Role-Playing During Interviews: Coffee, Anyone?

By: Brian Westfall on April 25, 2017

Finding the right person for the job is tough. When we first started hiring inside sales people at our company, we focused on experience. The first inside sales person we hired had an impressive work history with companies such as Microsoft. But after putting him on the phone, we realized he was completely the wrong person for the job! We learned the hard way that we needed to hire more for talent than experience—and we needed a more effective way to assess a person’s raw talent before hiring them.

Our solution? The “coffee scenario.”

For reference: The position we most often fill, Software Analyst, involves fast-paced, phone-intensive inside sales. Analysts call potential software buyers who have requested information about various software through our website. They work quickly and efficiently, often placing over 100 calls in a single day. They need an abundance of energy, a positive attitude and a strong will to succeed. It’s a job that most of corporate America is not cut out for—and it’s our job to find the few people who are.

How It Works

The coffee scenario is essentially a mock sales call, which serves as a phone interview for potential salespeople. Applicants are given a prompt ahead of time outlining the basic format, end goal and potential challenges. I pose as a customer who has requested more information about lattes. The applicant’s job is to call and guide me through a series of questions meant to determine, ultimately, which coffee shop I should go to and what coffee drink I should order.

So What Does Coffee Have to Do With Anything?

The coffee scenario mimics the process our inside sales staff goes through every day when performing a needs analysis to qualify software buyers. Our challenge was that software markets are complex and we didn’t want to skew the results by overwhelming the candidate with software esoteria. Coffee is simple and familiar, so the topic makes for a good test case. The goal is to test for a set of core competencies that aren’t coachable—to assess an applicant’s raw talent and determine if the job is something they’re naturally wired for. Someone who has these inherent raw talents, but doesn’t have much experience, will far outperform a person who has more experience, but is lacking raw talent.

What We’re Looking For

There are five core competencies we’re looking for during the coffee scenario. These are the raw talents applicants really need to succeed in this job, and they can’t really be taught. During the call, we score the applicant on each competency, using a scale of one to ten. This way, we can apply a quantitative measure to the more qualitative process of conducting an interview. It gives us a scorecard by which we can compare candidates objectively and see who did the best in each area and overall.

The core competencies are:

  • Articulation: How well does the applicant speak? Do they say “um,” “uh” or “like” frequently? Our salespeople need to be able to communicate clearly and concisely under pressure. Even if they aren’t experts on the subject matter, they should be able to get their point across articulately.

  • Energy: How naturally energetic does the applicant sound? Is it genuine? No customer wants to talk to someone who sounds fake, so the applicant must have a high level of natural enthusiasm. You can coach someone whose natural energy level is a seven to become an eight or a nine—but you can’t really coach a five to become a ten.

  • Ability to take control: Can the applicant take control of the call and drive it where it needs to be? Can they naturally move the call from point to point without gaps of silence or unrelated conversation in between? A successful salesperson must be assertive and naturally take the lead. They will be speaking with CEOs and other company decision makers, so we’re really looking for alpha personalities. A beta personality—someone who would rather follow than lead—won’t do well in this position, and probably won’t enjoy it, either.

  • Ability to think on their feet: Can the applicant handle unexpected questions without fumbling? No matter how well we train our sales staff, there will always be questions in calls they aren’t prepared to answer. So I ask questions that aren’t in the interview prompt to gauge how agile they are at thinking on the fly. A long pause, a shuffling of papers as the applicant looks for the answer or stammering isn’t a good sign. Even if they don’t know the answer, saying they don’t know and will find out is a better response than stumbling or trying to guess.

  • Coachability: How well can the applicant understand the scenario and apply it? Even if they have never done a call like this in real life, they should be able to understand what the goals are and put them into practice. The call should flow smoothly, as if they were a seasoned expert.

Do They Have What it Takes?

After each coffee scenario, I look at the call holistically to evaluate the applicant. How well did they score? Do they have what it takes to get an in-person interview? Sometimes, a candidate may totally blow it in one category, but still be well-suited for the job overall—and I never want to eliminate a candidate with raw talent just because they got one at-bat and missed.

In these cases, I’ll give them another chance at the plate and schedule a second coffee scenario. This tests the core competency of coachability, too. If the applicant can take the feedback I give them, apply it and do well the second time, they’ll be a good candidate. Most of our inside sales people aced the coffee scenario the first time around, but success on the first call is not directly correlated to job performance; some people just need another chance. We have a few top performers who had to do a second call.

The Role of Role-Playing in Interviews

We’ve found role-playing in interviews, using techniques like the coffee scenario, to be very effective in hiring. It works for us because we’re hiring more for talent than for experience, and it can be hard to identify raw talent in people without an objective test for it. We’re looking for street smarts more than book smarts: Software knowledge can be taught to anybody. Obviously, if we were hiring doctors or lawyers, we’d need people with specific experience. But techniques like the coffee scenario can be used in the majority of the business world.

Tips for Hiring Managers

If you’re thinking about using role-playing in interviews at your company, first think to yourself: What are the uncoachable core competencies people need to succeed in this job? That is, what are the necessary raw talents? Then, set up a project that tests each of them. Don’t worry about the role-playing scenario being unique to your line of business, as long as what you do is teachable. Grade your applicants on each competency from either one to 10 or one to five, so you have a universal scale for evaluating everyone.

A role-playing project like this takes ten minutes, where an in-person interview can take an hour—and it will eliminate 25 to 50 percent of your candidates before you ever meet them. Role-playing is an efficient way to determine whether an applicant has what it takes to succeed at your company.

It doesn’t always have to be a phone call, either, as long as you present it to the applicant before meeting them in person. If you’re interviewing for a marketing position, have the applicant research a campaign or competitor. For administrative jobs, give them a scenario that tests their organizational abilities or problem-solving skills. If you’re hiring a web developer, give candidates a small sample project.

Tips for Interviewees

If you have a job interview that will involve role playing, as corny as it may sound, just be yourself. Before and after the interview, critically assess your talents, skills, strengths and weaknesses—as well as the job and what it requires. Avoid falling into the trap of trying to “get” the job just because you want to feel accepted. Honestly ask yourself, “Is this job a good fit for me?”. If the answer is no, run.

Overall, role-playing during interviews is an efficient and effective way for both hiring managers and interviewees to test the waters of potential employment. It saves everyone time and effort—and lets raw talent shine through.