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Introduction to Assessment Centres

Assessment Centres have been proven as a very effective way to recruit.  It provides an opportunity for the employer to understand a candidate's actual behaviour in a 'work like' situation and therefore get beneath the skin of the 'interview façade'.  It also is a fantastic opportunity for the candidate to get to know the company, and the hiring managers, before making the decision that the business is right for them.  Defined as 'a series of multi-exercise programmes designed to identify the recruitment and promotion potential of personnel', they take a multitude of formats.

Traditionally, Assessment Centres were mostly used to recruit for junior sales or graduate sales roles however employers are now using them to recruit at all levels.  

Assessment Centres typically last a half day, or a day, and for a sales role will normally involve a sales presentation, a one-on-one interview, psychometric profiling, formal skills testing, a debate and a group exercise (which normally involves some elements of project management, planning, assimilating information, looking at financials, marketing and lateral thinking).

Assessment Centres should be in a comfortable unbiased environment, which is why they normally take place in a hotel, conference suite, training centre or recruiters office.  After the event a good Assessment Centre facilitator will offer you full feedback on your performance.  

Assessment Centres are costly to put together and the very fact that you have been selected to attend shows that the employer is interested in your background and experience.  If you are confident in your own ability and you know your strengths and limitations, then you have nothing to fear.  Now you simply have to stand out!

The History of Assessment Centres

The history of Assessment Centres date back to the middle of the Second World War where they were utilised by the British MoD to select officers from the ranks.  Originally, they were hated by the upper echelons of the military as the officers selected did not have the educational and social background of the 'traditional' officer that progressed from public school via Sandhurst into the forces.  As a consequence many of the officers selected were 'returned to unit unfit for use'!

However those that stayed demonstrated the leadership characteristics in the field that they had demonstrated during the Assessment Centre.  It therefore soon became a formidable selection tool for the forces and remains in place today.  The assessment methodology for selection was transferred into the civil service during the 1950's and 1960's before progressing into the commercial sector during the 1960's and 1970's.  Initially used in the commercial sector by large corporations primarily to screen their graduate intake, Assessment Centres are now widely used by companies of all sizes as a recruiting and selection method.  Assessment Centres are now also used to assess existing staff for training, promotion and development.

Common Assessment Centre Exercises

In-Tray Exercises

Typically you are given a series of facts and figures and asked to assimilate and present the information.  For instance, you may be asked to be 'Marketing Director of 'Widgets 'R' Us' and given a whole series of data on market trends, future projections, budgetary restraints, social trends, current spending and historical investment effectiveness, etc. You could then be asked to put together a broad overview for a yearlong advertising campaign together with broad budget and expectations.  It sounds daunting but you will be given full instruction and guidance to the exercise.  

The exercise will tease out i) are you a 'bigger picture' or a 'detail' person; a strategist or a tactician, ii) How quickly do you work, iii) How efficiently can you work, iv) How do you problem solve, v) How do you think laterally vi) How flummoxed do you get with given 'information overkill' - can you 'sort the wood from the trees', vii) How do you explore different outcomes and eventualities, viii) How do you prioritise ix) How do you 'crunch' the information to the key facts x) How effectively can you present the final data.  

Group Exercises

You will be given a scenario for which there are a multitude of potential solutions.  The key here is to manage your time effectively by delegating and splitting into smaller teams.  If you are the 'leader' then you must ensure that you effectively 'chair' the discussions and don't allow one individual to takeover (which invariably happens); debate each issue but don't be afraid to be autocratic to get the task completed within the timeframe.  

Group exercises are looking for i) How you contribute to the team (interpersonal skills) ii) How willing you are to accept ideas from others (negotiation, tact, diplomacy) iii) How forthright you are in sticking to your own viewpoint (communication, persuasions) iv) How practically minded you are (applying common sense, logical thinking) v) How you plan and delegate vi) How you follow instructions, process, procedures and rules (compliance) vii) How easily you can be distracted from the task (focus, discipline) viii) How you engage and involve others (team working) ix) How you come to and present the outcome (problem solving, creative thinking, presentation skills) and finally x) Is the conclusion logical, plausible, effective, etc.

Presentations

If you haven't been asked to prepare a presentation beforehand normally you will be asked to prepare a sales presentation on a subject of your choice.  Normal presentation rules apply (see Second Interview Presentations for hints and tips), but keep it short, make it engaging and present to the whole room not just the facilitators/assessors.  Invite questions and, if possible, use visuals such as flip charts.

Presentations are looking for i) How confident you are in public speaking ii) How fluent and articulate you are iii) How you can think on your feet (the facilitator will normally ask a question) iv) How you compose yourself, your body signals (see Body Language for Sales for more information) v) How you present your case and support it with facts and figures vi) How you plan and prepare - does the presentation follow the format 'tell them what you're going to say, say it and say it again!' i.e. agenda, body and conclusion, vii) How do your prioritise and stick to the key facts vii) How do you engage your audience, and finally viii) How do you perform under pressure?

Role-Plays

As a sales professional, I'm sure you've had your fair share of role-plays in your time!  Occasionally, Assessment Centres will bring in professional actors to play the part of the customer, and the role-plays can last as long as half an hour and take the form of a true sales meeting.  Remember, no one likes role-plays, so you are not alone.  Just imagine that it is a real work situation and do your best.  Be natural in your approach and remember the formal sales process, and you can't go wrong: i) build rapport, ii) question to understand needs, iii) Acknowledge understanding of needs iv) propose solutions including detailing features and benefits, v) gauge customers thoughts and acknowledgement, vi) semi-close, vii) overcome objections, viii) acknowledge and ix) close!  

Role-plays, when executed correctly (and this is the job of the Assessment Centre facilitator), are about as good an indicator of 'on-the-job performance' as you can get.

Debates

Normally the subject is either an obscure one or a controversial one, i.e. either the 'features and benefits of a ping pong ball' or 'Nuclear Power - good or bad'.  Debates give you the opportunity to demonstrate your ability to get others to see your way of thinking and can be a powerful demonstration of your communication and persuasion skills.  However, don't be too dogmatic, keep your cool whatever happens, listen to the opposite argument, make notes and carefully articulate your points.  

The Panel Interview

On Assessment Centres you may be interviewed by the panel as a whole or be interviewed by a several different key decision makers on a one-to-one basis throughout the day.  Treat a panel interview as you would any other interview (see days seven - First Interviews and day fourteen - second interviews of the 'Career Success Masterclass' for hints and tips).  

If it is a panel interview ensure that you have eye contact with each of the interviewers and present your answers to each and every one of the interviewers - not just the one that asked the question, or the most senior one!

Psychometric Profiling and Skills Testing

Various forms of profiling and testing take place during a typical assessment centre. 

Date published: 29th February 2024

Rob Scott, Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment, Author Photo

About the author

Rob Scott

Rob is the Managing Director of Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment, a national recruitment agency specialising in sourcing sales and marketing staff for businesses across a broad range of commercial sectors. Before setting up Aaron Wallis, Rob spent ten years at a specialist Sales and Marketing recruitment division of a £0.5BN recruitment group, leaving in 2007 as Marketing & Sales Director to establish Aaron Wallis.
 
With over 24 years of experience in sales recruitment, Rob is a History graduate with an MBA (Merit) and a PgCert in Management Practice.  In 2007, 2009 and 2013 Rob conducted the most extensive surveys of sales professionals in the UK and is a trusted authority in the sales industry. From guiding employers through the recruitment process to helping candidates find their dream job, Rob's advice has been quoted in leading publications such as Business Insider and The Independent, as well as OnRec, which host The Online Recruitment Awards every year.

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