New Sales Hire: Industry Experience or “Best Athlete”?

20 Mar 23

Sales managers debate which is better when hiring: industry experience or a “best athlete” candidate. Learn why we typically pick the best athletes.

Hiring sales stars is an important yet challenging task for every sales manager. One challenge is whether to hire based on industry experience or hire the “best athlete” (someone with limited industry experience and exceptional selling skills). Use the following tips to find the right person for the job. 

Debunking Industry Experience Myths

It’s an interesting dilemma. Someone with industry experience likely comes equipped with product and service knowledge, a stable of valuable contacts, and a well-honed approach to dealing with buyer personalities. But, someone with industry experience can also be very set in his or her ways. And those contacts might not be so valuable upon closer examination. Many contacts may prefer to continue doing business with the salesperson’s previous employer while other contacts may have moved on to different roles or industries.

On the other hand, the best athlete who has top-selling skills and fits your job profile is much more likely to perform well in any environment. Sales hiring is similar to a Football Recruiter looking for top talent. Both want the best athlete candidates with the intangible qualities necessary for success. This includes energy, focus, and toughness which can be readily applied to any situation, including the sales world.

The best athlete candidates, similar to sports athletes also have a growth mindset. They are always looking to develop their talents through consistent training, coaching, and practice. 

We generally advocate hiring the best athlete candidates since research shows that people who are good at selling can learn to sell anything well.

Industry Experience "Can" Be Essential

There are scenarios where it makes sense to seriously consider industry experience over the best athlete candidates:

  • The learning curve (regarding product features or knowing how to sell to high-level decision-makers) is steep and it will take too long for a new hire to ramp up without industry experience.
  • You sell in an industry with a small, tight-knit network of buyers and your candidate has existing relationships with those potential buyers.

If either of these points is true for your organization, then industry experience is an important consideration when hiring a sales employee.

Use a Job Profile 

Hiring is not an exact science so the ongoing debate of Industry Experience versus Best Athlete doesn't always have a prescribed winner. But one way to improve your odds of success is using a job profile. 

While the job description includes qualification criteria like experience and technical skills; it does not include the specific selling skills and intangible qualities that lead to long-term success in your organization. Think about the strengths of your top sales performers. What communication, selling skills, and technical proficiencies do they possess? Understanding what your ideal hire looks like in terms of expertise, personal behaviors, and attributes helps you find the right fit for your sales role. 

In Summary 

Industry experience candidates bring valuable knowledge and important industry contacts that can be a great fit for your sales team. On the other hand, the best athlete candidates typically have strong selling skills, great intangible qualities, and a growth mindset ideal for long-term success.

While we tend to lean heavily toward the best athlete candidates, no two sales organizations are exactly the same. That's why using a job profile that identifies your specific selling skills, technical needs, and intangible success qualities is key. Ultimately, the hiring decision between industry experience and the best athlete comes down to finding the candidate who is the perfect match for your job profile. 

If you want to help your Sales Managers learn how to recruit and hire sales stars to drive top-line growth, you might be interested in our High-Impact Sales Manager program. This program provides sales managers with the essential skills and practical tools to build, manage, coach, and lead high-performing sales teams. Learn more here.

Interested in more insight about hiring Sales Managers and staffing your sales teams? Try these articles.

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