You couldn’t feel more ready for that upcoming sales interview. You’ve researched the company and its competitors. You’ve practiced your answers. And you’ve prepared a list of questions to ask. You’re going to absolutely nail it.
But something strange happens when you’re talking with the hiring manager. The longer the interview goes on, the more it just feels… off.
It’s not that you’re second-guessing a career in sales. You know it can provide the benefits you’re looking for: connecting with people and building relationships, learning more about the tech you love, finding new growth opportunities and earning a pretty nice paycheque while you’re at it. You’re confident you’re headed in the right direction.
No, it’s this job in particular. There’s just something that’s making you think twice. A question or comment that feels inappropriate. A request that seems unfair. A piece of information that they’re holding back. Maybe this isn’t even the first time you’ve noticed this happening between different interviews.
These are red flags. But what do they really look like – and what do they mean?
We’ve got your back. This guide covers the 7 most common red flags in sales interviews, offering ways to respond and showing you what they look like in practice so you can spot them in the wild. Let’s dig in.
7 red flags in sales interviews you should watch out for
Red flags in sales interviews are warning signs that tell you something’s not quite right. Sometimes they’re obvious, sometimes they’re subtle, but signs like the following should always warrant careful consideration about whether you move forward.
Pay close attention not only to what these flags look like, but also when they appear. You might notice some are evident as early as the job ad, or they may emerge as you set up the interview, in the interview itself, or in follow-up conversations.
🚩1. Asking for free work
Probably the biggest red flag in sales interviews.
There’s nothing wrong with a potential employer asking for a pre-hire demo of your skills. In fact, interview projects are a great “try before you buy” on both sides: can you deliver what you promise? Do you enjoy working with the company?
But beware if that interview project starts to feel more like “free work” than “hiring exercise”:
- It takes significant time to complete. It shouldn’t take longer than two hours to assess your skills for the job. Your time is important, too.
- You’re doing “real” work. If the assignment directly benefits the company – think prospecting, list building or speaking live to a customer – you should be paid for it.
- It requires paid resources. The hiring manager should provide all the tools you need. If they don’t, this becomes worse than free work: it’s work you pay to do.
- It’s more about business outcomes: If you’re asked to propose a strategy rather than showcase your knowledge or skills, they’re testing the wrong thing in the wrong way.
What It Looks Like:
I was in talks with the co-founder of an early-stage startup. My interview assignment was to create hypothetical outreach materials for a specific prospect. But then to advance in the process, the co-founder asked me to reach out and secure a deal from the prospect. They strung me along with a job while making me work for free.– Past Uvaro Applicant
Our Take: Not only was the interviewee asked to create materials that the company could potentially use while prospecting to a specific client, but they were also required to do work that an employee would otherwise be paid to do in reaching out to a real-world prospect and closing a deal.
🚩2. Asking for unpaid “internships”
Treat any job ad that asks for unpaid interns with a healthy dose of skepticism. We’re not lawyers, but we can tell you they’re flat-out illegal in many jurisdictions, if not held to a very strict set of rules.
Moral employers pay for their labour. If the job benefits them more than it does you, it doesn’t pass the smell test. According to the U.S. Department of Labour, you can gauge the balance with a seven-point primary beneficiary test:
- The intern and employer understand that there’s no expectation of compensation
- Training is similar to that which would be given in an educational environment
- The internship is tied to a formal education program or results in academic credit
- The position accommodates the intern’s academic commitments
- The internship lasts only as long as it takes to provide the learning needed
- The work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing educational benefits to the intern
- The intern and employer understand that there’s no entitlement to a paid job at the end of the internship
What It Looks Like:
We are looking for a qualified sales intern to assist in various stages of the sales funnel, including creating awareness of new offerings, generating leads, and retaining customers…– From A Real Job Posting
Our Take: This clearly fails the primary beneficiary test as the company benefits from work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee. If they really wanted someone “qualified” in that position, they would pay them.
🚩3. Hidden or unclear sales targets
It’s perfectly fair to ask “What targets am I expected to hit?” in a sales job interview. It’s also perfectly sketchy when a company dodges questions or gives vague answers about sales, quota or commission targets. (Unless, of course, they can provide you with a really good reason why they’re holding back — for example, if they’re an early-stage startup, breaking into a new market or pivoting their business, they might not know what to expect themselves.)
After all, you want to know what your daily life will be like at this company, how to best prepare for the position and whether that “six-figure salary” promise in the job ad is legit.
What It Looks Like:
These questions should yield straight answers:
- How do you measure success on your sales team?
- What will my sales targets be during my onboarding period and beyond?
- How many sales reps meet their targets, and how many exceed them?
- What is your commission structure?
- Do employees receive bonuses for exceeding their targets?
Our Take: These questions are short and to the point. The answers given should normally follow suit. Red flags in sales interviews can sometimes be obvious. If the interviewer starts to veer off course in their response or offer excuses, consider this a sign.
🚩4. Asking inappropriate questions
Sure, the hiring manager may not intend to make you feel uncomfortable with that question. They might be naïve, or they simply fired off a question without thinking. But even innocuous-sounding queries can couch a hidden motive – or be downright illegal to ask. Either way, it says something telling about the work environment you’re joining.
The hallmark sign of an inappropriate interview question? It has nothing to do with your ability to perform on-the-job tasks. If a question has anything to do with the following, give it some serious thought before answering:
- Race, birthplace, national origin or skin colour
- Gender or sex
- Marital or family status
- Age, height or weight
- Financial situation
- Religion or spiritual beliefs
- Disability or medical condition
What It Looks Like:
|“Congratulations on returning to the workforce. Given your family, do you need a flexible schedule? Are you planning to have more children?”||All the employer needs to know is that you can do the work – not whether you have a (growing) family at home.|
|“What year did you graduate from college/university?”||This question is often used as a backdoor way to ask about someone’s age.|
|“Our team operates at a very fast pace, and the work requires a lot of energy. Are you sure you’re up to it?”||Questions like this can hide an intent to sideline applicants based on age or reveal a hidden disability.|
🚩5. Referring to age or gender in their language
Biases are hard to ignore – we all have them. But job postings and job interviews are no place for them to rear their heads, especially if they influence not only who gets hired, but who wants the job in the first place.
Whether conscious or not, the language employers use to describe themselves and the position can shed light on the way the organization prioritizes diversity or unaddressed biases within the sales team. Gendered language, for example, has proven to be a huge deterrent for entire groups of great potential applicants. The same goes for language that discriminates by age, race or disability.
What It Looks Like:
Watch out for subtle (and not-so-subtle) sexist, ageist or racist phrases like:
- “Salesman” or “Saleswoman”
- “Quota crushers”
- “Young and energetic”
- “Fresh graduate”
- “Native English speaker”
Our Take: It’s time to move on from these type of language. Period. It’s lazy and exclusionary.
For employers, by dropping this type of language, you’ll be surprised by the candidates that you start attracting for your open positions.
🚩6. Making irrelevant / easily-trainable skills a requirement to entry
Some skills are required for a successful job in sales: time management, active listening, negotiation and problem-solving among them. What should never be on that list? Things like experience with specific sales software.
In 2021, when every sales tool comes with an education or resource section to get reps up-to-speed, it’s not like you’re learning on your own, from scratch. The most important take-away is that you can learn technology quickly, not that you already know the technology before you begin.
If this is a hard requirement, it’s likely that the company you’re interviewing with has inadequate (or no) training for new employees, and will lack support once you’re on the job.
What It Looks Like:
These should never be hard requirements:
Candidates must have:
- Three to five years of industry experience
- Experience with Salesforce or an equivalent CRM system
- Experience with Microsoft Office
- Superb interpersonal skills
- An understanding of the sales process and sales dynamics
Our Take: Red flags in sales interviews can be discreet, and this one of those cases. These items are relevant to the job, but your success isn’t solely contingent on these skills, so they shouldn’t be “hard requirements”. These hard requirements are often excuses to reject candidates without learning more about their story.
🚩7. Capped commissions in your compensation package
Commissions work as a kind of agreement. You sacrifice your compensation if you don’t meet your sales goals; you also reap the reward if you eclipse them. When an employer caps commissions – placing limits on the amount you can earn – they remove the upside of that agreement and limit your success before you even start. After a certain point, you’re essentially working for free.
Commission caps may indicate other problems in the organization, like:
- Retention: Do other reps want to stick around for long under this policy?
- Performance: Do reps lose motivation once they meet their quota?
- Management: Are commission caps the result of poor compensation planning?
- Trust: Does the organization really trust and respect its employees?
What It Looks Like:
My past company changed the way it looks at commission and compensation and it tanked our team morale and productivity. Reps were now reaching peak compensation 8-weeks into the quarter. Motivation and desire to work would drop off a cliff the last 4 weeks once this milestone was hit.– From A Former Sales Manager
Our Take: There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to sales commissions. But overall we feel safe saying that a company that will cap your income doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
7 Sales Interview Yellow Flags you should investigate further
Yellow flags are signs that something might be wrong, but you need more information before they enter red flag territory. If you see any of the following, make sure you dig for more details before making a final call.
1. They’re ghosts on social media
If you’re interviewing at a company that isn’t present on LinkedIn at the very least (much less Instagram, Facebook or Twitter), they might not be very tech-savvy or aware of emerging trends.
It takes time to establish a presence, so younger companies get a bit of a pass, along with those operating in industries where social media isn’t the “norm” and those which have trimmed their presence during 2021 to refocus on only the best channels.
2. The job offer comes too early
If you receive a job offer quickly after the first interview, it begs the question: how careful are is the company with their hiring? Hiring is a big decision, and good employers take their time to make sure they find the best fit.
Offering a job too early is a sign that HR and management might not have their act together. Are they just hiring people because they need “bums in seats”? Or even worse, do they simply churn-and-burn through new hires?
3. BYOD without reimbursement or allowance
When using a personal vehicle for work, you expect to be reimbursed for gas mileage. The same goes for your mobile phone, computer, or any other personal device. If you’re asked to bring your own device, you should receive compensation for any data, calling, texting or even the device itself, if it meets certain requirements. The vast majority of employers offer BYOD reimbursements between $30 and $50 a month.
4. The interview becomes an MLM conversation
MLMs work like this: the more people you recruit, the more money you make. So if you walk into a job interview and it turns into a pitch – and a push to refer other people to the business – take a closer look at the contract to see what you’re getting into.
And while you’re at it, watch out for key phrases like…
- “Become an independent distributor”
- “Be your own boss”
- “Earn extra income”
- Or the infamous “Everyone needs a side hustle”
5. They can’t back up their claim of “overflowing hot leads”
You’ll see language like this across many B2B tech companies – it makes the job sound easy! But what, exactly, does “hot lead” mean to this company? Do they really have leads with the interest, authority and budget to buy your product or service right now, or do they simply have a database of low-quality leads who have filled out an online form but have no interest in moving forward with a sale?
6. The job goals are… wait, what are they, again?
You get one job description from the HR recruiter; you get another from the hiring manager. One says you’ll be cold calling customer leads; the other says you’ll be working inbound only. Inconsistencies in the job’s goals may be a sign of inconsistencies within the organization as a whole. Pro tip: you can usually get to the bottom of it by asking “What does success look like in this role?” to all the stakeholders you speak to.
7. Email addresses and links don’t match the company’s main website
Job seekers are popular targets for scam activity. If you notice a discrepancy in someone’s email address, phone number, LinkedIn profile or the website on a job ad, visit the company’s “careers” page or contact them to double-check if the job is legit. And never give out your date of birth, social security or social insurance number, driver’s licence information, credit card details or bank account number until you’ve interviewed the employer in person and have been offered a position in writing.
Uvaro: A green flag for interview readiness
Not all sales job interviews are created equal, but they are a great indicator of what’s to come if you end up taking a job offer with the company. That’s why it’s so important to recognize red flags in sales interviews early on, before you sign the dotted line and make a commitment you’ll regret.
The good news is, you now have the tools to recognize when things are amiss – and why. And if you’re still not sure, or if you’re finding sales interviews to be a challenge, Uvaro has you covered with resources, training and career support that includes all the skills you need to be interview-ready before you hit “send” on that job application.
Happy interviewing! And watch out for those red flags in sales interviews!