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Can ‘non-salespeople’ sell?

From Google’s Larry Page to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the leaders of some of the world’s biggest companies did not start their professional careers in commercial roles. Yet they went on to drive huge revenue growth at their organisations, while reshaping what we consider to be good sales leadership qualities.

The perception that salespeople need to be pushy and extrovert has been greatly exaggerated

Look further down the ranks in many businesses and you’ll find a similar trend: highly successful salespeople who joined from entirely unrelated careers and then used their outsider status to get ahead.

Advocates say such figures can bring fresh perspectives to firms and may be better at understanding customer needs than traditional salespeople. But given the importance of sales leadership qualities, isn’t it a bit risky to entrust revenue generation in your business to relative novices?

Successful salespeople need specific skillset

For one thing, sales is a highly pressurised and target-driven profession, and salespeople are subject to constant scrutiny and feedback. For another, you need a certain mix of skills, knowledge and discipline to get on, and it can’t be learnt overnight.

“If a senior commercial officer is not credible in the contact sport of selling, he or she will not last long,” says Professor Craig Wortmann, executive director of the Kellogg Sales Institute at the Kellogg School of Management.

Hiring people with no direct experience poses risks but, as advocates point out, great salespeople also need to understand and empathise with their clients, and sometimes coming from a non-sales background helps.

This is particularly the case in sectors far-removed from the business world, such as health and education, where by-the-book sales tactics can alienate clients who do not share a commercial mindset.

It is why large health technology and pharmaceuticals firms often recruit sales representatives who have worked in frontline healthcare or why educational resources companies like to hire ex-teachers to sell their goods.

What are crucial sales leadership qualities?

Take ParentPay, a £30-million revenue business that sells payments software solutions for schools. At least half the firm’s salespeople are from non-sales backgrounds, with most of them having worked in schools.

“To be a good salesperson you need honesty, integrity and empathy,” says ParentPay’s chief executive Clint Wilson. “The first two traits are character traits; we’ll know if the candidate has them from their references. But empathy is the hardest to find. You need to have had the same experiences as the customer.”

It’s not only former clients who end up making the leap into sales; people from backgrounds as diverse as the military and journalism have also entered the profession and have been very successful.

This is because beyond looking for direct experience, recruiters also value transferrable skills such as curiosity, a willingness to listen and learn, resilience and a knack for problem-solving. The perception that salespeople need to be pushy and extrovert has also been greatly exaggerated, according to Steph Gilmore, senior director of sales at the research firm eMarketer.

“You don’t need to be an aggressive, swaggering person; you just want to be interested in conversing with people and trying to understand their business,” she says.

Hiring, especially salespeople, not an exact science

Professor Wortmann accepts some people with no direct sales experience can make great sellers, but warns that many will not make the grade. Sales leadership qualities can be learnt, he says, but it takes time and investment.

Recruits may also struggle to win the trust of colleagues if they lack credibility, particularly if they have been brought in to lead a sales team.

“Because so many of the ‘expert moves’ of selling are performance art, conducted in front of clients and prospects, it is very difficult to lead salespeople if one hasn’t walked in their shoes,” says Professor Wortmann.

“These expert moves are acquired over time and, without them, any fresh perspective will be only a whisper against the day-to-day noise and contact of selling.”Ultimately, he thinks the trend of hiring salespeople from non-sales backgrounds is unhealthy and owes more to skills shortages than anything else. He holds universities to blame, arguing that while they still offer courses in marketing, finance, operations and strategy, they have largely surrendered the job of developing sales talent to businesses themselves.

Regardless, it seems the practice of recruiting relative newbies to sales roles is here to stay and firms are getting better at finding sales leadership qualities in unconventional places.

“Hiring is not an exact science,” says ParentPay’s Mr Wilson. “There will always be times when it doesn’t work out. But the more you do it, the more you learn what to look for during the process.”