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Do Sales Enablement Professionals Need Selling Experience?

by David Brock on August 15th, 2022

A reader wrote me, “Dave do you think sales enablement professionals need selling experience?” It’s a follow on to many of the discussions about “Do sales managers need sales experience?”

My immediate reaction to both those questions was “HELL YEAH!!!!” My mind went to all the supporting arguments, things like:

  • How do they possibly understand what sellers face, without having done the job themselves?
  • Why would sellers pay attention if they didn’t recognize that sales enablement professionals and manager had credibility, based on their personal experience?
  • Why would sellers believe them, if they hadn’t “been there, done that.”

And I could bore you with more reasons supporting the “Hell Yeah,” response. And there are lots of conversations on LinkedIn and other sources, where people far more articulate than me would offer better arguments.

It seems we, sellers, believe very strongly that our managers and sales enablement people need deep experience in doing the job, to provide meaningful and credible help. Whether it’s coaching, development, or helping sales people better manage their accounts, deals, pipelines, meetings. Or whether it’s providing the right training, tools, content, programs or processes. Without this, sellers believe these other parties can add no value and are a waste of their time.

If we believe this as firmly as so many I talked to about this believe it. If we are so prepared to ignore those who don’t back up their roles with deep experience in selling, then we must challenge ourselves with another question.

How would customers respond to the same question? What if we went to customers, asking, “Would you have trust and confidence in working with a sales person who had never done what you did?” If you are an engineer, would you ever trust a seller who had no engineering experience? If you are a manufacturer, an IT professional, an HR or finance professional?

There’s a certain hypocrisy and arrogance about who we listen to, trust, and pay attention to, and the expectations we have of our customers.

In fact, for much of my leadership career, I’ve actually had great success in doing this. If we sold to engineers, I tried to find engineers who could learn how to sell. Or if our customers were manufacturers, I tried to hire and train manufacturing managers. The same with IT, finance, and so forth. When I worked with an organization that sold education tools and content to schools and teachers, we recruited school teachers as sellers.

And that strategy has been very successful–but there was a problem with that. I couldn’t find enough people with the work backgrounds to support growth and staffing goals. For example, I couldn’t find enough sellers with engineering experience to support our goals in selling to engineers. It, also, was a problem in very fast growing dynamic markets. The experience I might need to credibly engage prospects changes very quickly, I could find the skills and turnover the organization in a way that would match seller experience with customer function/experience.

So there has to be another answer. How do we credibly engage customers where we have no experience in doing the work they do? I’ve discovered a number of things:

  1. The insatiably curious will be driven to learn as much, as quickly as possible. They are naturally driven to ask questions, to drill down, to explore alternatives. They use this learning process as a surrogate for actual work experience. While they may not have as deep experience as a practitioner, they develop sufficient experience–and are compelled to continually learn. And this curiosity is helpful to customers as they explore change.
  2. Those who care deeply. driven by their customers personal and business success. Those who will not let their customers fail. Those who demonstrate this caring in each interaction.
  3. Those who rapidly scale that experience through vicious focus. They want to master an industry, a functional area, certain types of expertise. As a result they focus, doing deal after deal with similar functions/industries/etc. With each opportunity they build their knowledge and expertise.
  4. Those who read, study, and learn obsessively. They attend conferences, talk to experts, read the right journals and books. Again, these are surrogates to the actual experience, but they help bridge the gaps.
  5. Those that are extremely humble. They know what they don’t know, consequently don’t present themselves as something they can’t support. They know they may not have deep OJT experience, they are trying to learn, but they are open with what they don’t know and ask their customers for help.

Overtime, I started modifying my criteria. Where I could, I looked for people with prior experience. But in addition to that experience, they had to demonstrate the characteristics outlined above. Because experience, in itself, is insufficient.

So where we can, it’s great to hire sellers who have had prior experience doing what our customers do. But we can also be confident when we hire people that display the behaviors I’ve discussed above, knowing they will figure it out and they will be able to engage customers in deeply meaningful ways.

And as to, sales managers and sales enablement people–I think you know the answer. Where we can have people with prior experience, that’s great. But they also must be driven by the five elements I’ve posed above.

Hell Yeah! That’s where the real magic is.

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