Building Teams: The Fallacy of Industry Experience

Don’t make the common mistake of making a specific industry experience a key factor when building sales teams, hiring sales reps or sales executives.  It’s called “The Fallacy of Industry Experience” and is well described here in the Harvard Business Review article “What Makes a Good Salesman”:

  • “Many sales executives feel that the type of selling in their industry (and even in their particular company) is somehow completely special and unique.”
  • “Differences in requirements are obvious, and whether or not the applicant meets the special qualifications for a particular job can easily be seen in the applicant’s biography or readily measured. What is not so easily seen, however, are the basic sales dynamics we have been discussing, which permit an individual to sell successfully, almost regardless of what he is selling.
  • “To date, we have gained experience with more than 7,000 salesmen of tangibles as well as intangibles, in wholesale as well as retail selling, big-ticket and little-ticket items. And the dynamics of success remain approximately the same in all cases. Sales ability is fundamental, more so than the product being sold.


The key insight from this HBR research is: “Sales ability is fundamental, more so than the product being sold.


In most cases, selling in some specific industry or selling some specific product type is not “completely special and unique”. It’s in most cases and ~99% of the time.  Effective selling and effective sales leadership and delivering results transcends industries.  Unless you need to sell something very specialized – perhaps pharmaceutical equipment to doctors or scientists or PhDs (were you need an advanced degree) or perhaps if you’re selling Foreign Exchange (FX) Currency Swaps or Forward Contracts at a Wall Street Investment Bank (which may require a CFA or a Series 7 & 63 exam certifications)…well you get the point – you don’t “need” industry experience because most industries and products are fairly simple to learn about.  The difference between selling one type of SaaS product/software to a target market vs another is not that big and doesn’t require a PhD or a very high IQ.  In fact, most of the employees have gone through this and learned and they are just fine.

Similarly, one of my favorite experts on sales in SaaS (i.e. Jason Lemkin) talks about it and I expounded on that here in “Don’t Over-Index on Industry Experience” previously.

I just see this so frequently when I advise companies to focus more on talent, skills and experience in actual selling rather than industry or type of product.  Selling expertise takes years to master.  But learning about some product or industry takes a few weeks or a month to learn (by reading the website, reading datasheets, talking to the customers to understand why the bought, talking to other sales reps, talking to customer success and marketing, etc.).

So if you want to recruit exceptional and talented professionals faster (and not lose time unnecessarily hoping to find some artificial standard of an “perfect / ideal” sales professional or executive), focus your energy on hiring for capability in selling and just ignorethe industry or types of products sold.

What else? What are some other thoughts on recruiting more effectively and faster in sales?

Original is posted at Building Teams: The Fallacy of Industry Experience.