Angus MacGyver is known for three things: a killer mullet, diffusing bombs at the last second and hacking together solutions with unorthodox – but effective – tools. 

Taking down the mob with a bazooka made from a muffler, a gear shift knob, stuffing from a car seat, a taillight and a cigarette lighter. Patching together a fully functional hot air balloon using leftovers from a shed, some fabric, a homebrew mix of glue, discarded welding equipment and a gas tank. Using a paperclip to disable a missile.

Not only does this make for (arguably) great TV, MacGyver’s in-the-moment resourcefulness also gives us a new way of thinking about hiring salespeople on your team. Just like a paperclip that’s perfect for disarming a bomb, that teacher who applies to your open SDR position might be perfect for closing the next big deal. 

Of course, it’s tempting to look for a purpose-built tool, or that candidate with years and years of sales experience. But if you don’t think about the experience and skills candidates from other fields can bring to the table, you’re passing on people who could become your top performers.

It just means MacGyvering your priorities on what you look for.

So what makes a great salesperson?

We’ve heard the narrative before: sales is changing. Prospects do their homework. They come to the table prepared with their own research. They’re looking for someone who can help them solve a problem. Hence the phrase, “Helping is the new selling.”

If prospects want good helpers, then you do, too. And for that, sales experience isn’t the be-all, end-all. In fact, a study by sales professor, author and researcher Steve W. Martin showed that seven top-performing traits separate the cream from the chaff:

  • Modesty – getting rid of that “sales bravado” attitude 
  • Conscientiousness – demonstrating reliability and responsibility 
  • Achievement-orientation – measuring against their goals 
  • Curiosity – a hunger for knowledge and information
  • Lower gregariousness – handling conversations with a bit more professional distance 
  • Lower discouragement – bouncing back from losses and thinking about the next opportunity
  • Lower self-consciousness – feeling comfortable in potentially uncomfortable situations

Another way of thinking about this list: skills you can’t teach, and skills you can. Or, as Dan Ross, former AVP for Commercial Sales at Salesforce, puts it, “If they have the unteachable qualities, that’s great news, because everything else — from closing deals to business and sales acumen — they can absolutely learn.”

Ross’ must-have list includes integrity, drive, problem-solving, resiliency, self-awareness and emotional awareness. As for the stuff he can teach, that’s things like pipe generation, time management, business and sales acumen, handling big deals, product knowledge and forecasting.

For Ross, that division has paid off. “Some of our best software reps had never sold software before joining us. In fact, some of our best closers had never closed a deal before working here,” he writes. “What these individuals may have lacked in traditional sales experience, they more than compensated for with core qualities.”

Some companies, like social marketing platform JumpCrew, make it a very intentional mandate to hire from outside the field. Though they started out by hiring a handful of ringers and eager-to-learn newbies, they were stunned as the reps with no experience outperformed those who came with 10 or 15 years under their belt.

“It became a fascination, and we changed our hiring focus to people without experience,” co-founder David Pachter told Fast Company. Rather than industry knowledge or sales skills, JumpCrew looks for storytelling, collaboration and coachability. “Then we doubled down on the idea, and doubled our investment in training and development.”

There’s more alignment than meets the eye

What became JumpCrew’s fascination makes a lot of sense once you start thinking about the key activities that your reps perform every day.

They research prospects. They talk to a lot of people. They ask good questions. They build trust. They solve problems. 

Now think about how other backgrounds play into those tasks. That customer service agent knows what it means to be on the phone with people all day, how to empathize and how to handle problems. That journalist knows how to ask questions, find answers and tell your story. That teacher knows how to build trust and guide a classroom full of students toward new ways of thinking. That former high school quarterback knows how to build trust and work as part of a team

Different professional backgrounds boost the diversity of your team, too (although a lot more goes into workplace diversity than professional background). The biggest benefit to your team and the bottom line: having a range of perspectives you can rely on when challenges pop up.

Hire a team with an all-sales background and they’re likely to approach a problem in a very similar way. “So what happens when they come across a problem that none of them can solve?” asks CRM platform Nutshell. “And what if they come across a client or market that they have trouble relating to or understanding?” Maybe that teacher can see a way out of a situation that no one else does.

Starting new reps on the right foot

There’s one more very important reason why hiring from non-sales backgrounds works: we have tools to make it easy. 

We no longer expect reps to sit down and pour through a 60-page playbook to learn the ropes or dig through those pages each time they have a question. The modern version goes wide and deep, giving reps the knowledge they need to close deals, in the format they need, right when they need it the most. In other words, it’s easier for new reps to find answers to their questions and get started without making guesses or developing bad habits.

And there are more ways than ever to share the secret sauce that makes your top performers great. No longer does it stay locked inside their heads or hidden in documents – knowledge sharing enables everyone to crowdsource and benefit from sales tips that work. 

So when you’re hiring your next new rep, take a page out of MacGyver’s playbook… because as he would say, “With a little bit of imagination, anything is possible.”

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