You’re a hiring manager trying to fill a role at your company. One morning, you receive the CVs of two very competent candidates. One of the candidates has sales experience within your sector and the other has sales experience from elsewhere. But they both know how to sell. Which one do you choose?
Don’t answer that. Given a straight 50-50, you’d go for the one with relevant sector experience. Am I right? The scary thing is, the vast majority of companies would probably say exactly the same thing.
Companies’ requirements are getting more and more specific. Typical white collar work is increasingly being split into its component parts, each of which can be managed by a particular expert. In a working world that’s becoming increasingly specialised – “inch-wide, mile-deep,” call it what you will – it’s getting harder for recruiters to find the right people for all the jobs out there. It’s what we call a candidate-short market. People, people everywhere but not a suitable candidate for my sales position.
You might think that an individual with experience of your sector will make a faster start, require less training and an easier induction. You might think they’ll have built-in knowledge of how to sell a specific product to a specific client of a specific level. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be any good at it. By making the obvious hire, you’re not necessarily making the right hire – but what you are doing is shutting the door to a whole world of talent in order to stick to what you know. As the notoriously high turnover in sales might tell you, that won’t necessarily work all the time. Besides, it’s easier to teach someone about a new set of products or services than it is to teach them sales skills.
In a candidate-short market, we need people with wider experience and knowledge of working across products and industries. By not being immersed in your sector, they can bring fresh perspectives to your business and new suggestions on how you can do things better – things you’d never have found out by hiring from closer to home. Who’s to say that someone who’s spent years selling life assurance – building genuine relationships with their customers, dealing with complex, life-changing issues with sensitivity and understanding – won’t have the people skills to do a similar job in recruitment?
Strangely enough, this cross-sector hiring seems to happen quite readily in the upper echelons of an organisation. Companies will happily bring in a new CEO from any sector or industry, with only one major requirement: that they are a proven leader. They will then follow a 90-day period of observation, assessment, conversations before the new CEO inevitably brings in their own people. Okay, so you’d like to think a salesperson won’t take quite as long to get started. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be just as open-minded with our hiring at sales level.
If you’ve ever wondered why you sometimes struggle to find the right people, your narrow selection criteria might just be the answer. It’s therefore necessary to adopt a longer-term approach. By casting your net wider, you’re transferring skills and perspectives across industries. You’re widening the candidate pool. You’re creating more of the “right” people. Who knows: sometime in the future, you might not only find it easier getting the right candidates, but they might also have a wider set of skills with which to help your business. Then you really will have to think about which one to pick.
In future you need to be selecting new sales recruits based on behaviours, attitudes and ability rather than what they have done before.
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