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Business Journal
Education, Experience, and Training
Business Journal

Education, Experience, and Training

Do they really matter in sales?

by Mick Zangari and Benson Smith

Over the past four decades, The Gallup Organization has conducted extensive research into what is different about the world's best performing sales reps, compared to their more average counterparts. This research, which we discussed in our previous column, included interviews with more than 250,000 representatives, 25,000 sales managers, and more than one million customers, and encompassed detailed studies of 170 companies in 21 different industries.

After hundreds of thousands of interviews, a compelling picture emerged -- a picture that contradicts many frequently held myths about great sales performance. Three of these myths have to do with education, experience, and training. Conventional wisdom tells us, "the more the better." But is it really true? Are the best sales representatives better educated, better trained, and more experienced? Or are these simply false assumptions that have contributed to erroneous selection criteria and flawed management policies?

The education myth
We live in a culture that values education. Think back to the questions that you have asked every sales candidate, questions such as: What college did you attend? Do you have an advanced degree? You may even have asked about grade point averages and SAT scores. Such questions have become routine. Why? Because we believe education has some bearing on job performance. But is this true?

Clearly, many professions have stringent educational prerequisites. You have every reason to expect that your doctor will have a medical degree, and that your lawyer will have attended law school. But does education have any relationship to sales success?

At Gallup, we provide sales selection and evaluation consulting to many clients. Recently, one client informed us that they had decided to hire only MBAs from the best business schools as sales representatives. They believed their products, and their customers, were becoming more sophisticated. They wanted a sales force that could keep pace with rapid changes in their marketplace.

We did a quick study of their existing sales force and found that one-third of those already employed had MBAs. But when we studied their best performers, we found that most did not have advanced degrees. In fact, most of their best performers did not have high grade-point averages in college. What's more, in all the companies we have studied, we have never -- even in very technical fields -- found a relationship between education and sales success.

Yet this company was going to require each of its sales representatives to take courses at night to get an advanced degree. Why? Because this company believed the education myth: that education would miraculously transform its sales force.

So, what happened? This company found out pretty fast that education wasn't the key to the transformation they wanted. Many of the company's superior performers threatened to leave. They had no intention of spending their evenings going to night school. And what became of the new crop of MBAs? Three months into their tenure with the company, a third of them had not yet realized that they had been hired to sell. They were waiting in their offices for clients to call them. What they had learned at school had nothing to do with actually making sales.

They may have learned the history of sales. They may have learned the importance of sales. They may have taken courses on how to sell. But knowledge and performance are two vastly different things.

Does education make a difference in companies specializing in technical products? Another company we work with sells highly sophisticated electronic equipment. The company decided to hire only electrical engineers with at least a 3.5 grade-point average. By that standard, it would not have hired many of its present top performers. In fact, its No. 1 salesperson was a college dropout. Before going into sales, he worked as a "roadie" for a well-known rock band.

This former roadie did not have the educational credentials the company wanted, and yet he was its best performer. He did have the thinking strengths that enabled him to learn about his products and their application. Most importantly, he understood that customers were more interested in what the products could do than in how they worked. (We asked him how his equipment worked, and he told us, "It works fine!") These strengths enabled him to surpass many better-educated rivals, who communicated so much technical information that they confused the customer and lost sales.

Why would a company set up hiring criteria that could potentially screen out many of its top performers? Because it believes the education myth.

We are not against education, and we are certainly not against learning. Lifetime learning is a must in all professions -- not just in sales. But our quest, and yours, is to understand what is different about the world's best salespeople, and it is not education. How well people do in school has no bearing on how well they will do in sales.

The experience myth
In some professions, experience matters. If you need open-heart surgery, go to the cardiac surgeon who has performed the most procedures. Complication rates for surgical procedures go down directly in relationship to the surgeon's experience. We have found that sales, however, is not an experience-sensitive profession in the same way that surgery is.

The learning curve in most sales jobs is usually a surprisingly short one. Beyond the initial training period needed, we have not found a correlation between experience and results. Salespeople with 10 years of experience do not sell more than others with five years of experience. Individuals with five years' experience do not sell more than people with three years' experience. This observation has been true in virtually every company we have studied.

But many companies place great weight on experience. The problem with emphasizing sales experience is that it is misleading. People with experience start more quickly. They get "up to speed" faster. They need less training. However, all that will happen when you hire average, but experienced, sales performers is that they will reach an average performance level a little more quickly than their less-experienced peers. As a sales manager, you are not likely to substantially improve the performance of your sales force by focusing on experience.

In many instances, we have found the reverse is true. The most experienced sales representatives, as a group, are often conspicuously absent from the top 25% of producers. Over time, the sales missions of many companies and industries change. Sales representatives who may have been a perfect fit with the company 10 years ago are no longer ideally suited for their jobs. Hence, their sales performance erodes considerably.

By focusing on experience, companies often fail to develop the training programs that would really help new people succeed in their industry. They limit the types of people they can bring into their organization, and they often skip over the most talented salespeople in favor of the most experienced. Remember: Talented people can become experienced, but experienced people cannot be injected with additional talent.

The training myth
When we asked the greatest salespeople if they were taught to sell, they invariably answered, "yes." Therefore, the logical conclusion seems to be that training is an important ingredient in sales success. However, when we asked the people in the bottom ranks if they were taught to sell, they also invariably answered, "yes."

For example, if you walked on to the practice tee of a PGA tournament and asked the golfers who are warming up whether they had taken golf lessons, an overwhelming majority would respond, "yes." But if you went to a neighborhood golf course on any Saturday afternoon and polled golfers who can hardly break 100, you would also find that a majority of them have had golf lessons. Training does not distinguish the best from the rest.

Almost every company we have worked with provides some training for its salespeople. Most company representatives will go through exactly the same training program. Yet there are enormous differences in the sales results that those representatives generate. Why?

It seems that salespeople with the most training are not necessarily the ones who produce the best results. You can give someone art lessons, and follow up with more art lessons, but the lessons alone will not make that person paint like Rembrandt.

We don't want to imply that training cannot help. Initial training, as well as ongoing training about new products or services, is crucial. But training helps individuals with the inherent strengths and fit for sales much more than it helps poor performers. Ironically, much of the additional training that companies provide is directed towards poor performers.

Our studies demonstrate that training results are more significant and more sustained in your best performers. Training will produce a short-term spike in performance improvement in average salespeople. However, in a relatively short time frame, they revert back to their pre-training performance levels. You will see markedly better results if you invest your advanced training dollars on your very best performers.

What matters
Many companies have selection criteria that revolve around education and experience. After all, it's easier to ask your candidates about their grade-point average, or how many years of selling experience they have, than discovering and evaluating their sales talent.

However, we have consistently found that education and experience are not the best predictors of future sales performance. Instead, you should look for a combination of talents that are appropriate for your company's sales mission. Then -- after you have hired individuals with these talents -- you can structure training programs to provide them with the product education and industry experience necessary to develop them into high-performing sales reps. Why is this important? Because our studies show that these are the reps who will generate nearly 60% of your new business growth, and 90% of your customer loyalty.

These are just three of the many myths that influence sales management practices. In our next column, we will discuss money, desire, and relationships, and the role they play in motivating the world's best-performing sales representatives.

Benson Smith is coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths.
Mick Zangari is a former consultant of Gallup.

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