In a recent sales management training session, one of the managers spoke up about what he believed were the qualities needed in sales candidates that would perfectly fit his business. “They must have,” he confidently stated, “at least 20 years experience in the industry. They must know the product, know the customers, and be able to price the stuff off the top of their head.” I thought he would add that they must also know how to ride unicorns without holding the reins, but he didn’t. Do you share this view about the requirement of industry experience and product knowledge?
I asked him how long he had been in the business. “Thirty years,” he said. I asked him if he sucked for the first 19. He said “no.”
Dave Kurlan recently wrote a fantastic science-backed series of articles on getting the selection criteria right for sales candidates, showing how to predict with 92% accuracy whether they would be successful. Click here for Part 1 and click here for Part 2 of that series. He even showed how to get at least as good as 83% accuracy predicting the success of recent college grads!
To analyze the “Perfect Fit,” he looked at 26 different criteria related to things like selling skills, beliefs and selling-specific “DNA,” all within a selling context for that business in that selling environment. Guess which one was not on the list. You’re right! It was Industry Experience.
Now having said all that, to reduce, but not eliminate, the pushback to this article, let me be clear. Industry knowledge is important for selling. In fact, you better know it, because your prospect does. This is the internet age, after all, and working within that context is precisely the challenge of this new era for today’s salespeople. If you want to help your prospects, it’s good if you know more than they do. But in this same era, it is not often the case that you know more, and because of that, you need to bring something else to the table. Otherwise, you risk bringing nothing new but your price.
Selling is hard enough on it’s own. In widely-respected business author, Dan Pink’s book, To Sell is Human, Pink shares with the rest of the business community what you and I in sales already know - that sales is a profession. Knowledge about an industry, a product, or a service is just that – knowledge. Selling is a profession that requires skills and abilities that need to be learned, tuned, and practiced. Selling acumen, selling skills, and selling-specific “DNA” is more important to your success than industry experience or product knowledge, even if that experience and knowledge are requirements for your success.
In many areas of life, we see people getting stuck on details that masquerade as the real story. The map, after all, is not the real territory. It’s just someone’s representation of the territory. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote The Black Swan, learned this on the trading floors of Chicago, New York, and London. In his book, Antifragile, he writes of a very successful trader of Green Lumber at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange who genuinely thought the lumber was painted green rather than that it was simply ‘freshly cut,” and this was after years of trading it! And he was darn good at it. That’s one example. Here’s another. The guy in the London Exchange considered to be one of the very best traders of Swiss currency at the time, could barely place Switzerland on a map and didn’t know what languages were most commonly spoken there. It was Taleb who coined the phrase, ‘Green Lumber Fallacy,’ to describe this phenomenon. We could call it the Product Knowledge Fallacy in our world.
Goodness! What’s wrong with these people who don't know what they are trading or who aren't superstar experts in their product? The answer is, nothing. They are excellent at what they do. The problem is with our observers' view of what we think is important. And when we’re immersed in an area of expertise and know all the players and all the nuances about the product, it’s easy to mistake the map for the territory.
Getting back to my recent sales management training session, this one manager, as stated earlier, insisted that any new sales candidates have at least 20 years of experience in working with ‘fluids’ such as hydraulic fluid and motor oil. After a five-minute role-play, with the manager playing the part of the prospect, he, and the others in the room comprising managers and VP’s, with an audible gasp at the conclusion, were disposed of this belief. For a transcript of the role-play, click here.
How often does your company get sales selection right?
- Does your selection criteria need to change?
- Do you attract the very best candidates?
- Is your selection process efficient and effective?
- Is your compensation aligned with the job description?
- Will your on-boarding process support retention of the very best?
You don’t always have to know what green lumber means to be successful selling green lumber. Sometimes we miss what is most important because we are fooled either by conventional wisdom or by our own misconceptions. And just because sales candidate selection at your company hasn’t given you satisfactory results, doesn’t mean the selection process cannot be optimized going forward. Try using the same accurate and predictive sales candidate assessment tool that has been voted best Sales and Marketing Assessment Tool four years in a row at the popular sales website, TopSalesWorld.com. Learn more here.
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