It’s not always possible to land a top sales performer from within your industry. When you’re faced with a lack of available candidates, non-compete agreements or you want to add a fresh perspective to your team, you may need to cast a wider net to include candidates from other industries. But subtle nuances in sales experience can make a world of difference.

A salesperson can switch industries and be successful, but the more similarities there are in other aspects of the job, the greater likelihood they have of making a smooth transition. In interviewing potential candidates for the role, it is important to drill down on the differences to make sure they are not going to negatively impact a new hire’s long-term performance.

Before you hire the wrong candidate, consider these 4 important factors:

1. Fundamental Requirements – How do the basic responsibilities of the position match up with past roles?

  • Product vs. service – Selling a product relies more on identifying features and benefits, while selling services requires a sales person to establish a higher level of client trust.
  • Ability to prospect – The percentage of the job that is devoted to pure hunting activities is a skillset sales people have in varying degrees.
  • Degree of complexity – Mastering the sale of highly complex products or services requires stronger communication skills, greater product or industry experience and possibly advanced education or specialized training.
  • Target market, size and type of Prospect Company – A sales person who has successfully sold into entities that are similar to your prospects and clients will have a comfort level and may be armed with important client relationships.
  • Typical sales cycle – Someone who is used to closing a few transactions per week may quickly become frustrated in a position where closing a few transactions in a quarter is the norm.
  • Level of client contact – Need to reach the C-suite?  Successful sales people who have sold at this level will have developed methods for getting around gatekeepers and overcoming barriers.
  • Average $ amount per transaction – Some sales people are less comfortable with big ticket sales.

2. Job Nuances – These variables have to do with an individual’s comfort level with the job.

  • Amount of travel – Occasional, a few times a month, road warrior.
  • Hours per day/week/month – 9 to 5, or if you aren’t working weekends, you’re not trying?
  • Home office or company cubicle – Make sure anyone being considered is comfortable with your physical environment.
  • Pay Structure – Percentage, control and degree of incentive pay.

3. Culture – How familiar is the candidate with your environment?

  • Company size – Moving from one size organization to the other can be a tough adjustment.
  • Sales force size – Does the candidate like being a big fish in a small pond?
  • Speed of growth – For some, change is an anathema.
  • Customer-centric or revenue-focused – If the individual is used to the opposite, they may struggle to adapt.
  • Accountability/level of hands-on management – Are metrics in place that need to be managed? The individual needs to be comfortable with meeting and reporting frequency.
  • Reward and recognition systems – How is success measured?  Does the rest of the sales force or company know how well a sales person is performing?
  • Does the sales team have internal competition, or can everyone win? – Some flourish in a competitive environment, others are more team oriented.

4. Skills – The skills that a new sales person brings to your company in the following areas will directly impact the amount of training you will be required to provide.

  • Product knowledge
  • Prospect and industry familiarity
  • Presentation skills
  • Conceptual or feature/benefit sale

If you can identify sales candidates from outside your industry whose backgrounds align closely with these variables, it can dramatically broaden the talent pool from which you can draw.


David Dodge, CPC, is a twenty-year veteran of the executive search and staffing industry.  He is the Founder of Headwaters Search, an executive search firm specializing in placing B2B Sales, Engineering & Operations, and Finance & Accounting Professionals in the Twin Cities.  He also serves as Director of the Talent Resource Group, a division of Peterson Whitaker & Bjork, CPAs.