Hiring a Salesperson for Their Experience? Read This First.


Sales experience doesn't always mean success

You’re hiring a salesperson and you can’t decide between candidates. Most break the tie by choosing the person with experience, but is that the right thing to do? Experienced candidates fail to meet expectations all the time. But why? This piece unpacks why prior sales experience doesn’t always predict success and provides 6 lessons for identifying if a candidate’s experience means they’re more likely to perform.

Evaluating experience is more relevant than ever

Using prior experience to predict sales success is key to hiring, but it’s becoming more difficult to do.

In the late 1970s, Americans had seven employers in their lifetime. Now they have 12, and that’s only by the time they’re 48. The same pattern appears in sales where today’s reps only stick around for 1.4 years.

This implies two things for hiring: 1) People leave and you have to find replacements more frequently and 2) The people you replace them with have more diverse sets of experience.

Interpreting sales experience for hiring is a more common and complex task than ever. Figuring it out can offer a significant competitive advantage. It’s hard to do, but luckily it’s a skill. And it’s something you can improve at.

The elusive relationship between experience and job performance

Sometimes prior success translates, and sometimes it doesn’t. Why? Academics have tried to answer this question for years, but with no success.

This changed in 2008 when a group of researchers took a different approach. Until then, studies assumed that: experience = knowledge + skill. But this group thought differently. What if experience brings more than knowledge and skill? What if it also brings habits that aren’t useful in a new environment and therefore impedes success?

When the researchers thought about job experience in this way, results were revealing. Here are six ways you can use their findings to improve the way you evaluate sales experience and hire better salespeople.

Lesson #1 – Don’t Overvalue Past Performance

Salespeople love talking up past performance, and it’s easy to get swept up by it. But you shouldn’t. Here’s why:

Every job consists of tasks. As a person performs those tasks well over time, they’re rewarded. The results are job-specific habits and an expectation about how success is achieved.

The research showed this makes experienced people less adaptable, less coachable, and less likely to succeed. And it makes sense. Do you want someone who will fight every step of the way when you make a suggestion?

Next time you’re considering an experienced sales candidate, take past performance with a  grain of salt. There’s a lot more it might bring to the table.

Lesson #2 – Ask About Sales Tasks

Experienced salespeople rarely come in and kill it right away – proof that not all sales jobs are the same. But some sales jobs are more alike than others. How do you tell if a person’s experience is relevant?  

The answer? Sales tasks.

Consider a rep selling at a massive company. What sales tasks do they need to perform well to be successful? They deal with a high volume of educated buyers in a clearly defined sales process. But what if you’re a small company with less leads, less educated buyers, and an ad hoc sales process? In this case, a rep’s experience coming from a larger company may not translate in regard to tasks. They’ve proven they can provide a need, qualify leads, and stick to a process. They haven’t proven they can evangelize, squeeze value out of every possible lead, and make it up as they go along. 

The way to figure out if a person’s skills and knowledge will translate is to ask about their previous sales job. How did they work? What was the process? Be specific, and you’ll build a better sense of if they’re likely to perform.

Lesson #3 – Tenure May Indicate Rigidity

What if you have two candidates with 5 years of experience each. One spent 5 years in a single sales job, and the other held two different sales jobs in that time. Should you consider them differently? The answer is “yes.”

The longer a person has been in a single role, the more likely they’ll have problems adapting. The researchers showed that job-based habits have magnitude – and the longer a person is in a role, the more pronounced they become.

When a candidate has an especially long tenure at a single company, value their experience but make sure you take other factors into consideration as well.

Lesson #4 – Check for Coachability

A person’s sales experience doesn’t align well, but your gut says they’re a great fit. What should you do?

Think of experience as an equation with two parts: The first part is skills and knowledge, which has a positive impact on experience. The second part is habits, which have a negative impact.

If you can’t guarantee that the skills and knowledge of a person’s experience are relevant, then you need to make sure their habits won’t be an issue. The best thing to do is check for coachability.

Ask the candidate to pitch you something. Make sure they’re compromising with their sales habits. Give them several rounds of feedback and see how they adjust. Coachable people will easily change their approach. Take this as confidence that they’ll adjust well.

Lesson #5 – Evaluate The Diversity Of Past Successes

What if a candidate has way more sales jobs on their resume than anyone else? Can you draw insights from that?

Lots of sales jobs on a person’s resume can mean they’re highly adaptable, they keep getting laid off, or they get bored easily.

The best thing to do is make reference checks. If a person is consistently successful across multiple types of sales jobs, it’s safe to assume they’re adaptable and that their experience will translate. If performance was inconsistent, then bring other factors into consideration.

Lesson #6 – Check For Culture Fit

You’ve evaluated the relevance of past experience, checked for coachability, but you still don’t feel you have enough information to make a decision. Is there anything else?

Yes. Evaluate culture fit.

Culture fit is long-proven to predict job choice and commitment. But this study adds more. It suggests that culture fit also predicts job performance in experienced candidates.

The researchers found that good culture fit made experienced candidates more adaptable and less subject to the downside of their experience. Culture fit predicted performance, but in an indirect way.

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Chris Hill

Chris Hill

Chris stands on street corners educating people about the new world of data-driven hiring. If lost, please return to Hire Smarter.