Famously, a career in sales poses perhaps the fewest barriers to entry than any other professional career.; at least where your chosen subject in further education and traditional qualifications are concerned. As a result of this, sales quite often receives a bad rap and mixed publicity among the general population. You may have heard it categorised as a stopgap, or reserved for the obnoxious, the unskilled or perhaps even the opportunist. In the very worst-case examples this can be true, but the same can be said for all job roles in all industries!
In reality, selling professionally presents a wonderful opportunity for people who are prepared to learn, to challenge themselves, to work hard and apply themselves to a life-long profession that stimulates enormous personal growth. In its purest form, it's an occupation that demands an awful lot from its newest recruits and seasoned professionals alike. One that, when perfected, is a source of great fulfilment and reward.
It's probably no secret that a career in sales better lends itself to certain individuals and personalities than perhaps it does to others. Whilst the below isn't a definitive list, and whilst sales in 2023 caters for a greater range of personality types than ever before – it's worth us exploring the demands of the industry at the most basic level. This means you as the reader can quickly identify the likelihood of continuing your interest in a career in sales beyond this point.
Desirable skills + attributes
As above, this list isn't exhaustive and doesn't necessarily dictate your compatibility with a sales career. It simply comprises the more sought-after traits and primary considerations one should make before deciding whether to go for it. It also provides a rough benchmark for the likelihood of success.
It goes without saying that working in sales comes with varying degrees of pressure to perform, both intrinsically and extrinsically. Extrinsic pressure placed on the salesperson ranges from mild to extreme depending on industry, and the culture and lifecycle stage of the business you work for. Intrinsic pressure will come in the form of both earnings (paying the bills, lifestyle fulfilment) and your desire to climb the hierarchical rankings.
Performance is continually measured and easily quantifiable
In sales, your work is incredibly easy to measure and therefore quantify. Everything you do is governed by a numerical figure, commonly referred to as a sales target, which is pre-defined by the business you work for. It's also time-based, meaning you are required to sell a certain proportion of your target by a given (monthly, quarterly, annual) date. Therefore, you're assessed by management based on your ability to achieve that number, or not achieve it as the case may be. In most instances, your sales target is your primary focus at work.
Performance related pay
If you perform well at your job in sales, you will be paid well. Similarly, if you excel at your job, you will be paid an excellent wage. This is the draw for the vast majority of salespeople around the world. On the contrary, if you perform poorly (or even just ‘okay'), you can be left with significantly less.
In most jobs, you arrive work with a predetermined workload. You'll have some emails to respond to, and perhaps an ongoing project that you're working on within your team. In sales, your project is your sales target. For the most part, your employer isn't concerned with your day-to-day at all, as long as your targets are being met. It's up to you to develop systems and strategise around how you will go about achieving your target. This can be a challenge for those inclined to drift or lose focus.
Public presentations, meetings and phone calls
You need to be comfortable speaking in person, over the phone and presenting to individuals and large groups of people. During your sales career, you will be required to publicly communicate with colleagues, management, prospective customers and boards of directors on a regular basis.
Let's be frank here. Being continually measured and critiqued, having your performance quantified and your take-home income dictated by your results, is a tough environment! Then consider that the job is largely skill based, and that you're going to have to work very hard for a long time before seeing the full return on your investment, and you may wonder how anyone could possibly enjoy their job and thrive in the short-term.
A growth culture
In answer to the above – “how do you thrive in the short-term and enjoy your job as a newbie salesperson?” - every successful career in sales starts with the selection of your first job in sales. This must be taken extremely seriously. When learning any new skill in life, we require the space and the time to build a strong foundation, to hone our craft, learn for ourselves, experience some success, and make some mistakes along the way. Sales is no different.
Prioritise finding yourself an employer that makes sales a primary focus of their business. Specifically, the growth and retention of their client base. Join a business that nurtures employees, develops individual skills through intensive training and makes management hires from within. I'd even go as far as to say ignore their industry to begin with. When your career is in its infancy, choose a growth culture over everything else and you will give yourself the best possible start. From there, anything is possible.
Let's take a look at the range of roles that are available to a candidate considering a career in sales. Generally speaking, your new role will fall into one of the following categories:
New business sales (internal or external)
New business sales is about establishing relationships and winning business with new customers, specifically ones that don't have an existing link to your company. Arguably the most challenging of the 3 options, selling new business is primarily focused on accurate lead generation, informed timing, creating an impact with the prospect, building trust quickly and successfully closing the deal. You'll then either retain the account for further upselling or move it on to the account management team. The internal/external option refers to the logistical approach you take to the role. Will you be office based only (internal), or will you travel to meet with people face to face (external)?
Account management (internal or external)
Account management is the maintenance and improvement of relationships with existing customers. Heavily focused on long-term relationship building and familiarisation with the customer, you will become their trusted point of contact. In this role, you as the salesperson will be targeted on upselling and the renewal of contracts. The internal/external option refers to the logistical approach you take to the role. Will you be office based only (internal), or will you travel to meet with people face to face (external)?
Providing the crucial link between the sales and marketing operations, a sales support executive ensures the sales department can perform at its very best at all times. Not only do they carry out essential data cleansing, lead distribution and administrative tasks, but they can also take minutes in sales meetings and provide direct assistance to sales management and directors where required.
Progression within sales
Another differentiating factor when it comes to a career in sales versus others, is that progression within the roles and promotion to management can often be dictated by performance rather than experience. At the very least, it's a combination of the two with the foundation for promotion being the individual's performance. You will scarcely see a poorly performing sales executive given a managerial role, no matter how many decades they've been in the job.
So, if performance is ultimately the deciding factor as to the trajectory of your career in sales – where can excellent performance take you? Well, like many facets of your sales career, that is dependent on your employer, their outlook, and their culture. As a general rule of thumb, if you perform well with consistency (not just as a one-off), you'll see your earnings and job security skyrocket, and your day-to-day role evolve dramatically.
As a direct consequence of performance being your catalyst for progression in sales, we need to understand that in order to achieve consistency of performance, we need years of time on the job and a strong foundation of knowledge. For this reason, your starting role in sales (be it new business, account management or sales support) is likely to dictate your route to progression up through the ranks. You've refined your skills in that specific area and become excellent at it. You're unlikely to then be promoted into another sales category. There are of course exceptions to the rule, and that's usually down to the individual deciding to opt for a change in career path.
Let's examine the hierarchical ladder that a budding sales professional has available to them later on down the line:
Senior sales executive
You've proven yourself and have demonstrated an ability to apply newfound knowledge in order to develop your sales skills. Your bosses will have noted this. They will have also seen you achieve some notable success and consequently, an increase in salary along with a new job title is in order. Whist you'll continue to perform the role in very much the same way as you already have done up to now, this is an acknowledgement that you have shown great potential. What you do with this potential is entirely up to you.
Account Director/Key Accounts
You're now excelling in previous roles, consistently overachieving targets and management have recognised your true potential as a valuable asset worth holding onto. At this stage, you'll be granted greater freedom and autonomy, your earnings will take another strong leap forward and you will experience a change in social status within the business. Being an Account Director, you'll be tasked with selling into some of the largest customers your business works with, and with it, an elevation in earnings and overall responsibility.
Reporting to the Sales Director/Head of Sales or the equivalent, you're now responsible for managing a team of Sales Executives and Senior Sales Executives. Previously, we alluded to your day-to-day changing dramatically when you advance to sales management and nothing could be truer! Rather than hitting the phones, booking meetings and attending sales meetings yourself, your job as a manager is now to nurture and develop your team of salespeople. Plus, assisting them with their work and providing the missing pieces of the puzzle to help get deals over the line. Ultimately, you will be answerable to any query over the collective and individual performance of your team.
The peak of the mountain within sales. A Sales Director takes another step back from the day-to-day goings on within the sales department itself and focuses primarily on strategy and collective performance. Reporting on sales progress at board meetings, a Sales Director will be directly involved in the strategic planning and mission of the business as a whole. In conjunction with the other directors, they will place great emphasis on the interdepartmental workings of the business, ensuring that the sales operation fulfils its role in the overall master plan.
In summary, the beauty of a career in sales is that you have the power to dictate your own future, more so than you would in most other career choices. Not only from the obvious perspective of performing well and being well compensated for doing so – but with hard work and mastery of skills, you can access flexibility, a desirable work/life balance and real fulfilment through establishing meaningful relationships and helping customers to improve their own working lives.
If, in the very beginning, you're prepared to work hard, experience setbacks alongside the successes and continually learn and work on your craft, you're in for a career like no other.