Should your salespeople be generalists or specialists?
I have read a number of articles recently in which the authors have asserted that, as a sales leader, you will fail if you hire sales candidates with too much industry experience and too much product knowledge. The general contention appears to be that any candidate for a sales position with specific in-depth industry expertise or product knowledge will be, by definition, stuck in the past and will quickly be rendered obsolete by new developments in technology and the markets. In the eyes of many, it would appear that only sales candidates whose knowledge and experience was of a more general nature can be sufficiently open-minded to adapt to the ever evolving realities of the market.
A few years ago I started experiencing bothersome bouts of irregular heartbeats. These episodes became so pronounced that I needed to consult with a physician. The question was which one? Should I go see my regular internist or should I consult with a heart specialist, a cardiologist? The decision was a no-brainer. I consulted with my cardiologist because he had treated hundreds, if not thousands, of patients with a similar problem. Through his experience with a broad range of similar patients my cardiologist had developed valuable wisdom (knowledge tempered with experience) and asked the right questions that enabled him to quickly and accurately diagnose and treat my problem.
To put this in the context of sales, I had a pain point and my cardiologist possessed the requisite depth of knowledge and experience to perform the right discovery and resolve the pain.
Which kind of salesperson do you want to have helping your prospects and customers with their pain points? A generalist or a specialist?
Let’s examine two counterproductive beliefs that are held as articles of faith by many sales leaders about the types of sales candidates they should hire.
The first is that salespeople with a generalized set of sales skills and educational training are more likely to have a “sales aptitude,” possess superior questioning and discovery skills (because of their liberal arts major in college?) and are more adaptable and receptive to change than, let’s say, a salesperson with specific product and industry expertise.
I made a career out of coaching people with deep product knowledge and industry experience to become extremely capable professionals and business development professionals. The reason they became successful was that they were curious problem solvers by nature and by training. That is why they took the technical career path to begin with. In addition, in technical fields if you didn’t keep abreast of new developments you are relegated to working on less exciting projects (like sustaining engineering) and not on the hot new products. I preferred salespeople with product and industry backgrounds in front of my customers because when confronted with a new problem or request they knew how to synthesize the available data and formulate a potential solution that fit the problem. Without having to waste the prospect’s time running back to the factory for support.
The second counterproductive belief that sales leaders cling to is that salespeople who come from technical or product backgrounds do not possess the requisite “people skills” that customers value above all other traits in a sales person. Which just isn’t true. Customers don’t value people skills in a seller as much as they value answers. Think about what your prospects are trying to accomplish with their buying process. Their buying process is an organized search to gather the data and information they require in order to make an informed purchase decision on your product or service with the least investment of their time. What prospects value most in a salesperson is answers to their questions that move their buying process forward.
Put yourself in this situation. Let’s say you have a mole on your arm that is making you nervous. You have an appointment with your dermatologist who is a specialist in skin cancer. You’re sitting in the examining room, waiting, when there is a knock on the door and in walks two young people in white lab coats who introduce themselves as a resident and an intern (both doctors in training). They say that they, instead of your doctor, will be examining you today. What was your immediate reaction? Exactly. You were disappointed and maybe a little apprehensive and you said to yourself, if not to the young doctors, “When is my real doctor, the one with the knowledge and experience, going to see me?”
In 30+ years of sales management experience I never once had a customer call me to complain that an technical, less “salesy” salesperson with strong product knowledge didn’t know enough about selling and so could I please send someone over to talk with him who did. On the other hand, I have had prospects call me to complain that a salesperson didn’t know enough about our products or their business to really help them, so unless I wanted them to take their business elsewhere, could I send over someone who knew what they were talking about.
Getting the composition of your sales team correct in order to accelerate your customer’s buying process is a matter of correctly aligning your information resources with the information requirements of the customer. Each situation will be different in terms of the mix of specialists and generalists you need to optimize your results. The key is not to artificially and unnecessarily handicap yourself by clinging to outdated stereotypes of what specialists and generalists can bring to the table in terms of sales performance.