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Hiring: Industry Experience or Sales Expertise?

Updated: Nov 5




These days, it is common among HR personnel, recruiters, and even sales managers to prize industry experience over sales expertise. While it seems that a sales candidate with knowledge of your industry would possess an advantage over a candidate without such "relevant experience, "this is an invalid and potentially costly presumption – a presumption that often results from a lack of knowledge about, and appreciation for, what constitutes sales expertise.

The truth, in fact, is that most of those involved in the hiring of sales representatives (including the sales manager) simply do not have objective knowledge about sales, and, therefore, know only about sales as it relates to their company or industry. The value of sales expertise is usually unrecognized by those who hire. Their assessment of a candidate's ability to sell is limited to the candidate's industry-specific knowledge. Ironically, industry knowledge is, in most cases, something that may be acquired quickly and is secondary to a sales expert's ability to sell.

Research findings, widely published online by a variety of sales support resources, indicate that, in fact, sales leaders need to improve their knowledge about sales. It makes sense that someone who hires salespeople and lacks objective knowledge about sales would hire sales reps with industry experience rather than sales experience. Such candidates would be expected to know how to sell the products or services of the industry upon hire, but this is not necessarily true. Industry knowledge is not tantamount to sales knowledge.


Hiring Salespeople

A word about hiring salespeople: while the hiring process of sales professionals varies in accordance with the competencies required by a specific position (entry-level to executive-level), in most cases, consideration for a candidate's industry-specific experience should not be central to a decision against a candidate. As mentioned, knowledge of an industry, a product line, or the issues related to selling specific products and services may be acquired quickly compared with the time required for someone to develop the skills and knowledge about selling reliably, regardless of industry. The assessment of qualifications for sales candidates should take into account appropriate criteria about sales capability and be independent of industry knowledge. The criteria should be based on work that is specific to a sales operation's performance standard and the requirements for the particular capacity in sales.

Over the years, as a consultant, I have witnessed countless interviews of sales candidates—both entry and senior level. Commonly, interviewers inquire only generally about a candidate’s sales experience and rarely inquire about their specific knowledge of sales, even as it relates to the candidate's ability to engage work directly relevant to the position. Rarely do interviewers explore sales candidates' ability to find and qualify prospective clients, nurture sales opportunities, manage data, connect and engage prospective clients, gain referrals, forecast sales, deal with resistance, develop and apply sales strategies, etc., all of which are essential to success in sales.

Foundational Considerations

In sales, foundational considerations are the critically important areas of a specific sales function (not industry knowledge). It is against these considerations that a sales candidate should initially be assessed. Obviously, candidates who do not measure well against these considerations should be immediately disqualified. These should be the four considerations at issue when interviewing sales candidates:


1. Aptitude/Capability

This area assesses basic sales knowledge, skill level, and sales achievements.

2. Prerequisites

Here, the candidate is evaluated against your internal standards required of staff in your sales operation. This would be your tier-two qualification criteria.

3. Requirements

This area deals with position-specific requirements and expectations, which may include competencies and accomplishments relevant to the position, but not industry experience.

4. Compatibility

The forth essential consideration deals with compatibility—how, as a member of your sales operation, the candidate will enhance the environment of your workplace and support the company’s aspirations and culture.



In order to be fair to job candidates and thorough in your efforts to hire well, a simple Candidate Qualification Rubric should be used for each candidate in your hiring process. The rubric should be specific to your company and the requirements of the position. The rubric supports attempts to objectively assess candidates and should include all relevant considerations. A point-value metric or "Y" or "N" (to indicate “yes” or “no”) approach to the rubric may be used. The rubric, however, should not be the sole basis for your determination of a candidate's viability, since it uses largely (if not wholly) quantitative measures. Turn also to qualitative measures by drawing, for example, from the lessons learned from your sales operation. Consider candidates' compatibility against what you know about your current staff—their experiences to sell for your company. Keep in mind what you know about selling to your type of customer, particularly in conditions or situations specific to your company. Present actual or hypothetical situations to explore how a candidate thinks about and approaches sales situations by asking questions that require descriptive or prescriptive responses. You now have a sufficient basis by which to judge sales candidates.

#StevenRobertYoung | #IDEAL


Copyright © 2020 Steven Robert Young. All rights reserved.


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