A few days back I was having a conversation with a B2B startup exec who is in the process of building out a sales team. The company provides a tech solution to a niche market and the primary trait the company is using to filter potential sales candidates is experience selling technology to the market being targeted – the strategy being that such a salesperson would possess a network of contacts which enable them to generate sales very quickly.

The Rolodex Sales Hiring Strategy

The desire to hire someone with a great network and  book of business is pretty common. At Peak, this requirement is a part of probably half of the B2B sales recruiting inquiries we receive. Can anyone blame an employer for wanting to hire someone who can generate sales immediately upon being hired? It often works. Particularly in industries where relationships are paramount and there is limited turnover in buyer organizations. Good luck getting a construction company or a military supplier to hire an account exec without industry experience (I have learned first-hand it can be folly to try).

But there are many sectors that are less static and in which buyers change jobs and employers regularly. How much value is a rolodex worth if “friendly” buyers are regularly replaced by buyers who may have allegiances with alternative vendors? The answer is not much unless there is concerted effort to maintain relevant contacts in every customer organization.

Moreover, in many companies procurement processes such as open tendering and selection committees strive to select vendors based on merits and thus neutralize the explicit value of relationships. When a sales person changes from one vendor to another, deep relationships with buyers may be useful for opening the door, but won’t help in closing business unless the offering is superior to that of the competition.

And perhaps the largest challenge inherent in hiring someone with a specific resume and set of experiences, is that it considerably narrows the pool of talent upon which to draw, which in turn creates a sellers (as in candidate’s market). Using the defense industry as an example, Peak has been involved in several searches for account executives selling into the defense sector where our customers needed us to find sales people who had sold very specific products and services to very specific customers. We successfully recruited the candidates, but when the number of sales people in the world who qualify for a specific position can be counted on one hand, the recruiting employer is going to have little negotiating leverage with the candidate on matters such as compensation and may have to compromise on key issues such as culture fit – at a certain level the employer has to take what they can get, since the number of candidates simply isn’t large enough to be picky. This may seem like an extreme example but it is not grossly out of line with the situation that many employers will face where there will be a total of 10 or maybe 20 sales reps who qualify with the right resume.

Sales DNA Hiring Strategy

The alternative to hiring based on experience is hiring based on sales DNA and here’s what I know from close to 30 years of sales and management experience: sales DNA almost always beats the resume. With the exception of rare instances, some of which detailed above, where domain experience and relationships are critical and hard to acquire, the right DNA, meaning personal character traits, find a way to get the job done.

Sales DNA almost always beats the resume

When we study the character traits of top performing sales people across different industry sectors, we see traits such as ambition, competitiveness, sense of urgency, confidence, perseverance, optimism, resilience, ability and desire to influence others. These intangible, but highly critical traits are what drive high achieving sales people to be successful. They are what allow top sales people to make good judgements, create good luck for themselves and capitalize on opportunities that average sales people miss.

These are also the traits that allow a door to door dictionary sales person to beg their way onto a software sales team and then become the number one sales person in a matter of months. True story. These are also the traits that allow a person selling shoes come into a company selling VOIP systems and become the perennial sales leader. Another true story. These are also the traits that enable a person with a tech sales background to come into a construction company desperate for new sales and drive new sales growth. Yet another true story.

I have seen this story played out countless times. The right sales DNA finds a way to succeed. The right sales DNA acquires the requisite knowledge quickly, figures out who they need to know and makes the connections. While they may not have a rolodex in theory, they are able to get to the buyers and influencers and find ways to make themselves indispensable, ergo building the relationships they need.

The biggest upside of hiring based on sales DNA is that the talent pool is exponentially larger than if hiring based on sector experience. So rather than being limited to a small number of candidates that qualify, an employer is in a far better position to hire someone that fits the comp plan and more importantly, is a fit with the employer’s values and culture, which is the primary basis for a long and successful relationship with a sales hire.

DNA vs. Resume?

Every sales situation is unique and each sales manager will know whether their sales team members really have to have the sector experience in order to be successful, but in my experience, more often than not, sector experience is not the determining factor in who is at the top of the sales team leaderboard.

To your success!


Eliot Burdett

CEO at Peak Sales Recruiting
Before Peak, Eliot spent more than 20 years building and leading companies, where he took the lead in recruiting and managing high performance sales teams. He co-founded Ventrada Systems (mobile applications) and GlobalX (e-commerce software). He was also Vice President of Sales for PointShot Wireless.

Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.

He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.

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