When hiring, experience can be overrated

The highest odds of hiring a highly productive salesperson is to hire a person with the raw talent to do the job, someone who has done the job before and performed it well, and a person who possesses the temperament to work productively alongside coworkers.

Talent, experience and chemistry: Hire these three attributes and you have hired a person who is highly likely to meet your performance standards.

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Now, which of these attributes would you eliminate to achieve the second highest odds of success? The answer is experience. The reason experience is the correct answer is because experience is all you can teach. Talent and chemistry are innate or inborn.

My first sales job was as an outside sales representative for GAF Corporation. I had never sold anything in my life, but after two or three months of working under the tutorage of a veteran salesperson, I began to catch on and pretty soon I was working on my own and beginning to enjoy some success in sales.

My company also invested in me. My sales manager spent a lot of time with me personally and exposed me to a training program that taught me the principles of salesmanship. By the end of my first year in the field, I received an award for bringing in more new customers than anyone else on the sales team. My customers and prospects understood that I was new to sales and were extremely patient with me as I learned my craft.

I believe a lot of hiring managers don’t want to have to train a green salesperson; they want someone to come to work with the product knowledge and the sales skills they need to hit the ground running. I also believe it’s always in the back of many sales managers’ minds that they may be hiring salespeople who can bring some of their old customers with them when they change companies.

As a sales manager, I have been guilty of this kind of thinking myself. And some of the salespeople I hired from a competitor brought some business with them, but they never brought anywhere near the dollar volume they promised when they were interviewing for the job.

Based on my experience, companies located in the same trade area that take this approach to hiring often end up passing around each others’ rejects.

While my years as a salesperson and sales manager taught me not to completely ignore experience and concentrate exclusively on talent and chemistry, I did learn to keep experience in perspective.

All of us veteran salespeople were at one time raw recruits, but the time required for us to gain the experience we needed was far less time consuming than we initially anticipated. We learned enough about the products we sold and our customers’ needs to do a good enough job to earn a good living.

I have personally benefitted from asking several openended interview questions when interviewing one of my competitor’s salespeople who are thinking about changing companies:

• What tactics have been most effective for you when pursuing new customers?
• Why do you believe your best customers do business with you?
• What do you believe is your greatest strength as a salesperson?
• How much commission income do you need to earn to maintain your current lifestyle?
• If you were to make a career change, what qualities are you expecting to find in your new employer?

Experience is a fickle attribute. Some people have had 20 years experience, while others have had one year of experience 20 times. There is a huge difference. So when hiring, I encourage my clients to focus on hiring salespeople who possess the talent and chemistry they need, and let your new hires get their experience under your managers’ tutorage.

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