Question: Which of these two choices is more likely to result in an effective salesperson?

A. Hiring someone with technical expertise or industry experience and training them to become a salesperson,

B. Hiring someone with sales aptitude, and training them in the product knowledge and technical aspects of the job?

Answer: That’s simple. 

I think you are almost always better off hiring someone with sales aptitude and educating them in the technical part of the job.

Here’s why:

1. In any population of people, there are far more people with technical aptitude than there are with genuine sales aptitude.

So, good salespeople are harder to find than good technicians.  That’s one of the reasons why a good salesperson earns more than a good technician.

2. Sales is a more difficult job than engineering, technical repair, or any of the other highly technical professions.

Technicians invariably work with things, and things have reliable and known characteristics.  Salespeople, on the other hand, invariably work with people.  And each individual person is an ultimately unknowable combination of thoughts, feelings, values, goals, and beliefs – incredibly complex.  Now add together a group of people in the context of a business, and you have a very difficult and complex situation, full of unknowable variables. 

If you can find someone with the qualities to handle this chaos — the discipline to work an unsupervised effective workweek, the personal self-image strong enough to withstand daily rejection, the personal motivation to press on no matter what – then, believe me, training them in technical details is the easy part.

3. Technical people who become salespeople almost always view their job as essentially uncovering technical problems to solve, and then proposing solutions to those technical problems.

While this is a component of the job, it dramatically limits the salesperson’s effectiveness. 

Those of you who are familiar with my “peeling the onion” analogy will recognize that “technical problems” are very near the surface of the onion.  As long as a salesperson views his/her job as that of finding solutions to technical problems, they’ll never penetrate to the heart of a customer’s goals and motivations.

While technical problem solvers are working at the surface of things, professional salespeople are working with their customers on systems and partnerships.

The largest sales I ever made were always at deep levels in the organization, where systems and corporate philosophies, and values were more important than technical issues. 

4. Finally, from a very pragmatic point of view, it is easier to educate someone in product knowledge and technical applications than it is to train someone in sales skills.

Ultimately, product knowledge and technical issues are knowledge, and knowledge can be learned.  Sales, on the other hand, requires a complex combination of aptitudes, motivations, beliefs, concepts, skills, processes, and tools.  You are far better off hiring someone who has the raw material to develop into an accomplished salesperson, than someone who has gained knowledge but doesn’t have the aptitude.

A Real-Life Example From My Sales Career

At one time, I sold surgical staplers.  That sales process required us to scrub into surgery and be part of the sterile team, right there with the surgeon as he used our instruments. You can imagine the depth of knowledge that we had to have in order to be there.  In addition to all the practices of the operating room, we had to know the appropriate human biology, the methods of this particular surgery, and the application of the product. 

Quite a bit to learn. 

Yet, the company was able to instill all that knowledge into us in about six weeks.  After the six-week training program, we could go into any operating room in the county, comfortably comport ourselves and instruct the surgeon in the detailed aspects of using our instruments.

 All of that was just knowledge, and knowledge is far more easily obtained when compared with the task of helping someone develop sales skills.

Having said all that, I have one last thought. 

Don’t think that just because someone has sales aptitude they don’t need instruction in the competencies that make one an effective salesperson.

Just like any other profession, there are specific competencies that effective sales practitioners practice.  You can make a person’s success in sales far more likely by seeing to it that they are trained in those competencies and then stimulated to continually develop their skills than if you allow them to learn by trial and error.

The world is full of technical people who should not be in sales and salespeople who plateau and never reach their potential because no one has invested in helping them to develop the competencies of a professional salesperson.



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