It’s a question that has plagued job seekers and hiring managers for years. For job seekers the questions are many. What are my transferable skills? How do I identify them? How do I relate them to what they are looking for during the interview? For the hiring manager, the question takes on a totally different form but it is every bit as relevant. Should the new hire be from my industry? If so, is the individual leaving their current company for the right reasons? If they’re not currently in the industry what unique skills do they have from their previous position? It is a complex process and the decision can be difficult. But if it is a sales person that the company is looking to hire, the decision takes on a totally different perspective.
I recently had a discussion with a colleague of mine that is a sales manager for a major corporation in the high tech sector. The conversation started off very casually, covering the different types of sales approaches, various selling styles, as well as overall sales skills and abilities. He mentioned that he is currently interviewing various candidates for an opening on his team. He has the usual mix of qualified candidates from both inside and outside of his industry. Some have been very successful selling for his competition while others have excellent track records in their current field, but they lack the actual experience selling in his industry.
Ultimately an in-depth discussion ensued on the often debated topic of whether or not selling skills are transferable across industries. Can a sales person who is successful in one industry or market be successful in a totally different sector?
The opinions on this topic are as varied as the number of sales people in the market today. Some will say absolutely, selling is selling and sales skills are universal. Others will say that as long as you have a knowledge and understanding of the product you are selling and the market you are selling to, you should be able to sell regardless of industry. Some say it depends on the industry. Someone who is selling an intangible like software won’t necessarily be successful selling hardware that relies on technical product knowledge. On the other end of the spectrum, some will say unequivocally no. Product knowledge and industry knowledge is irreplaceable and without it failure is certain.
In general, sales skills are transferable. Skills like time/territory management, phone skills, ability to ask questions, ability to tell a story, closing and others. These are the things that are not specific to any one industry. You either have a sales DNA or you don’t. In some, if not all cases, industry and product specific skills are what often ends up being the difference between success and failure.
My opinion is that to be great sales person (aka a sales leader) you need to be a problem solver. To be an effective problem solver you need to be open to new ideas, perspectives, and above all, have the ability to listen and learn. If you have the determination and willingness to learn something new, then as a sales professional, you can be successful in transitioning to a different industry. Employers have to understand how your skills transfer and how you can fill their needs. People don’t look to the past, they look to the future … but your past is the track record that proves your future.
What’s your opinion? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.