one in which candidates focus on how great they are. “Real estate is a joint venture between our associates and their manager,” explains Toole. “It’s not all one or the other, and the people who are very successful use all their resources, including coaching from their management team. Look at successful movie stars and sports figures. They all have coaches who look at them objectively and help them improve their performance.”