It’s not always easy to know where to start when you’re sizing up a new opportunity. Chances are you’re dealing with an organization you know very little about; you have lots of questions, there are lots of unknowns. You can go in there and wing-it, or you can borrow a page from someone like myself, a veteran ecommerce hiring recruiter who has been taking ecommerce job assignments since the dawn of the internet. I have it down to not just an art, but a science. Interviewers judge candidates on lots of criteria- your past jobs, track record, your character, job stability, the list goes on and on. And whether you realize it or not, they also judge you by the questions you ask. It has been well established that asking questions shows intelligence and strength. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, once said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” I owe my own success as a 30-year veteran marketing and ecommerce hiring recruiter largely to my ability to ask questions. I quiz employers and candidates all day long. I never assume that I know what I need to know. In that regard, I am like a detective- when I get an answer to a question, I frequently respond with a follow up question.
When you’re sitting in front of a hiring manager or HR (or on a Zoom call), you need to be that detective. Let me help you make sure you never run out of questions to ask.
Here’s Your “A” List of Questions From an Experienced Ecommerce Hiring Recruiter
-How many employees do they have?
-Who owns the business?
-Is its financial condition stable?
-Is there a strong demand for its products or services?
-Will it be introducing new products or services in the near future?
-Has it grown steadily or rapidly in the past five years?
-How does its rate of growth compare with with the rest of the industry?
-What are it’s long-term goals?
-Is its success dependent on the overall economy?
-Is its success dependent on government spending?
-Is its business concentrated with just a few very large clients?
Ecommerce Department Profile
-How big is the ecommerce staff?
-Is it a profit center?
-Is the ecommerce business siloed from other departments, or is there a close degree of collaboration?
-How important are it’s functions to senior management?
-Why is this job being created?
-How is the ecommerce department structured?
-What are the top metrics you use to measure the performance of your ecommerce business?
-What is the management style of the ecommerce leader? (assuming you are interviewing for a role that reports up to this person)
DON’T ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT COMPENSATION DURING YOUR FIRST INTERVIEW. Plenty of time to bring that up as the process unfolds. You might ask, “Don’t I want to know if we’re even in the ballpark so I’m not wasting my time”? Yes. But I have seen many positions get re-classified to make room for someone who brings more to the table, and that will never even come up for consideration unless there is at least one initial conversation.
-What is the formal title of the position? (sometimes the response you get will be different from the job posting, or there might be some flexibility depending on the person they hire)
-Is the company ready and able to hire now?
-How long will it take to make the hiring decision?
-Who is the direct supervisor for this position, and their title?
-How long has the job been open?
-How many candidates have been interviewed? Why were they rejected ?(this last question could be one of the most important questions you ask. The “exclusionary” nature of this question gives me more insight into exactly what the employer is looking for than just about any other question I can ask)
Any close calls (offers that went and were turned down, etc)?
-What happens if this role remained unfilled after 90 days? (I use 90 days because that is typically a realistic time frame for a search to play out from initial interviews to start date. You want to know if they will have some serious explaining to do if it goes any longer).
-Was someone is this same job previously, and if not, who was doing it?
-If someone was in it before, what happened, and how is it nowchanging, if at all?
-What are the 3-5 key things this person needs to accomplished in order to be successful in this job? (This question should be asked right at the beginning of thei nterview so you can frame responses around your past successes to alisng what they are looking for. It is no over-exaggeration that I call this question “the keys to the job”)
-What is the minimum educational requirement for a suitable candidate?
-What industries or employers do you think would have people with the best backgrounds for this opportunity? (kind of a loaded question but a fair question because we know they have thought about this).
-Do you hold annual performance reviews?
-Any overnight travel required?
-What are the titles of the direct reports to this role (if applicable).
-How would you characterize the bench strength of this staff? Have they been with the company very long? Do anticipate that some changes will need to be made?
These questions will help you construct a detailed profile of the company and should give you a realistic appraisal of the full dimension of the job.
A lot of candidates ask me about titles- should you accept a job with a lateral title, a lower title, a more generic title, or one that is less descriptive? The answer is that it depends. Titles for ecommerce and digital marketing jobs are all over the map. Some are very straightforward- Vice President of Ecommerce, Director of Digital Marketing. Others are more creative- Vice President of Online Revenue, Director of Digital Assets. As a very experienced and seasoned ecommerce hiring recruiter I’ve seen these titles and everything in between. Just remember that when you are being sized up for your next opportunity, employers are going to be most interested in the size and scope of your ROLE, and less caught up with your exact title. For example, I know “Ecommerce Managers” with Fortune 100 companies whose staff and P and L rival VP’s of Ecommerce with smaller businesses. Title “deflation”, as I like to call it, is common among larger multi-national corporations. That’s simply because there are more of these individuals. General Electric, with all of its operating divisions, has hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals engaged in digital commerce. A small $10 million dollar privately held ecommerce apparel business might have only a small handful, so it stands to reason that a “Manager” at GE is going to have higher levels of responsibility. Does that make the VP of Ecommerce at the smaller company any less skilled than the Manager at GE? Absolutely not. In fact, a move to a Manager role at GE could represent a substantial step-up.
There are some situations, however, where your best move in title may be down a notch in order to eventually move up. As an ecommerce hiring recruiter I see that sometimes with candidates who have strong agency backgrounds and they want to move to the brand side. A Vice President at an agency has a very different job than a Vice President of Ecommerce with a brand. But that agency VP might just find that job their looking for as a Director on the brand side, allowing them to get that client-side experience and then after a few years if promotional opportunities don’t materialize, start looking for a more senior-level brand side opportunity that carries a VP title.
It’s easy to get caught up thinking about the short-term, but your career is a game of long ball. Many candidates I know haven’t blinked to go lateral in title if the position allows them to deepen certain marketing skills they need to help set them up for more executive level opportunities down the road. The other trend I’ve been seeing in recent years are titles that are more generic, such as “Head” or “Lead”. Sometimes these are actual formal titles on job descriptions, but candidates are also swapping lower level titles on their resumes for these more non-descrip monikers in situations where they view their current title as a distinct competitive disadvantage. I just worked with a candidate who is a perfect example of this. His current title is “Sr. Manager”, but he holds a big role with a huge enterprise software player we all know. The jobs he is interested in are VP’s, and he fits all the requirements and then some, but he’s afraid prospective employers will take one look at his title and put him in the “B” stack. So, on his resume he is changing it from Sr. Manager to “Head”, because he is indeed heading up a segment of marketing that heads up marketing for a specific vertical industry, and he makes that distinction very clear on his resume. I told him I have no problem with it since it does not conflict with other formal titles within the organization, and by putting it in the proper context he is not misrepresenting the scope of the role. If it ever comes up in an interview, I told him it should not raise any red flags as long as he is very honest and straightforward about why he decided to tweak the title.
Bottom line: Never make a job move based on title alone. Titles will change during the course of your career and most of the time they are totally outside of your control. What IS in your control are your skills and track record, so keep your eye on the ball and focus on building your value proposition for your next opportunity. Titles will eventually come.
Jerry Bernhart, Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC, is a preeminent ecommerce hiring recruiter in ecommerce, digital and omnichannel marketing. Jerry has been recruiting and placing marketing professionals for more than 33 years. With more than 200 published articles on his blog and LinkedIn profile, and widely quoted by leading business publishers including Bloomberg, AdAge, AdWeek, DigitalCommerce 360 and Target Marketing, Jerry is the “voice” of best practices in the recruitment and hiring of ecommerce and digital marketing professionals. Jerry is also the author of the critically acclaimed book, “Careers in Ecommerce and Digital Marketing,” on Amazon, and participates in many leading digital marketing and ecommerce conferences and webinars. He is also a vetted member of the Clarity.fm faculty of experts, specializing in the fields of digital commerce. Check out Jerry’s other insights on the Thought Leadership section of the Bernhart Associates website.