How To Start & Grow Your Business

How a Sales Leader Can Get up to Speed in a New Industry

Phil Harrell
Jan 16th, 2015
  • Estimated reading time: 4 min read
  • Hummy's

    1It may take 6 mos. to gain expertise in your new field. 2Ask questions, read and soak up any training you can access. 3Get in front of prospects ASAP.
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Sales Techniques

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Most of the time, a senior sales leader on the market for a new job will get hired into the industry in which they have the most experience. Competitors want to tap into your customer and technical knowledge as well as leverage your contacts, and recruiters are all too happy to bring all that rich industry experience over to their shop.

But what if you’re not just changing companies, but also industries? It’s certainly the exception to the sales career rule, but it does happen. Suddenly the learning curve is a lot steeper, and the quest for credibility a lot more precarious.

However, just because it’s not the norm doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Below I’ve listed four tips that can help a new sales leader get a handle on a new vertical fast.

Set realistic expectations.

You’re not an expert in this industry, and that’s okay. But you should make this clear to the hiring manager during the interview process. Without a wealth of contacts or a solid understanding of the ins and outs of the specific vertical, it’s going to take you longer to get up to speed than it would an industry veteran. I think failing to manage expectations is a common mistake among sales leaders switching industries.

But don’t be self-defeating about it. Tell your CEO that you’re a quick learner who’s committed to doing everything you can to ramp yourself up. Just make sure they understand it’s going to be a longer ramp up period than if you came from the industry, or you’ll both end up frustrated. In my opinion, it takes at least six months to gain expertise in any industry, so quote that timeframe as a benchmark. It’s also helpful to create an agreed upon plan with your CEO of goals in your first 100 days, so you’re both on the same page.

Dive into the product or service.

If you’re switching industries, odds are you’ve never sold your new company’s product or service before. Don’t waste any time — adopt a curious frame of mind, and start getting to know your offering inside and out. Familiarize yourself with technical details, learn the marketing approach, and ask all the questions you can. If there’s new hire training, take full advantage and soak up all the information available.

Jump into sales calls.

After you have some cursory knowledge of your product or service, get on sales calls. How many calls? All that you can handle, since the more sales calls you’re on, the faster you’ll get up to speed. By interacting with customers, you’ll learn the buyer’s perception of the offering’s value proposition, hear common problems you will have to address down the road, and pick up answers from the more experienced salespeople you’re shadowing. By getting in front of prospects, you’ll be privy to the common objections that have the power to stall or derail deals, as well as real reactions to your company’s sales process.

These kind of industry- and product-specific insights can’t be gained from a book. So as soon as you feel comfortable enough with the product or service, put the training materials down, and get in the field.

Read, read, read (and then read some more).

In addition to getting customers’ and prospects’ perspectives, you should also seek the insights of thought leaders and industry experts. This can be done through reading their blogs.

Subscribe to the blogs and trade publications of all relevant influencers in your industry, as well as those your target buyer reads. It’s also wise to follow widely-respected thought leaders on Twitter, and follow who they’re following. Create lists that will collect all the tweets from these people in one spot for easy scanning.

Gaining Credibility Without Industry Expertise

While the tips above will help you become an industry expert faster, it’s still going to take time. So how do you establish your authority and gain your team’s trust when you’re the newest guy on the block?

There are a few things you can do that require virtually no industry knowledge. First, you were hired for this job because of sales expertise. Show it off by jumping in on contract negotiations or closing sales. You can demonstrate your selling chops even if you have little industry domain expertise, and your reps will appreciate the help.

Internally, look for ways to add value for your team. Are there resources your direct reports aren’t getting? Road blocks that stand in the way of doing their jobs efficiently? You don’t need to know the product or service to engineer ways of getting them what they need.

Lastly, openly acknowledge the fact that you’re not an industry expert, and ask your reps questions to help you ramp up. This transparency will earn their respect, whereas coming in and pretending you know it all when you don’t will only earn their ire.

This article was written by Phil Harrell and published on the Hubspot blog.

Phil is VP of the Corporate Division at HubSpot, where he’s responsible for leading HubSpot’s entry into the enterprise market.