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July 24, 2015 // 8:00 AM

Is It Better to Hire For Innovation or Expertise on a Sales Team?

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The New York Yankees are known, among other things, for putting together championship teams by paying top dollar for star performers. The Tampa Bay Rays, on the other hand, routinely build contending teams by identifying and developing up-and-coming talent that can be had for bargain bin prices.

Both strategies get you to the playoffs. And both can be applied to building your sales team.

Tested sales veterans and hungry rookies alike have the ability to add value to your sales staff. It's also true that hires from either group are bound to come with distinct challenges that may make them a poor fit for your business. And making a bad hire can cost you more than just new business. A 2012 report by the DePaul University Center for Sales Leadership notes that the average cost of hiring, training and replacing a sales professional falls just shy of $115,000.

With so much on the line, how do you know which route to take when building your sales team?

Let’s start with a look at the lineup. (And yes, there really is a baseball metaphor for everything.)

The Veteran

The Veteran is a known entity. She’s got a demonstrated history of closing big deals and has an established book of business with heavy hitters in your industry. She’s largely autonomous and doesn’t need a babysitter.

“You’ll have to manage an experienced salesperson much less than a recent grad,” says Elisa Cool. Cool is VP of Sales at Contently, a New York-based start-up that focuses on high-end brand publishing. “[They’re] going to be able to run their own book of business without you looking over her shoulder.” 

However, Cool cautions that The Veteran might be overly comfortable with her approach, her clients and her existing Rolodex. “If she’s spent years carrying a bag, she’s probably picked up some bad habits you’d like to see her lose,” Cool says. The Veteran may be resistant to change and may prefer to do things “her way” because they’ve worked in the past.

“Experienced salespeople may not need day-to-day management, but they may require some coaching on things like collaboration and sharing,” Cool says. “They can be territorial, and if you’re a young company with a transparent culture, that’s going to be an issue.” 

The Rookie

He’s young, he’s ambitious, and he costs a fraction of what The Veteran costs. He’s digitally savvy, energetic, and not burdened with bad habits cultivated over the course of a long career. He’s eager to learn and can bring new thinking to your team.

He’s also inexperienced. The Rookie requires training, development and plenty of handholding. He doesn’t come with a Rolodex. Plus, he might be hard to find. The Wall Street Journal’s Lauren Weber recently noted that sales is increasingly unattractive to recent college graduates, making entry-level sales jobs particularly challenging to fill, especially within the tech sector.

The youngest generation of workers, having lived through the financial crisis and recession, is more risk-averse, say sales executives, adding that young prospects are reluctant to enter a hard-charging work environment where success often boils down to a number.

In short, many millennials are looking for a sure thing, and jobs that compensate largely on commission are seen as risky. To combat that, Weber points out that some companies are rethinking how they compensate their sales teams, “favoring a higher base pay with a lower proportion of the riskier commission pay.”

Will this make them less motivated to close business? According to Cool, the answer is no. “Younger folks are more motivated by recognition, praise and upward mobility. They’re there to learn and to establish a career for themselves,” she says. “They’re not driven by money in the same way older salespeople are.”

The Right Hire for Your Industry

“Hiring based on maturity works best when it’s based on the maturity of the industry itself,” Cool says. “At Contently, we’re working in a space that’s very young, so it makes sense to skew younger in our hiring. If I were hiring salespeople for, say, the aerospace industry, I’d go in the opposite direction.”

Leaders of sales teams should also consider the maturity of the clients themselves. “When you’re talking about selling to media companies, for example, it makes sense to go with young and hungry hires,” Cool says. “They’re calling on agencies, and those agencies are staffed with young customers who are operating within a mature industry.”

Of course, that doesn't mean the more years a salesperson has on the job the better qualified she is. “It’s less about how much experience you have and more about how relevant your experience is,” she said. “Just because you’ve got 20 years of experience doesn’t mean I’m going to assume you can sell to decision makers in my industry. I’m going to want to know whether the customers in your Rolodex are going to be open to new products and services, or if they want to stick with the same solutions they’ve used in the past.” 

Bridging the Gap

But even if The Veteran is right for your company today, you should be prepared to hire at least a few millennials -- and soon. The HR experts at SHRM predict that millennials will occupy almost half of the U.S. workforce by the year 2020. Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 baby boomers retire every day. That leaves precious few experienced salespeople -- we’re looking at you, Generation X -- on the market. Faced with the prospect of hiring and managing a generationally diverse team, how do you bridge the gap between experience and eagerness? 

One solution is leveraging the power of your organization’s network. Your younger hires will lack contacts, and your older hires have them -- and know how to use them. Your senior salespeople should mentor their younger peers, taking them on sales calls, introducing them to contacts, and helping them learn the skills they need to grow their own books of business. Then take it a step further by using new networking technologies to expand everyone’s network and gain access to decision makers within organizations that were previously impenetrable. 

The Takeaway

Building a sales team doesn’t have to mean choosing experience over innovation. A generationally diverse team, a culture that fosters collaboration, and the latest networking tools can help your business unlock new revenue opportunities and gain an edge over the competition.

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Topics: Sales Hiring Sales Leadership

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