I’m willing to do anything – except sales.”
I should probably print this statement out in big, bold letters and paste it on the wall somewhere in my office. It is – by far – the number one thing that I hear students say when they visit me in the career center. I understand – sales is certainly not for everyone – and it can be helpful for job-seekers to know what fields they would NOT like to pursue.
However, I think many candidates discount potential opportunities in sales without having a full understanding of what that career path entails. While the word “sales” typically conjures a mental image of someone walking through neighborhoods from house-to-house getting doors slammed in their face, the reality can be quite different.
Sales positions can take many different formats, ranging from the door-to-door variety (this is increasingly uncommon nowadays) to business-to-business roles, where a sales professional’s job involves more relationship-building and maintaining the satisfaction of existing clients.
No matter what form they take, sales opportunities represent a significant number of opportunities in the job market. After all, sales is one of the primary ways that companies drive their business. In addition, employers seeking sales candidates can often be a little more flexible during the hiring process – your skills and personality may be just as important (if not more important) than your college major or your previous experience. Sales opportunities can also offer you more flexibility as a candidate, since the commission structure typically allows you more control over your earning potential (more on that later).
To help provide a basic understanding of the field, here are a few definitions that you may commonly see in sales job postings:
Inside sales often involves maintaining existing client relationships. For example, if your company sells widgets, your role as an inside sales representative could be reaching out to existing clients who purchased widgets to find out how satisfied they are with the product and when they will need to replenish their supply. You essentially serve as the customer’s main point of contact and negotiate their future purchases from your company.
In outside sales, you are typically trying to develop new business “outside” of the existing client base. These types of positions may involve cold-calling potential customers and trying to establish a relationship that will result in future business transactions for your company. Outside sales is typically one of the most demanding or challenging types of roles for new sales professionals.
Sometimes, part of someone’s sales job includes generating new leads for the company. Using the widget company example, this might mean doing research or networking to find companies who may potentially be interested in buying your product. Lead development can include not only finding the names of potential customers, but also getting the appropriate contact information and trying to “qualify” leads – in other words, investigating them to find out whether they are actually viable opportunities that your sales team needs to pursue.
Sales leads are categorized a variety of ways (think “hot” and “cold” as basic examples) and there are entire software packages designed to help facilitate the process of managing leads. However, the ultimate goal is to “close” or convert contacts from simply being leads to being customers. Some sales teams are divided into two groups – an entry-level team that generates and qualifies leads (see above), and a more experienced team that follows up to close leads and negotiate the sale.
Sales professionals will often have a set list of clients in the form of a portfolio or sales territory. This customer base helps to give you focus in your role and also helps you to build relationships with your customers over time. Your job might be to manage the accounts of customers in your portfolio (inside sales), to land new business within your territory (outside sales), or a combination of both.
Sales support is an increasingly common role as many companies are moving to more of a team-based model for the sales function. While sales representatives may perform more of the client-facing roles, such as conducting actual sales meetings and trying to close business transactions, sales support teams may do some of the background work necessary to make the deal happen. Common support roles include investigating leads (see above), analyzing data, performing research, or developing materials for sales presentations.
Client Services is another common role in the sales world – I would call it a “cousin” of the Inside Sales Representative. A Client Services professional works with new and existing customers to make sure their needs are met and to answer any questions they may have. If you work at a software company, for example, you might have a client services team that helps customers install the new product and troubleshoot any questions. In some companies, client services may work closely with inside sales to ensure customer satisfaction and grow the business through the existing client base.
Account Executives are the head honchos in corporate sales teams. This is a common job title, but it can mean a variety of different things. Account Executives in the advertising world may have a project manager role, coordinating creative designers, sales professionals, copywriters, and others to make sure the final product meets the client’s expectations. In sales, “Account Executive” or “Account Manager” may simply mean that you are the go-to person for that particular customer.
Going back to the widget example, you may work at the widget factory as an Account Executive for one of the customers, XYZ Rollerskate Manufacturers. That could mean you perform both the inside sales and client services roles for XYZ’s business and any questions about their account are your responsibility. Sometimes, Account Executives in the sales world have their own sales, client services, or sales support teams to help them in their roles.
Base + Commission Positions
Some sales positions offer base salaries with the opportunity for further commission depending upon your performance. For example, companies using this structure will typically offer a base salary of about $25,000 – $35,000 (a salary you will receive regardless of your performance – within reason), with the potential to make $10,000 – $60,000 more in commission. The amount you ultimately earn all depends on the company’s compensation structure, which sometimes puts a cap on the commission you can receive. It is a good idea to learn more about the compensation structure as you are going through the hiring process – at the appropriate time, of course!
Some sales positions are entirely commission-based. That means that your earnings are completely dependent on your performance. If you are taking a commission-based position, you need to learn more about the role and determine whether you feel comfortable with the structure. For example, some commission-based positions will require you to establish your own customer base from scratch, which can be a pretty high-risk proposition for most candidates. There are also companies that offer a hybrid model – you may start out with a base salary and then eventually transition to full commission once you learn the ropes.
As you can see, the world of sales is more complicated than one might expect at first glance. There are a lot of opportunities in this field, and knowing some of the terminology can give you a big boost during the job search process.
Next week, I’ll be developing a follow-up piece about the qualifications that employers are seeking in sales professionals – and how YOU can demonstrate those abilities!
Update: You can read the follow-up piece here