Domain expertise is getting the cold shoulder lately. When hiring, most people’s first inclination is to look for someone who understands their customers. But in an effort to counteract this instinct, present-day experts deemphasize its importance in sales hiring. Some even call hiring for domain expertise a mistake.
This is an overreaction in my opinion -- throwing out the baby with the bath water. Domain expertise, which I define as a deep understanding of a specific vertical market, can slash a new rep’s ramp-up time by allowing them to have more meaningful conversations with customers sooner. Successful selling depends on building trust, and that’s far easier to do when a rep is already familiar with industry players, acronyms, and workflows. Every vertical and sub-community therein has its own language, and being able to talk the talk is a powerful credibility-building tool.
That said, I don’t think hiring for domain expertise should be the rule -- in some cases, deep sales experience is more important. It’s a sliding scale that slants one way or the other depending on a few factors.
From my perspective, domain expertise outweighs a sales background when:
1) The product is highly specialized.
The more tailored to a specific industry your product is, the greater the impact of existing domain expertise on ramp up time. If your buyer persona is very broad -- CIOs at fortune 5000 companies, for example -- experience in the oil and gas industry won’t help a rep close that many deals.
2) The open position is entry-level.
The more junior the role, the more valuable domain expertise can be in helping a new hire get productive faster. Training entry-level sales skills and your company’s process is relatively easy compared to training deep industry experience.
Senior-level leadership, however, needs more substantial sales and management skills, honed over years of experience. Also, support staff is usually available to help them grasp the more technical aspects of the product or market. Entry-level or one step above is the highest I would hire based on domain expertise alone.
3) The position will be focused on one vertical.
When hiring for a rep to sell your product to the government sector, you’ll ideally find an experienced sales rep at the right price with a successful background of selling to government clients. But what do you do if you can’t find your perfect hire (as is so often the case)? I would give very strong consideration to a candidate who managed the buying process for a government agency but has never sold before.
A candidate with both domain expertise and good sales experience is a slam dunk, but can be difficult to find -- especially at the right price.
Candidates with domain expertise but no traditional sales background should be considered when the fit is right -- specialized product, entry-level position or specialized role. Sales experience isn’t a must as long as the person demonstrates sales potential: intelligence, hunger, and responds well to coaching.
Especially at the junior ranks, sales savvy can be taught. Even domain expertise -- while more difficult -- can be trained. But potential is innate.
How important is domain expertise in your sales hiring decisions?