Be a Business Athlete - Get into Sales, Part 2
Employers, Roles, and Skills
I have spent more than 20 years selling in the streets of Chicago, starting with $50 door-to-door cable-TV subscriptions, then advancing to $5,000 office equipment, and finally to complex $500,000+ systems for Fortune 500 companies. To share my experiences, I have written an e-book, Salespeople, the Athletes of Business. In its pages, I demystify the job of the sales representative (rep) in the real world of business, set expectations, share lessons, and offer advice to give my readers a competitive edge and improve their odds for long-term success in this exciting and rewarding career path.
I was invited to write this series of articles in Search & Employ® because of my firm belief that many transitioning and veteran military have the background, focus, and discipline required to succeed in professional sales, a career path often overlooked, yet vital to every employer.
Many men and women who are transitioning out of the armed forces yearn to take on management roles – not sales roles – in the civilian world of business. But we are still in an extended weak economy in the wake of the Great Recession. Conventional management positions are few and difficult to secure. However, there are other options – and sales is one of them. Trust me, in sales you will be managing plenty – the sales process, your support team, your customers/prospects, projects, and yourself.
Furthermore, sales can be the most accessible doorway into a company – as you will see, the sales force often plays by a different set of rules. My mission is to remove much of the mystery and prepare you with the confidence and skills to walk through that door and arm you with a competitive edge.
This I know for sure: Investing a few years in the action-packed sales arena will serve to sharpen your social and business senses for whatever you choose in the future.
In Part 1 of this series, published in July-August 2016 Search & Employ®, I described the “why” and “what” of professional sales and the three-part mission of sales (find, engage, persuade). I set some expectations, offered a brief job description, and made some comparisons with professional athletics – because both occupations are about competition and results. I reviewed common personal traits of successful reps, and challenged readers to reflect upon their own potential and aptitudes.
I explained that there are two major categories of sales jobs that are distinguished by the nature of the product and customer:
- In business-to-consumer (B2C) sales, a business sells a product or service to a consumer. Many times, these are “tactical” transactions with a fast pace and small dollars. I engaged in B2C sales when I sold cable-TV subscriptions to consumers.
- In business-to-business (B2B) sales, a business sells a product or service to another business. I engaged in B2B sales when I sold office equipment (tactical sales) and then expensive high-speed print and mailing equipment to large corporate mailers. The latter were more formal “strategic” sales involving high dollars, long-term relationships, and a team sales approach.
Businesses are much more careful and selective in their spending habits than often impetuous, impulsive consumers. For this reason, I focus readers on the B2B sales path where the challenge, action, and earnings can be significantly greater.
In the present article, I will explore the “where” and “how” of professional sales. I will provide some tactics and strategies for entering the field, choosing products to represent and selecting good employers. I will also review the various sales roles available and the soft and hard skills required..
EMPLOYERS AND THEIR POTENTIAL
Let’s start at the beginning, the apprenticeship phase – the boot camp of civilian business. As with learning any worthwhile skill, there are few quick, easy shortcuts in the sales world, but there are smart ways to accelerate the learning curve.
Evaluating and choosing healthy employers will play a key role in your personal success story. A savvy sales rep will strive to work in a growing, dynamic, healthy industry and for an employer that is trending upward – where the action is fast and the opportunities for earnings and advancement are strong.
But there is a challenge: Everyone wants those positions, so you will need to differentiate yourself from the pack by starting somewhere else and building a track record of accomplishments. This is no different than an aspiring baseball player trying to get into the big leagues.
Early in your sales career, the goal is to secure a fast-paced B2B, or even B2C, tactical sales environment with many opportunities so that you can document your results for advancement. Try to focus on established regional or national employers that may afford you some formal training. Keep in mind that, while a good company may not be headquartered in your area, it likely will have a regional sales/service office somewhere close. Look for an action-packed game, one with sales leads and many selling chances per week in outside face-to-face sales, not inside telemarketing or standing behind a booth.
Many entry-level positions are for tactical products and can be relatively easy to secure, especially for those of you with military backgrounds – if you appear to be sharp, articulate, motivated, and have done some preparation. Your goal is to gain experience, learn the trade, and earn some money – and then move up to the next level of sales.
For this reason, long-term prospects are not a big concern at the entry level of sales, and it is not uncommon to find a fairly high turnover rate. It is a game of “what have you done for me lately?” where loyalty runs thin. As in sports, if you pull your weight, you are allowed to stay on the team. If not, you are cut. It is a competitive world but it is often fun and exciting if you choose well and play well.
Before accepting any position, learn the average and top earnings. To minimize surprises, ask about the job expectations, what makes their products special, the compensation plan, and the profile and tenure of the other reps. Whenever possible, request to travel a day with a rep to learn even more about expectations, culture, and management style. If you get into a bad fit, pull the chute and keep looking, rather than wasting your time.
If you have done well over the course of 6 to 18 months, consider taking that check and experience to the bank and leverage it to reach the next rung on the sales ladder, which means a better opportunity – with greater earnings potential. As in learning the building trades, think apprentice, journeyman, and master. Advancement is a path paved with accomplishments, and it may require three, four, or five employers before you discover a great long-term opportunity.
OPENING THE DOOR
A core sales activity includes the ability to open doors. Employers expect salespeople to be outgoing, bold, and assertive, but not aggressive. Sometimes, a stuck door needs a kick. So, if the normal HR route into a prospective employer is not working, pick up the phone and directly contact the VP of sales, president, and/or regional manager.
But do your research first: By the time you make the call, you should know about the company history, its products and industry, and its competition. Google is your friend.
State your interest in selling for the company, and say why you have chosen their particular company. If your call goes to voicemail, leave a brief message, and indicate that you will follow up with a concise email with resume. Then follow that up – twice. Be sure to ask for a face-to-face interview.
Prepare to explain why you want to get into sales, why you think you can sell, and what differentiates you from other applicants – including your military background. Prepare to tell your contact that you have high energy, competitive drive, and communication skills. Mention any sports or leadership experience, speak of ambition and self-motivation, and give examples.
Finally, prepare for an objection or a rejection if you have no prior sales experience. But rather than accept the rejection, ask whether the company has a sales internship or sales-support role so you can prove yourself.
Chances are your contact will respect your approach – it demonstrates good Salescraft 101. It is exactly the proactive sort of behavior the company would expect from one of its own sales reps. Salespeople are persistent and do not give up after the first try.
If you are rejected, it never hurts to thank the CEO, president or VP of sales – by phone, email, or letter – for the opportunity to interview. Re-state your future interest in joining the company’s sales force in any capacity to prove yourself. This is a bold but logical tactic that will get attention and demonstrate your tenacity. Remember that, in sales and life, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get,” and when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.
SALES AND SUPPORT POSITIONS
The goal for any serious salesperson is to get to the major leagues as quickly as possible, but in tough times sometimes we need to step backward to go forward. To get in the door of a good employer, some basic customer service or sales-support role is better than none at all. But I remind you to keep your eye on the prize – tactical or strategic outside B2B sales.
Below are a few common sales and support roles and titles. I have seen fellow associates from each of these sales-support positions, including field service techs, transition successfully into our sales force. They had learned the product, the customers and the industry, and earned their place on the team.
- Customer service – B2C or B2B: In this role, you perform an essential task: making sure the customer is happy. If your phone skills are rough, working in customer service may help you smooth them out. Some companies offer incentives to members of their customer-service team to generate leads and up-sell additional products or services.
- Telemarketing – mainly B2C: This role goes by many names – e.g., dialing for dollars – but generally it involves either canvassing for leads based on a list, or attempting to sell or secure an appointment over the phone.
- This quasi-sales role can quickly become very tedious and repetitious – you need to make dozens of calls per day. So telemarketing is not for everyone, and the experience can have limited value after a few months. Remember, the goal is to gain experience and recognition for performance. Still, telemarketing can be a good starting position to get in the door, as long as you can advance quickly.
- Product specialist or systems engineer: Here, you play the role of product expert for a complex product line. You can operate alone or in support of several sales reps across a geographic area. For example, if you have a strong IT or software background, you could play this role in support of field sales reps whose job is to open doors and manage deals.
- Implementation team: Many large manufacturers and software providers have teams dedicated to post-sale installation, training, and troubleshooting. By working on one of these teams, you can learn the product and get to understand customer needs – great preparation for sales.
- Sales intern: Some larger companies offer internships as a testing ground for sales recruits. Interns support senior sales reps to enable them to perform the duties of customer and sales-cycle management more effectively.
- Vertical market specialist: Like product specialist, this can be a sales or sales-support position. Some companies organize their sales forces according to vertical market segments of the customer base – e.g., banking services, manufacturing, government, pharmaceuticals, and insurance. The vertical rep will have, or will develop, expertise in his or her market.
- Outside sales rep: I tend to focus on this position, the athlete on the field of play, doing deals via face-to-face meetings with customers and prospects. There are many other titles for this role, including account manager, territory manager, senior account executive, and major account executive.
Outside B2B sales reps are the elite of the sales force. I encourage you to strive for these roles for obvious reasons, not the least of which is excellent compensation potential.
I always suggest to a beginner who wants to go golfing that he or she first invest a month or two on a driving range, take a few lessons, and learn when and how to hit all the clubs before wasting a lot of time and money. The pros make it look so easy on TV, and so it is with the sales game. Every sport has fundamental skills, and so does sales. These skills naturally become more important the higher in the sales game you rise.
I will describe some of these briefly, but you will want to help yourself to much more information. Many books (besides mine), articles, and on-going conversations in such forums as LinkedIn – join their Sales Best Practices and Veteran Mentoring Network – these groups offer a steady stream of helpful advice from a wide knowledge base.
Prospecting, or hunting: This is the act of searching for new prospects that are needed to grow any business. The Internet has made prospecting for decision-makers easier, but some companies go to extremes to screen pesky sales reps who are simply trying to offer proven solutions.
Penetrating new accounts and engaging decision-makers can be a fun challenge. Finding and winning new business is a sure-fire way to get yourself recognized, but I have found that a healthy sales diet includes a mix of prospecting and face-to-face selling.
Listening: Obvious, yes, easy, no; in our fast-paced society, an ability to focus and actually to listen does not come easy – especially to an excited sales rep who has tons of great information to share. An ability to focus on what others are saying, and then converse based on their words – and ask effective, probing questions – can separate a hack from a sales pro. Effective listening is an important life skill that will help you advance regardless of your path.
Effective communication: In most any sales role, you will need to converse in full sentences with ease, at a professional level – on the phone, in person, and in writing. Effective communication is a big part of most any job, especially sales, and the words you choose will separate you from your competition in a positive or negative way. Senior outside B2B sales reps will spend a healthy amount of time communicating on the phone, writing proposals, or participating in meetings.
Objection handling: In sales, objections are expected; and they present salespeople with opportunities to address concerns. The ability to handle objections is a fundamental skill that comes in handy in any career path, and it is tied to listening skills and empathy.
There are several proven methods for handling objections, and there is a right way and a wrong way to apply them. Remember, while there is often an element of tenacity and persuasion involved in sales, in the end our mission is to offer proven win/win solutions that deliver value, not to force round pegs into square holes.
Relationship building: Some people are quick with a smile and a good word, and can quickly connect with others without being phony or contrived. These same folks seem to have many friends and contacts, and for good reason. They are fun to be around and are usually good listeners and conversationalists who understand it’s not all about them. Making sincere, solid connections with people is an important skill to have in any sales position.
Trust and respect must be earned over time. It is important to send a signal that you are competent, here to help, and easy to do business with. People tend to buy from people they like and trust. If you are honest, easy to talk with, and knowledgeable, you will have a competitive edge.
Proposals and presentations: Once you have established a basis for evaluating your product, you will need to create a proposal, and often an executive presentation. Most sales organizations have best-practices templates and outlines of what has worked for other salespeople. Presentations are like closing arguments in a courtroom, an exciting opportunity to present your value proposition and demonstrate why you are the superior partner for the deal.
If you have issues with your public-speaking presentation skills, you are not alone. There is no substitute for experience, but one excellent source of advice is Ted Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, by Chris Anderson.
Leadership and teamwork: I was told that leadership is getting people to do something they otherwise would not do. Whether this skill comes naturally from playing the quarterback as a kid or through your military experience, the sales rep is expected to lead the offensive charge.
This skill becomes especially important as you progress into big-ticket strategic sales. In many cases, you will need to guide and lead a team of finance, service, engineering, and management specialists. Your experience, relationships, and feel for the game will come to play.
Negotiation and closing: The final steps of the sales process include the act of gaining confirmation that you have been selected or recommended as the vendor of choice. The act of asking for the order – closing the deal –should be a confident part of the process. If you have played the game well during the sales process, and delivered a win/win value proposition, you have earned the right to ask for the order.
There are many books on negotiation. But you do not have to be a master negotiator, just competent. No matter how well you have done during the sales process, customers like to have choices, and so almost every deal is competitive until the ink is dry on the order.
Some larger companies have trained, dedicated buyers whose job is to negotiate the final terms. I had one such buyer enter the scene at the last minute to get my price down. I had already made reasonable concessions, and finally I had to remind him on a conference call that “this is a mission-critical system, so whose phone will ring at 2:00 a.m. when the cheaper product fails?” My firm push-back worked.
As you move toward the final negotiation, expect to be asked to make some concessions. Know the players, the competition, your alternative currencies – that is, items other than price reductions that can be offered as concessions, such as free delivery, extended warranty, and/or a year of free service – and the strength of the value proposition you offer. This final act can be a time of uncertainty and tension, an intimidating drama, or a fun and natural part of the conversation. Sales is rarely boring.
In Part 3 of this series of articles, I will look beyond the entry level of sales and prepare you to move into the big leagues of strategic sales, where the challenge is great, the competition is fierce, and the stakes – and rewards – are high. Thank you for your attention, and thank you for serving in the armed forces of the United States.
John Finney has been a student of the sales game for well over 20 years. He now heads the sales-force and business-improvement firm John Finney Consulting; http://johnfinneyconsulting.com. He is available for personal mentoring/advice, on request, to Search & Employ® readers who are transitioning or veteran military. PDF copies of his e-book, Salespeople, the Athletes of Business, are available on request to him at the above email address and on Amazon.
By John Finney