Should Sales Leaders Have Previous Sales Experience?

experience-requiredCan a non-sales person lead a sales team? Of course. Many companies have leaders over sales teams that have never made a sales call in their life. In fact, many small business owners are the sales managers of their sales teams and have never been a sales rep either.

However, for growing companies, large or small, here are a few reasons why I believe it is much better if a sales leader has had previous sales experience.

1. Credibility – Salespeople want a sales leader who can educate, coach, and support them – from experience. Without having been a salesperson, the sales leader cannot share in the struggles salespeople face each day.  It can also affect the decisions made concerning resources. If a sales rep has to prospect, sell, close, manage the account and the CRM system, a sales leader with sales experience usually knows the priorities to fight for to improve efficiencies, offload tasks, and increase team performance. This goes a long way with salespeople.

2. Relateability – It can be very difficult for sales leaders who haven’t had past experience to relate to salespeople. I’ve had plenty of clients whose sales leaders came from Engineering, Operations, or Marketing. The sales reps appeared to be an alien life form to the new leaders. Why? Salespeople use tangible processes, but they also must mix them with intangible skills to accomplish goals. A process-oriented leader who fails to recognize the intangibles required for sales success (self-starting, handling rejection, interactive flexibility, etc.) can focus too heavily on processes and bypass the relational dynamics that influence sales goal achievement.

3. Capability – Hiring employees is one thing. Hiring great salespeople is quite different – and difficult. Possessing the capability to discern between a superstar and an imitation is vital to sales leadership success. The ability to coach is also a needed trait. Professional salespeople are like professional athletes. The better they perform, the more they get paid. A large portion of performance has to do with developing relationships with a wide variety of people in the marketplace. For a process-focused manager, this can be a challenge. Former salespeople still have an understanding of what it means to be a sales rep – and that understanding strongly aids in their ability to function in that role.

When hiring a new sales leader, previous sales experience helps them to relate to their sales team and provides credibility that others cannot. No doubt there are excellent sales leaders who have not been in sales. However, probability for success increases if they have.