sales gene"You can’t send a duck to eagle school."

So says one of ZS’s co-founders when discussing potential challenges associated with changing a sales team's roles or responsibilities. Taking a "nature versus nurture" approach to sales, we typically subscribe to the idea that salesmanship cannot be taught. Organizations should hire for personality, then train for skill.

This concept arose once again during a discussion with executives of a regional insurance carrier who were thinking about converting the firm’s “renewal” reps to pure “hunters.” As we discussed their challenges and opportunities, they asked, “Should we just hire professional salespeople”?

This carrier’s sales team is quite tenured and almost entirely homegrown, with many hailing from claims and customer service roles. The leadership team acknowledged that the current strategy is like “rolling the dice.” Sure, those individuals know the products well and have demonstrated a strong customer orientation, but product knowledge and customer orientation can be taught. Can the same be said for a sales orientation?

In most industries, the customer experiences the product that the salesperson sells, whether it is a widget or a service. In many insurance lines (such as property and casualty), however, customers actually experience the “product” (i.e., the policy) very sparingly. It’s insurance, after all! This realization does not imply that the knowledge of back-office employees is not valuable, but such expertise alone is insufficient to guarantee a successful transition to sales.

We believe that the "sales gene" exists—and that not everyone has it. While we cannot identify that gene when considering a new salesperson in insurance (yet), we recommend carriers do the following to maximize their likelihood of success:

  1. Consider the context: Construct a “competency map” that compares an individual’s skill set against what the sales channel(s) requires. For example, converting internal resources to new sales may be more conducive to direct-selling channels versus broker channels because a claims adjuster may not have much exposure to the broker community.
  2. Take a stepwise approach: Rather than converting a back-office customer service role to a frontline new sales role, consider an account management role that has a strong renewal focus, with a minor emphasis on up-sell to facilitate the transition to new account sales.
  3. Empower sales managers: Regardless of whom you hire, the role of the first-line sales manager is critical to influence the performance trajectory of their reps. To achieve this, firms must establish a series of critical moves, which we outline in a recently published book for managers on how to assess and coach their teams.

Do you agree that salespeople are born and not made? Share your insight on transforming employees into successful sales reps—or what you’ve learned from less-fruitful attempts. What would you tell an executive looking to grow sales talent in-house?

Topics: sales force effectiveness (SFE), distribution, insurance, agency development, Peter Manoogian, sales training