A Great Résumé Can Be Deceiving; Here's How To Sidestep The Experience Trap

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com

When it comes to sales teams, hiring for experience doesn't come cheap. And it can actually represent a harmful trap.

Whether it’s a sport, art or profession, the science indicates that we hit our peak in a very short period of time—and then our performance typically flatlines. Experienced salespeople may come with a large network, but that doesn’t automatically translate into higher levels of expertise or performance.

So here’s the trap: often when you think you’re getting a salesperson with 20 years of experience, you might actually be getting one year of experience repeated for 20 years.

Have You Fallen Into The Experience Trap?

Experience isn’t always predictive of sales success. Look at the performance of your experienced salespeople. If you’re like most organizations, you’ll see a normal bell curve, with a few salespeople at the top and bottom and most in the middle. If experience truly equaled performance, we wouldn’t see this variation.

So why is experience an unreliable indicator of performance? Because of the bad habits that come with it. When you hire experienced people, you get everything they’ve done well and poorly, over and over—deeply ingrained behaviors, reinforced with years of repetition. Those bad habits are difficult to change.

Lift Your Salesforce Out Of The Experience Trap

So you have a team of experienced, expensive professionals with a range of performance. How can you help them level up?

  • Change your mindset. Sales executives often say, “Our people don’t need training or investment or development. They brought that with them.” As with most major changes, you must first change your mindset. Recognize that even your most seasoned salespeople can—and should—learn new behaviors, practice and improve.
  • Identify the critical skills that make the biggest difference. When we think about developing salespeople, we usually think too broadly: “Use this all-encompassing methodology, and it will fix everything.” “Do these 20 things across the sales cycle.” Much better results come through focusWhat are the one or two things that would make the biggest difference in your sales force’s performance?
  • Measure your sales force against those skills. At FranklinCovey, we track the development of these skills by measuring the actions that we believe will predict success, which we refer to as “lead measure.” Let’s say you need to grow existing relationships. Your lead measure might be the number of new meetings with new people within existing accounts. Measure your salespeople on that number. Give it some teeth. Scoreboard it publicly. Incentivize it.
  • Establish an ongoing, predictable routine to strengthen those skills. This is really the key to unlocking the experience trap. Ensure that your sales force is practicing the skill, soliciting feedback and learning continuously.

How To Avoid Falling Into The Experience Trap

In a town in upstate New York, a group of masons is renowned for their high-end craftsmanship. It’s somewhat surprising to find this pocket of world-class expertise in the middle of nowhere. So what’s their secret? They travel the globe to study the best masonry they can find. They’re always learning new techniques. And now this small-town collective of masons can stack stone with the best of them. They have years of experience, yes—but their experience is compounding.

That’s how you avoid the experience trap: find salespeople with a mindset of continuous learning. The next time you’re hiring an experienced salesperson, ask them the following questions:

  • “What are the most important skills you’ve mastered in your career?” Most interviewees can easily rattle off a few. That’s great—but we’re not done.
  • “When did you first learn that competency?” Begin to date their skills. See if they’ve developed new areas of expertise in the past five years. If all of their skills originated in the last millennium, you might have a problem.
  • “What did you learn last year?” Try to determine if they’ve been proactive about their professional development. They should demonstrate that they’ve sought opportunities to learn and improve.
  • “What are you working on now?” A continuous learner is always learning; this is your opportunity to hear about their current and future personal development plans.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Inexperience

Finding salespeople with a continuous-learning mindset is one way to avoid the experience trap—but there’s one more. What if you hired people who were purposefully inexperienced, who are early in their careers or had done something else entirely? What if you could invest in them and mold them based on your organization’s best practices and strategic priorities?

As Riitta Katila wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “[Experts] have spent lots of time getting comfortable with existing tools and methods. As a result, they’re invested in their field’s status quo and may have trouble seeing the value in a novel idea…Industry insiders are invaluable, but so are outsiders who can see industry challenges and opportunities with fresh eyes.”

Former teachers, grocery store managers, athletes and others could substantially outperform experienced salespeople within a year or two, bringing unique skills that help them thrive in sales. Teachers, for example, often share a predisposition to curiosity. They ask more questions, they’re empathetic listeners, and they’re not driving an agenda.

They might not have 20 years of sales experience, but they don’t have 20 years of bad sales habits either.

The key to effective prospecting is in focusing your team's efforts on the leads with the highest likelihood to result in closed business. Download our Sales Prioritization Tool to help your salespeople prioritize their leads. 


About the Author

Randy Illig

Randy Illig is the Global Practice Leader of FranklinCovey’s Sales Performance Practice and the co-author of Let’s Get Real Or Let’s Not Play. With more than 25 years of experience ranging from direct sales and general manager to successful entrepreneur, CEO and board member, Randy leads the global sales performance practice team as we help our clients build high performance sales and sales leadership teams. Randy is a former recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, the Ernst & Young “CEO Under 40” award, and the Arthur Andersen Strategic Leadership Award.

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