Why Selling Skills Are Often More Important than Industry/Product Experience

Published on Dec 21, 2020

There’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed in the sales world recently. Often, the hiring decisions of companies are based more on a sales candidate’s industry/product experience rather than their actual selling skills. This is understandable to a point, but I’ve found that this isn’t always the best approach. In fact, it can be quite detrimental. 


Because companies often pass up on many great salespeople with transferable experience because they’re so blindly focused on industry/product experience and not selling skills. And that’s exactly what I want to discuss for this blog post — why you should go after salespeople with amazing selling skills over those who just have a lot of experience. 

Let’s jump right in. 

Employer Hiring Preference

To gain a better perspective on this phenomenon, let’s take a look at data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2017 survey. They found that nearly two-thirds (64.5%) of employers “prefer to hire candidates with relevant work experience.”

However, only a fraction of employers (5.1%) said that experience wasn’t a major factor in their hiring decisions. 

Although this particular survey applies specifically to companies hiring recent college graduates that are new to the workforce, it does a great job of illustrating the collective mentality most companies have when forming their hiring preferences. This data shows that industry/product experience is often the number one thing companies look at when deciding which candidates to bring on board. 

And while it certainly doesn’t hurt to have industry/product experience, you shouldn’t overlook top tier candidates who possess next level selling skills just because they don’t have the same level of experience. That’s a huge mistake and one I feel holds many of today’s companies back.

An Example

Let’s say there are two candidates for a sales position. Candidate A has been in your industry for 10 years and knows your product inside and out. They’ve got a wealth of experience on industry history, trends, product features, benefits, and so on. However, their actual sales performance is pretty mediocre. They’re okay at what they do but have never been at the top of the totem pole. 

Candidate A is a “safe bet,” and you know for a fact that they’re an industry expert. That said, there’s nothing overly remarkable about them. 

Candidate B is brand new to your industry and only knows the basics of your product. They’re still learning the ropes and don’t quite have a full understanding of your offerings, product features, and benefits, but they’ve got a proven track record of sales success. They’re a complete rockstar and have consistently performed at a high level in all of the other companies they’ve worked for. 

Person B gets results, but in terms of industry/product experience, they simply haven’t had the time to gain the knowledge that Candidate A has. 

Conventional hiring wisdom would say that you would choose Person A because they have more experience. But often the wrong move for one main reason. 

It’s Easier to Train on Products Than it is Selling Skills

Let’s be brutally honest. Selling is hard, and quite frankly, not very many people are good at it — let alone great. It takes a very distinct skill set that only a small percentage of people are truly cut out for. The underlying sales processes, psychology, strategies can be learned — sure — but those that truly thrive usually have the “it factor.” According to Sellect Sales Development, the “it factor” often involves things that can’t be formally learned like ambition, tenacity, initiative, and vigor.

And even with a boatload of experience, many reps fall short of expectations. One study even found, “Hiring experienced sales candidates will produce an unsatisfactory result as much as 80% of the time!” Training someone to sell comes with a lot of challenges, and there’s really only so much you can do, as much of it boils down to natural talent. 

Training someone on products, however, is pretty straightforward. As long as they’ve got the talent and know how to sell, their skills are transferable. So in time, they can learn your industry/product and leverage their abilities to flourish. 

While an average candidate with even the most in-depth knowledge will likely plateau, a rockstar candidate with only minimal industry/product experience has the potential for massive success. 

This is something that’s extremely important to keep in mind when developing your salesperson hiring strategy. You don’t want to lose out on making a potentially game changing hire just because someone doesn’t have xxxx product service/experience. Rather, you need to see the big picture and look at their overall value. As long as you have an efficient product training framework in place that quickly gets salespeople up to speed, the results should come as long as the talent is there. 

Adjusting Your Hiring Approach to Achieve the Best Results

Don’t get me wrong. Having industry/product experience is important. But you shouldn’t get so fixated on a sales candidate having prior experience that it gets in the way of hiring legit rockstars with less experience. 

At the end of the day, what’s most important is being able to sell. As long as a sales candidate can do that, the rest should fall into place. 

Looking to elevate your sales hiring using science-based assessments and intelligent matching? Check out HireDNA right now.

It leverages cutting-edge technology based on 21 core selling competencies and 20 key data points to find the best of the best sales candidates. And a staggering 92% of candidates recruited through HireDNA reach the top of the salesforce within their first year. 

Subscribe for updates

Get the posts in your email