This is an excerpt from my second book, Managing the Sales Process, available on Amazon.com. You can find a series of these excerpts in a dedicated blog category to get a broad overview, post-by-post, of the book (they are listed in reverse order in the category, so start with the oldest).

From Chapter 1 – Industry and prior sales experience

Another typical, auto-pilot, not-necessarily useful category that is used as selection criteria for new salespeople is previous industry and/or sales experience. While there are some benefits to hiring someone with experience, especially in your industry (which will be discussed at the end of this section), there are some potential pitfalls to watch out for as well.

If the candidate is coming from a sales position in your industry, or any sales position really, the obvious question to ask is why he or she left their current position? You will want to ask this directly to that candidate and also to their references from a former company.

From the salesperson, you will want to watch out for negativity and excuse-making. These are dangerous character traits that will be addressed in detail later in this chapter. For now, if your candidate has nothing but bad things to say about the last job, look at how long he or she stayed there. Was it for several years? If so, when did it start getting bad and how did he or she try to correct the situation?

Was it just for a few months? How did he or she learn so quickly that the company or position or manager was so bad, and ─ again ─ what was done to try to correct the situation?

What is important to recognize here is a character trait, not necessarily a specific answer. It is quite possible that the last experience was a bad one, but what is most relevant for the purposes of salesperson evaluation is knowing what action was taken by the salesperson to remedy it. Sales is tough, and even in the best of circumstances hard situations will come up. You want to hire people who can keep a level head and be cool about approaching a solution to the problem or obstacle they are facing.

You will also want to ask the salesperson for references from his or her former employer. If you are told that it is not possible because of how things were left, this is a potential red flag. Even in situations where people disagree you want to hire a person capable of getting through with some grace and goodwill. Otherwise, it may soon be your potential clients getting the wrong idea about your firm.

Of course, it is possible that the poor guy really did have a horrible boss, in which case ask to speak to someone else at the company who can provide a more objective perspective. If that is not possible, or in addition, ask for references to former suppliers, clients, and other business contacts who worked with your candidate while he was at the former company. From these contacts, you will want to get as much information as you can about the character of the person you are hiring, and if possible, some validation of the friction with the boss and whether the boss is known for this kind of relationship.

What is most important about talking with the sales candidate about a former position ─ in your industry or not ─ is the degree of positive vs. negative attitudes toward approaching both good and bad situations; proactive efforts to improve bad situations and sales performance in general; a lack of excuse-making about negative situations; and more preferably a sense of taking personal responsibility for resolving situations that arose within the company, the industry, the economy, and with clients.

The specific answers are not nearly as important as these traits. Look for them and your interview will give you the information you need to distinguish potential winners from the salespeople you wish you never hired.

A candidate’s manager most likely will be wary of sharing bad information about a former employee. So ask specific questions that are objective in nature, such as:

  • Was the candidate typically in the top half of sales performers
  • Did the candidate typically make quota
  • Was his or her tenure with the company longer or shorter than average

Although basically objective, these questions will provide insight into the candidate’s performance relative to peers. With this information and resume data (how long at each position going back in time) and the character traits you observe in the candidate’s responses to your questions, you can start to get a good picture of what this person will be like if hired.

Where industry and/or sales experience can be useful is in shortening ramp-up time, or the time that it takes the sales candidate to be productive for you as a salesperson.

In any sales job, there are at least three things at play in ramp-up time:

  • Industry and market knowledge
  • Company knowledge
  • Sales capability (including the hunger and drive to succeed)

Most of what is covered in this section of the book is about sales capability. Company knowledge, including the specific details of your products, culture, and administrative requirements, can’t be known beforehand and will need to be taught to new hires.

That leaves industry knowledge; familiarity with this will save time. A salesperson who knows people in the industry, terminology, trends, product categories, etc. simply will be ready to sell quicker than one who does not. If you are in a highly complex industry, this may be important. That said, most people tend to overestimate the complexity of their industry.

A person with the right sales skills and attitudes will be hungry to learn and get started. A hungry salesperson without industry experience will take longer to ramp up than an equally hungry salesperson with industry knowledge, but probably not as long as you think. A weak salesperson with industry knowledge will find plenty of things to slow him or her down. Conversely, you may need to hold great salespeople back to be sure they know enough about the industry to avoid being dangerous in front of a customer. Which would you prefer?

A weak salesperson with industry knowledge will be ready to sell sooner, but a strong salesperson will be far more effective once he or she is up to speed. Given these dynamics, hiring a strong salesperson will pay off over time, regardless of prior industry experience. Getting a weak salesperson into the field quickly will never yield more than weak results. This is your trade-off; consider it carefully!

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Authors note (AKA shameless plugs)

So, this 7-step sales process and associated topics…. Yup, I write about that a lot. I’ve been working with it since I developed it about 25 years ago – in my own diverse work experiences, with my teams when I had them, and with clients ever since.

If you would like to develop you own personalized and customized, highly effective and efficient B2B selling system, here are some further steps you can take:

The Salesman’s Guide to Dating is a free or very cheap (depending on Amazon) Kindle book that walks you through the sales process using the familiar analogy of dating. It’s a good, fun and quick way to get your mind around the whole process and how the pieces fit together.

Building Your Sales Process (BYSP) is a free and very thorough exploration of the same 7-step process that will walk you through the development of your own customized, personal B2B selling system. When you are done, you will know exactly what to do to get new business.

The Momentum Selling System® is an inexpensive but very robust online sales training course that is similar to BYSP, but goes deeper into the concepts behind each of the steps, and also helps you develop a plan not only for the 7-step process but also addresses mindset, repeat business and client base management.

If none of that sounds right, I do personal coaching and offer a free 30-minute intake session so that we can both learn if it makes sense to work together 1-on-1. If this sounds interesting, click over to the coaching page on this site and sign up for the free session.

Here’s to your success!

-David