Sales Culture Rule 5: Experience is for the Dinosaurs.

“If you’re a gifted flirt, talking about the price of eggs will do as well as any other subject.”

Experience is overrated. Yes, I said it.

Nice way to start a blog, right?  Come across as some brash know-it-all who can’t seem to find a hat big enough to cover his head?


Let me first say, since journeying into this industry from grad school, I have been around some really bright and innovative people. I believe there is something to be learned from everyone, and a lot more to be learned from someone who has done something for a long time. However, I think the airline industry has things all wrong when it comes to using past experience as the key determinant in how it proceeds forward.

I would say that this industry is stuck in the 20th century, but that would, by most accounts, be a good thing (I don’t believe you had to pay for peanuts 20 years ago). However, from an organizational standpoint, most carriers I’ve had any interaction with have been extremely hierarchical, ego-driven, and more focused on where its leadership has been rather than where it’s going.

With the continued consolidation leaving more and more people competing for fewer and fewer jobs, I understand the Human Resources challenge of finding the real players in a sea of applications. I just think they could do more to focus on an individual’s skill set, which aside from some very technical functions (i.e. aircraft maintenance, airfare filing), surprisingly often has little correlation to one’s experience.

I’ve already witnessed countless cases where management sees hiring the most experienced candidate (read: longest tenured in a particular position title at a particular company) as the easiest to bring into the fold. Rather than wanting to take the time to develop a young talent, who may possess all of the drive, intelligence, communication and analytical skills needed to be a star, but just needs a bit of seasoning on airline lingo (let’s face it, they don’t teach you what “POO” means, or the difference between private and public fares, in grad school), they elect for the “plug and play.” Why? Sheer laziness. Less work for me.

Unfortunately, I would argue that this mindset often results in a classic case of winning the battle only to lose the war. Sure, it may make hitting this month’s target a bit easier…but is it at the expense of the long-term bigger picture? In my experience, there will always be someone (probably not more than one, though) at the corporate level who understands succession planning, and would probably be able to give a free pass for a bad month or two through the growing pains. Then again, it’s not like hiring someone a little wet behind the ears is even a guarantee that you’d need it.

The great irony in only hiring based on experience is that, in most cases, nobody evaluates exactly where that experience came. If I was the CEO that led US Airways into bankruptcy, does that mean I am best qualified to be the CEO of a startup carrier? While US carriers are generally very strong from a strategic pricing and revenue management perspective, in anything dealing with people–relationship management, marketing, and customer service–they are among the world’s worst. Yet it’s the executives responsible for this that seem to recycle round and round throughout the industry and continue to bring the same stale thinking that put their previous employers in the state they are in to their new employer–who hired them out of laziness. For example, jetBlue has, in my opinion, had a noticeable decline in service in recent years, and deviated from the differentiating culture it so effectively built throughout the early 2000’s. Is it any coincidence, then, that after David Neeleman left, top management has steadily been replaced by a wave of ex-Continental executives? That’s not to throw CO under the bus, but how about recruiting someone from Apple? Or 3M? Or an industry consultant who has proven the ability to lead his own business?

Simply put, “years of experience” doesn’t state anything in and of itself. It’s the rest of the sentence that does. Does a candidate have years of experience developing innovative ideas? Or years of experience middle-managing an under-performing airline notorious for bad customer service? Does the candidate have years of experience increasing bottom-line yield through revenue management best practices? Or years of experience being a ‘yes man’ to the same, non-innovative, self-aggrandizing leaders that caused so many of the industry’s current problems to begin with?

For my two cents, if I am a travel buyer, I do not necessarily want to see the same person over and over again wearing different hats. If I see someone who called on me for Continental yesterday, and American a few years ago, how am I supposed to believe that even he believes what he’s selling me about United today? Even if the person is less polished, or may have to get back to me with an answer to some of my questions, I’d rather work with the young, passionate person any day who can really convince me he believes in the logo on his lapel pin. (That being said, the person needs to actually follow up and answer my questions, but this is an acceptable sales skill that is taught in business programs today). There’s nothing at all wrong with “I’m not sure about that one, I haven’t encountered that before. Let me research it and get back to you by next Tuesday morning,” rather than the same, pre-meditated answer I’m used to hearing.

Let me reiterate, by no means am I saying there is not value in experience. There absolutely is. And the most effective sales person of all will be the experienced one who has also made a painstaking effort to keep up with the latest trends, continuously strive to make new relationships and build new bridges rather than depending on the ones he already has, and who constantly works to improve his knowledge and skills to be able to innovate and inspire. My argument is merely that the evaluation process doesn’t even get to that level though–it gets hung up strictly on the experience credential.

So, if you ever are in a hiring situation, I strongly advise you to exercise patience, and evaluate the candidate’s ceiling as opposed to their floor. Evaluate experience as a factor, but not the factor. It could reap major rewards in the long run, and may help pull our industry back to respectability.


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Customer Engagement Strategy for the Airline Industry