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Hiring Salespeople

by Doug Davidoff | Mar 16, 2006 10:23:32 AM

In the recent bestseller, Freakonomics, the authors point out that when the esteemed economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, coined the phrase, “conventional wisdom,” he did not mean it as a compliment. The notion that a company must hire a salesperson that has experience selling the product or service they offer is exactly the kind of wrongheaded thinking, Galbraith was referring to.

While I rail against traditional sales methods and models, the simple truth is: if someone can sell, they can sell. Successful selling is a profession with its own unique set of systems, skills and disciplines. These have nothing to do with a particular product or service.

That’s not to say that every industry and every business within an industry doesn’t have its own special issues. But believing that a salesperson needs to have specific experience within a specific industry to be successful is like saying that an accountant needs experience within a specific industry to close the books of a business.

If you make a policy that requires industry experience when you hire a salesperson, two very bad things happen. You reduce the pool of talent you have access to. And the odds of making a successful hire decline.

Do I believe that a salesperson that can sell one thing can sell anything? No.

That’s not because there are different types of products. The reason is that there are different types of sales. There is a difference between selling services and selling products. There is a difference between selling an offering that costs $1,000 or less and $100,000 or more. There is a difference between business-to-business and business-to-consumer sales. And there’s a big difference between selling to the executive level and selling to a lower level. I could go on. But here’s the point -- when I help a company hire a salesperson, the key is to look for someone who has experience in the type of sale required, not the industry.

Let me be clear. If you are telling me that I need experience in your industry to sell your offering, you are also telling me that I need experience to understand and buy your offering.

Now, this may be the case when the purchase is highly technical. These sales are almost always focused on fundamental value which puts you in the crosshairs of commoditization. If you want break out of the commoditization trap you must simplify your offering so that any non-genius can sell it. Sales needs to be completely ‘market-facing.’ A professional salesperson has the skills to have a compelling conversation that is focused on the client. Experience within an industry has nothing to do with the ability to have a meaningful conversation. In some cases it can get in the way of having that conversation.

How can experience be bad? Because too often experience lulls a salesperson into focusing too much on the offering. He skips the step of asking probing questions and ends up not focusing enough on the issues the client is dealing with.

I’ll leave you with this thought. I can, with a high degree of accuracy, predict the first slump a new salesperson will suffer. It happens right after they first get comfortable with their offering. Think about that.

If you would like a recent white paper I wrote on the “Top 10 Mistakes Companies Make When Hiring Salespeople,” just e-mail me with your name and address.