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How to Conduct Effective Exit Interviews for Sales Employees

With the summer blockbuster debut of Tom Cruise’s latest masterpiece Mission Impossible 7 - Dead Reckoning, it got me thinking about seemingly impossible missions in business. Now, these missions are nothing compared to the death defying stunts Cruise pulls off in this film (I’ll save the spoiler alert, but it’s pretty cool), but challenges always arise at your day job. 

One of those challenges is employee turnover and the best way to address this is to get to the root of the challenge, WHY? Why did you leave and what could we have done better? Afterall, if we don’t know what the problem is, how could we possibly fix it? We’ll break down how to effectively conduct exit interviews to give you insight into that ever present question two-year olds have perfected…WHY? 

High turnover is a big problem in most sales departments, and exit interviews provide one of the most effective ways to learn why sales employees are leaving. When you know what’s causing them to look for work elsewhere, you can take action to fix what’s broken and improve your retention rates.

Exit interviews are a once-per-employee opportunity to get feedback you can’t receive at any other time. Employees are more likely to speak with brutal honesty once they’ve already quit and their job is no longer on the line. So it’s important to use this opportunity to learn as much as you can.

In this article, we’ll walk you through what you need to know about planning and conducting the most effective exit interviews for sales employees.

Planning ahead for an exit interview

Depending on the circumstances surrounding a sales employee’s departure, you may not have much time to prepare before needing to conduct the exit interview.

Although giving two-weeks notice before leaving may be the generally accepted best practice, it’s technically only a courtesy, as there is no legal requirement that keeps employees from quitting on the spot if they so choose.

And if they do plan on walking out the door that same day, it’s especially crucial that you get the chance to understand what caused them to make that decision. Why are they so determined to leave that they are willing to forego this professional courtesy and make their exit more disruptive to your business? How can you decrease the likelihood that other employees will do the same?

If you plan ahead, you’ll be ready to conduct a meaningful exit interview at a moment’s notice if necessary.

Know what you intend to get out of the interview

Too many businesses treat exit interviews as just some perfunctory task they know they’re supposed to do. But without a specific purpose behind them, they don’t end up using exit interviews to their full potential. So it’s worth taking a moment to consider what your business hopes to achieve by performing them.

The big-picture question you need to answer is why the sales employee left—so you can implement changes to prevent others from leaving for the same reasons.

Toward that end, your exit interviews must be sure to address what’s working well, what’s broken, and what can be improved.

Chances are good that the outgoing employee didn’t hate everything about their job. In fact there were probably specific things they really enjoyed and will miss. Learn what these are so you can know what’s working well and keep it up.

As for what’s broken, look for policies or processes that they don’t believe worked well at all. Then probe into the “why” behind their initial answers. Learn the specific reasons they see these functions as broken and what they believe could be done to fix them. You won’t necessarily need to implement changes. You may discover shared misunderstandings, perspectives, or information gaps you’ll need to address.

On the other hand, you may also discover major hidden problems that need to be immediately addressed, such as if the outgoing sales rep describes any discrimination or harassment they experienced that contributed to their leaving.

But problems don’t have to be severe to be worth addressing. You can also gain vital feedback about little things that can be done to improve the overall environment and create a better company culture.

Create a template

Having a standardized exit-interview template is important for two reasons.

First, it ensures that the most important questions actually get asked. If you try to improvise exit interviews, you may be able to get some useful information, but it will be easy to forget or overlook crucial lines of questioning that need answers. Having a template in front of you ensures that the information you need stays top of mind, and nothing gets lost in the moment.

Second, while the individual answers you gather from one interview have some value on their own, the data becomes far more relevant once you’re able to compare it with other exit interviews across time. This will allow you to identify overarching themes and see the difference between a single rep’s personal frustrations versus the shared problems expressed by most or all of those who have left.

But you can only make those comparisons if the same set of questions are asked in the same manner every time. Starting with a template helps give you consistent apples-to-apples responses from which you can draw important conclusions. And your conversation can always expand past the templated questions.

Conducting sales exit interviews

With a plan in place, you’ll be ready to conduct an exit interview at a moment’s notice. Here are some tips for how to do it.

Choose who will conduct the exit interview

The person you choose to conduct the exit interview can affect how honest and straightforward the answers will be.

It may be tempting to have the outgoing sales employee’s manager conduct the interview—and many businesses do this—but that relationship is often too immediate and personal to be able to generate candid feedback. The person conducting the interview could be the reason they left! But even if not, the employee may not want to offend or negatively impact someone they know so well (especially if they’re counting on using this person as a reference).

You need a neutral third party with whom the outgoing sales employee has no immediate relationship so they can speak openly and honestly, whether their feedback is positive or negative.

Usually, this should be someone from HR. However, in some cases, it can also work to use a manager whom the employee did not report to.

The employee should also be assured that their feedback will be kept anonymous.

Decide how the interview will be conducted

When possible, in-person exit interviews are usually the best way to gain valuable feedback. They provide the greatest possibility for posing open-ended questions and following up by probing into the specifics.

However, if it isn’t possible to conduct the exit interview in person, doing it over the phone or videoconference is a close second. Whether the outgoing salesperson is simply in a rush to leave or doesn’t feel comfortable doing an in-person interview, having them do so by phone still allows for a good bit of open-ended back and forth.

The final option is to conduct the exit interview via an online survey. This should be a last resort, as it doesn’t allow for extended dialog or pushing further into details that the interview may bring to light. However, it’s better than nothing, and in some cases, an ex-employee who does not wish to conduct an exit interview may at least be willing to fill out the survey. And as long as the survey questions follow the same template you created for your exit interviews, then the responses can still contribute to your knowledge about ongoing trends.

Ask the right questions

As we’ve already discussed, you should have a template prepared with a set of questions you always want to ask. Let’s take a look at what those questions may be.

Keep in mind that the template you create is only a starting point. You always want to follow the questions outlined in your template, but you can and should go beyond them as needed. Good follow ups to any answer they give are often “why?” or “could you tell me more about that?”

For example, in response to why they are leaving, a sales employee might say that they don’t feel the culture is a good fit for them. If you leave the question there, you won’t really have anything specific enough to be useful. So press further to ask what exactly they didn’t like about the company culture. From there, they might say that the environment was too fast-paced for them. And pressing further, you might learn that they specifically believe their quotas to be unobtainable. That’s a much more precise and potentially actionable insight than a vague sense that the culture wasn’t a good fit.

With that in mind, you’ll want to create a template with your initial questions based on specifically what your company hopes to get out of these interviews. But to get you started, here is a list of example questions you might consider:

  • What caused you to want to leave the company?
  • Did any particular incident contribute to your decision to leave?
  • Could the company have done anything that would have prevented you from leaving?
  • Would you ever consider returning to the company?
  • What would you tell a friend if they were considering a position with the company?
  • Do you have a position at another company already lined up?
  • If so, what was the other company able to offer that made them more appealing?
  • Do you believe you’ve experienced discrimination or harassment?
  • What did you like most about your job?
  • What did you like least about your job?
  • How do you feel about the leadership you worked under?
  • Do you believe you received adequate sales training?
  • Did you feel supported by management?
  • Were you equipped with the right tools to do your job?
  • Were you provided with quality leads to pursue?
  • Are there any sales processes or policies that you don’t believe worked well?
  • Were you given adequate opportunities for advancement?
  • Did you find your work to be sufficiently challenging or stimulating?
  • Did you feel like your contributions were recognized and appreciated?
  • Did you find the compensation plan to be fair and adequate?
  • How do you feel about the benefits you received?
  • Do you have any suggestions for improvement?
  • Would you like to add anything else?

Plan how to capture interview content

Capturing exit interviews can be a delicate balance. You want the information you record to be complete and accurate. But you also need to stay compliant with laws and company policy. And these forces can at times be in opposition.

For example, a video recording of the exit interview will give you the most complete and accurate information capture. However, an employee who knows they’re being filmed is more likely to hedge their responses. If you don’t inform the employee that they're being recorded, you might generate higher-integrity responses, but doing so is generally viewed unfavorably and is even illegal in some jurisdictions. The backlash you’ll face when word gets out that you’re secretly recording outgoing employees is probably not worth it.

On the other hand, you could forgo all recording and simply trust your manager to take notes. But this leaves you vulnerable to human errors of omission, forgetfulness, misunderstandings, and bias.

Using a transcription service may provide a happy medium. It ensures that every word of the interview is recorded accurately, while feeling significantly less imposing than a camera in the outgoing employee’s face.

You should also keep in mind that if you try to compare exit interviews over time to identify themes, you’ll need them in a format that allows you to easily compare different responses to each question.

If using a transcription service, see whether the software allows you to add timestamps during recording. If so, you can add a new timestamp for each question from the template. Then you’ll be able to easily jump directly to the section you want to compare when reviewing in aggregate later.

Taking action after the interview

Once the interview is done, you have the chance to take action on what you’ve learned. Refer back to your plan for what you intend to get out of the interview, and proceed accordingly.

Sometimes, an exit interview will bring something to light that requires immediate action. For example, if the outgoing employee alleges any active violations of laws or company policy, you’ll want to address those right away. 

Other times, the information you gather from the interview will become most useful when taken in aggregate. If a single outgoing employee says that their manager was overbearing, it may or may not be true. Sometimes personalities just clash. But if that same bit of feedback comes up repeatedly over the course of multiple exit interviews, then it’s much more likely you have a real problem to address.

Plan when you’ll take the time to review and compare exit interviews to identify such overarching themes. Depending on turnover, you may want to do this on a quarterly, semiannual, or annual basis.

Making improvements to company culture

Your exit interviews will only be of value if you actually take action on the insights you learned and use them to make improvements to your company culture. Exit interviews can serve as a hard look in the mirror—difficult, perhaps, but ultimately necessary for improved retention and the ongoing success of your company.

But an exit interview isn't the only method for improving company culture and combating high turnover rates. There are many ways you can take action right now to prevent employees from leaving—without having to find out why once they’re already gone.

We’ve put together an in-depth guide for you in our free ebook, Retention through Culture: Why Sales Reps Leave, and What to Do about It.

Download the ebook today to learn more.

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