A business owner asks what’s more important when hiring sales people: industry experience or performance?  –

When it comes to hiring sales reps, what do you think is more important: industry experience or passion and proven sales capability regardless of industry? Of course it’d be great to have both! But what have you found is a better predictor of success? Can someone be just as successful selling car parts as they were selling cat food

We turned it over to one of our specialists in sales recruitment, Sam Lawson, for his expertise. Although the following advice is targeted at hiring for sales professionals, similar arguments can be made for many other business functions –

Prior industry experience is usually one of the top three requirements employers list for any new hire, not just sales.

I’d like to argue that prior industry experience isn’t always necessary and, in some cases, can even inhibit the progress of a brand.

As a sales recruiter, I spend hours consulting my clients on future sales stars who are prime for the picking.. but in a different industry. Of course this doesn’t apply to all industries; some roles require a high level of niche expertise that takes years to master. But it’s applicable to more industries than you think. I’ve had success transferring sales people from one complex selling environment to another completely unrelated complex sell.

The key is finding the right type of sales person.  



The truly star players who can transfer their success into different industries usually share a few common traits:

  • They have several years of high performance in one or more industries;
  • They have built a territory or book of business from prospecting or networking;
  • The majority have local experience, but not all; and most importantly,
  • They are masters of sales strategy and process – from prospecting and pipeline management to managing client expectations across the first 30/60/90 days, 6 months and 1 year.

It takes much longer to teach sales processes than it does to teach product. That’s why a core part of my recruitment process is qualifying candidates on how well they understand sales cycle and challenging them on their successes in the workplace. Validating their achievements and sales ability in-depth helps determine whose skillset is transferrable to other industries and whose isn’t.



Aside from missing out on top talent from the pool above, only hiring from within your industry has the potential to hurt your business in other ways.

  • Pipeline potential. Many hiring managers insist on sales people with industry experience because it’s a ‘safer bet’ and they’ll have those oh-so-valuable industry relationships. But often the most competitive sales people can come into a territory and build far more meaningful relationships from scratch. The urgency to build a robust pipeline by a new industry entrant will far outweigh those who have enjoyed solid success in their chosen industry.
  • Sales innovation. Sales stars, regardless of industry, love to innovate and be creative in their sales strategy. Oddly enough it’s often the industries that are less dynamic or even struggling that will demand a sales professional with industry experience. What these industries truly need is a creative sales person with a hunger to hunt and build a massive pipeline of opportunity.
  • Business intelligence. Those who transfer industries must be intuitive and have a high level of intelligence. If they have been successful in a complex industry and show signs of mental strength, then the likelihood of success is far higher.


Now, adopting someone from outside of industry isn’t one size fits all. There are a few important considerations:

  • Ramp up can be grueling. Adapting to a new industry takes time, so it’s important to manage the expectations on both sides. But it’s also an opportunity for the hiring manager who can train ‘their way’. All the top sales people I’ve worked with have highly valued mentorship and sales learning in their roles.
  • Industries should be somewhat relatable. Not all industries can transfer to each other, but often many differing industries will call upon the same client pool. For example, a photocopier sales person sells into any company who has or would potentially use a photocopier. A winner in the copier business could translate well into any professional service, whether it is mobile phone packages, corporate travel solutions or call center services.
  • There are risks with any new hire. Your new hires aren’t going to be successful 100% of the time. Hiring from outside of industry is a risk but ALL new hires are a risk.

Industry experience definitely has a role to play and if you can find an all-star who still has that drive for your industry, then go for it! But next time you’re hiring, I encourage you to keep an open mind. Some of my most successful placements have been with clients who valued sales discipline over industry experience.

Working with sales teams is my passion – understanding how they build their business and how they maintain their relationships is crucial. If you’d like to have a chat about your sales team, you can reach me on 604.682.9999 or email slawson@theheadhunters.ca



Sam specializes in the recruitment of sales professional in the Greater Vancouver Area. Sam is a natural communicator and relationship-builder. From his sporting background and in-depth sales experience, Sam has developed a keen sense for seeking out high performance professionals. Sam comes from a highly competitive upbringing and found success as a competitive swimmer and won multiple national medals; but later headed east to study at Ryerson University in Toronto. With over 7 years in a high intensity sales environment, Sam understands what it takes to excel in a sales role. Sam genuinely enjoys building and maintaining close working relationships with his clients as he helps them build stronger, successful sales teams.