Experience versus Education

Evaluate If Recent College Grads Are Right for Your Company

By Peter Lyle DeHaan

When hiring a salesperson, you can seek someone with relevant experience or someone with related education. Sometimes a candidate has both. The opposite is when they have neither.

I’d been hiring salespeople who had varying degrees of selling experience, though sometimes it was minimal—as was the case when hiring Brandon, the waiter. Not satisfied with the results, I opted for a different approach. I targeted college graduates who had an interest in sales and some relevant education, even if tangential.

Author and blogger Peter Lyle DeHaan

The Marketing Major

Jessica was about to graduate from college with a degree in marketing. She applied for a sales job with us as her last semester of college wound down. I offered her the position, starting when she graduated. She was excited, and so was I.

Before long I welcomed her to our company and began her training. This involved educating her about our business, the services we offered, and our typical customers. She took it in with great enthusiasm. Before long she felt ready to begin work, and I turned her loose.

Since we worked in different offices, I checked in with her daily by phone and weekly in person. When her enthusiasm ebbed, I offered encouragement. She received it well and resolutely pushed forward. She made a couple of sales and was on track to become a successful salesperson for our company.

Imagine my surprise when, in her second month of employment, she resigned. She decided she didn’t like sales after all and felt customer service was a better fit. She’d already found that position with a different company.

Disappointed for myself, I was also disappointed for her. She had spent four years in college pursuing a marketing degree with an expectation to go into sales. Yet within two months of graduating, she abandoned her career in sales and switched tracks to pursue customer service, a career independent of her marketing degree.

The Liberal Arts Graduate

Lauren arrived soon after Jessica. She had recently graduated from a well-respected, highly ranked liberal arts college. In addition to being professional and intelligent, she carried herself well, was articulate, and had an engaging personality. Not to diminish others I’d interviewed or our existing staff, but Lauren was a step above them. She was that good.

Interestingly, she worked part-time at a high scale restaurant, the kind where one table could generate a $100 tip or more. Her weekly tips roughly equated to the base pay I was prepared to offer her. As I gently probed into her motivation, I learned that she wanted full-time, business-hours work in a professional environment. She wanted to move beyond part-time, evening and weekend restaurant work.

I was excited to have someone of her caliber on our team, offered her a position, and she accepted. She started right away. Training went well and quickly. Soon she was working on her own and closing sales. As with Jessica, I checked in with her daily by phone and weekly in person. Since the two worked in different offices, I introduced them to each other so they could encourage and support one another. But at about that time, Jessica left.

A few months into her employment with us, Lauren also realized a disconnect. All her college classes had stressed collaboration, group exercises, and working in teams. They did this because that’s what employers said they needed.

Yet her role with our company required her to work independently. Though other people worked in her same office, they weren’t in sales. And I was off-site.

In short, she wasn’t part of a group. She wasn’t on a team, something four years of education had trained her for. She tried to adapt to working independently—and by my assessment had done so successfully—but it wasn’t an environment she wanted to remain in. She needed regular interaction with others. With reluctance, she gave me her two weeks’ notice.

Training and Support Is Key

These aren’t cautionary tales to avoid hiring recent college grads. Instead, it’s a call to evaluate your company’s management and training of salespeople. With the proper infrastructure in place, many companies strategically target recent grads and successfully bring them into their company.

There are several reasons why this is a good approach.

One is that since they’re new in the workforce (at least as a full-time employee in a professional environment) they have no negative habits for you to counteract or retraining to do. You start fresh. As a bonus, they’re used to learning.

Another is that they’re more apt to have youthful enthusiasm for their work. Also, since this is their first real job, they want to succeed. And, although a healthy work-life balance is important to them, they also have certain lifestyle expectations they want to meet. Having a job with open-ended sales potential can do just that for them.

The key to making this work is having a well-honed onboarding process and management structure in place to supply daily support, encouragement, and oversight.

I did not have that to offer Jessica and Lauren. I wasn’t a sales manager. Instead, sales management was one more task I tried to squeeze into an already too-busy workload. And it wasn’t a priority for me. Other aspects of my job held more interest. Sales got whatever I had left. Sometimes that was enough; sometimes it wasn’t.

Also, since we seldom hired salespeople—averaging about one per year—we had no structured training program in place. It was more of an ad hoc approach. This worked for some people, and it didn’t work for others.

Sales Management Success Tip Examine the sales management and onboarding structure you have in place. Then target applicants that align with it. Alternately, restructure your training and support processes to better match the applicants you receive.

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Sticky Series books, including Sticky Customer ServiceSticky Sales and Marketing, and Sticky Leadership and Management featuring his compelling story-driven insights and tips.

Peter Lyle DeHaan is an entrepreneur and businessman who has managed, owned, and started multiple businesses over his career. Common themes at every turn have included customer service, sales and marketing, and leadership and management.

He shares his lifetime of business experience and personal insights through his books to encourage, inspire, and occasionally entertain.

By Peter Lyle DeHaan

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, publishes books about business, customer service, the call center industry, and business and writing.