Sales Managers Err In Biasing Toward Years Of Sales Experience In Making Hiring Decisions

Thousands of sales managers, and the human resources (HR) teams that support them, consider years of relevant sales experience to be a key criterion for recruiting and hiring salespeople. In the new economy, however, sales experience is an unreliable indicator of future success versus another key characteristic. In fact, assumptions about sales experience that have guided sales hiring for more than a hundred years should be discarded in the age of the customer, in which buying dynamics have radically changed.

Successful sales managers, now, will focus on hiring salespeople who are best able to deeply understand their customers and align with their buyer's communication needs and preferences, as opposed to their product or vendor-industry expertise. Buyer empathy may be found in highly experienced salespeople or developed in inexperienced salespeople.

Sales Experience Is Not An Inherent Advantage For Engaging With Executive Buyers

Corporate leaders consistently tell us that they want their salespeople to engage with executive buyers earlier in their decision process in order to sell more and better business. Our executive insights research shows that this strategy leads to a dramatically higher probability of winning (see our report "What Does It Take To Win With Executive Buyers?"). It also clearly shows that executives are not satisfied with salespeople because 80% of salespeople are product focused, and executive buyers are interested in solving business problems, not in being "pitched" on products (see "What's On A Seller's Agenda?"). Our data shows that executive buyers do want to work with salespeople who deeply understanding their roles, their companies, and their challenges, but not with product-oriented salespeople.

Why Experience Doesn't Matter Anymore

Think about it. For more than a century, companies have focused sales training on developing their salespeople into product experts ("product" is used here to indicate products or services). That made sense when buyers needed salespeople to be the experts to help them make decisions on products. It may still make sense if you have a high-transaction-volume, low-overhead business model and your strategy is call-center selling to procurement-type buyers. In that case, you may want low-cost product-expert sales reps (of any experience level). However, most companies we talk with want larger and higher margin deals, which are accomplished by working with buyers at higher altitudes in companies to help them understand (or become aware of) their challenges and opportunities well before discussing product solutions. Today, reps (experienced or otherwise) who prematurely jump to product discussions are not invited back 80% of the time.

So in hiring any salesperson, a manager should be concerned with hiring candidates who are aligned with what your buyers want and need. I'm certainly not suggesting that you not hire experienced salespeople. To the contrary, I am saying hire the right salespeople for the types of buyers you want them to work with, regardless of experience, based on the competency or capability of buyer empathy. That right person could be a 23-year sales veteran just as much as they may be a bright young graduate with a blank-slate enthusiasm for understanding your buyers' challenges. As an example, note the variations in the graphic below in perceptions of salespeople of various experience levels. The least experienced salespeople are actually more in sync with their highly experienced counterparts, overall, than those reps with 6 to 10 years of experience.

For some additional examples of perception differences among reps with different experience levels, see the following reports:

It's Time To Adapt Your Hiring And Development To Align With Your Buyers

Incredibly well-developed depth of understanding and empathy for the buyers your company serves is clearly a differentiator, based on our executive insights research. This competency may be developed, or it may be recruited. We believe that an inexperienced rep with the right training and coaching in customer empathy can greatly outperform an experienced rep with a traditional product orientation. Likewise, you can hire an inexperienced rep and crush their potential of selling to executives by immersing them in traditional product-oriented training and messaging.

Today, recruiting and hiring should be based on finding candidates that map to the needs of your buyers, rather than on years of selling experience. Further, ongoing training and development should be refocused to develop buyer empathy with every salesperson, regardless of tenure with your company.

Attend Forrester's Forum For Sales Enablement Professionals, where we'll be diving into practical new approaches to improve sales hiring and development methods.