Be a Business Athlete - Get Into Sales
PART 3 | THE BIG LEAGUES
My sales career has spanned over two decades, starting in the streets of Chicago, where I sold $50 cable-TV subscriptions, to a thriving business where I sold big-ticket capital equipment to Fortune 500 companies. As such, I have gained experience and insight into the sales arena which I believe can be beneficial to anyone playing the game.
I wrote this series for Search & Employ® based on my firm belief that many of you, transitioning veterans, have the self-discipline and determination it takes to succeed in the action-packed game of sales. These qualities provide a competitive edge over your civilian peers. I also believe that while the sales path offers a rich and fast-paced learning opportunity in the real world of business, it also prepares you for future opportunities and business endeavors. Over the years, I have found that many dismiss this career path due to false impressions and and the fear of the unknown. My mission has been to remove the mystery and stigma of working in sales, to educate you on the way the industry functions, and, should you decide to enter the arena, to help you set realistic expectations for a career in sales. Sales can be a challenging role to play, it’s not for everyone. In this field, fresh talent is always in demand.
In Part 1 of this series, published in July-August 2016 Search & Employ, I covered the “why” and “what” of professional sales. I explained the roles of sales, what personal traits are required, and what to expect in this career path. I explained that the sales force is the tip of the arrow in business and it often requires a blend tenacity, boldness, and assertiveness in order to achieve results. I suggested that if you are social and energetic, enjoy action and the outdoors, then sales may be your perfect fit.
Part 2 of this series, published in September-October 2016 Search & Employ, I explored the “where” and “how” of professional sales, including the various sales-related roles within a company, the basic skills needed to succeed, and advice for selecting industries and employers. I discussed methods to establish yourself in sales, and cited reference materials for self-education on prospecting, objection handling, negotiation, and communication. I ended the column with a discussion on the sales process and what it takes to close a deal.
THE NEXT STEP: THINK LONG TERM
Once you have proven yourself in the minor leagues, you are ready to move up to the major leagues. After running hard uphill and into the wind, you will have learned that results are all that matter when it comes to keeping your place on the team. And after a few years of experience, you will have proven your tenacity, competitive spirit, and determination.
Let’s imagine that we can turn the clock forward, and by now you have written over a hundred proposals and presentations, and scores of sales contracts. You have learned the skills of account penetration and development, become proficient at handling objections, negotiations, and selling the value proposition of your product line. You know how to hunt and where to invest your time. You have become a trusted consultant to your prospects and customers, and an honest broker of business solutions. You know how to get things done.
But what now? Do you stay on the sales path? Should you jump industries, perhaps become a dealer or manufacturer’s representative? Is it time to start something more entrepreneurial? Do you veer into management? Luckily, by now, you have a full toolbox of skills and experiences, and you have the confidence to use those tools.
This is a good time to do a personal assessment of your aptitudes and preferences. When it comes to complexity and pace of play, what would be your best fit? In your early years, you may have sampled several different industries, each with a unique set of target buyers, customer bases, and sales processes. Now is the time to ask yourself about things like your willingness to travel, relocate, or possibly learn a completely new industry.
As a professional and astute business person seeking long-term engagement in the prime of your earning years, you will want to use all your research skills to select potential employers. You are at a stage where you’ve earned the right to confidently ask “why should I select you as my employer?” rather than visa-versa.
Consider that every company is in a dynamic state – whether it be in decline, growth, or holding steady. This state is a reflection of its product line, value proposition, and management team. Take a big-picture look at your employer (or potential employer), similar to the way a stock investor would, before investing for the long-term. Some things to consider are: What is the company’s history? What makes them special? How is their industry trending, and why? How is the company, itself, trending? What new products will they be offering in the near future? Have there been changes to management, and why? How healthy is their customer base? What resources do they offer to their employees? What new technology could change or disrupt the game?
FROM TACTICAL TO STRATEGIC SALES
Moving from tactical sales to strategic sales is an exciting change. While tactical sales benefit from preparation and planning, strategic sales require it. I offer the game of football as a comparison to strategic sales: it is a true team sport with a limited number of opportunities to win per year. Each team has one quarterback who calls the plays and leads from the center of the action. In the strategic arena, the professional sales representative is the quarterback. The game often slows down as the deals or, to continue with the football analogy, plays become larger and more complex.
When leading the charge, you will rely on every ounce of the skill sets you have gained along the way. Most of these will be what are considered “soft” skills, or people skills. This is where your education, experience, and expertise will come to play. Things like building relationships, understanding needs, leading your team, acquiring resources, making presentations, overcoming objections, and negotiating deals will be essential, and the importance of each is magnified with high-profile deals that are on everyone’s radar. Some companies will require a “strategic account development” tracking document in their customer relationship management (CRM), so that each of the steps and nuances of a deal can be followed and action plans can be developed.
In the higher bracket of the sales model, the number of potential buyers is often limited, so prospecting new business, while always important, is less important than it was in tactical sales. Here, the game shifts from prospecting to protecting your client base. You must maintain your client base while winning customers from the competition, a victory which could reward you handsomely.
JOINING A TEAM
Strategic sales generally involve a smaller, more focused, and specialized sales force. When it comes to joining a sales team, it is important to gauge the profile of the sales force. Is the team diverse? What kinds of different skills do they bring to the table? Are they smart and professional? Does the team exert high energy and morale? Do you feel a comfortable fit as well as opportunity?
Something else to consider is earning potential, realistic and proven. What are the expectations for you? How have others performed on this team? Any solid employer will gladly provide details on what others have earned and share honest performance expectations in writing.
An important aspect when evaluating a potential team is understanding the power structure. Your direct sales manager will be your number one advisor, coach, and mentor, so it is important to have a personal connection and to be comfortable communicating with them. Obviously, understanding the expectations of the job is key, but understanding the management style of your potential new boss is more important than you might imagine.
Good managers are fair and reasonable and will want you to succeed. They selected you for their team and when you win, they win. They will knock down internal barriers and provide the support you need to close deals. They will coach and counsel when you need assistance, but not tell you how to sell (you have already proven you know how). If you get off track or hit a slump, they will work with you to help you correct and improve.
Make sure you are clear on expectations when it comes to things like the amount of travel required, the ability to attend trade shows, the flexibility to work from home, how the company manages activity reports, the paperwork you will have to turn in, and what kind of mentoring or training will be provided to you for the first 90 days and beyond.
Once you have joined a company, you will be assigned a sales territory. Your territory should be seen as your franchise, your own personal business from which you will be expected to extract a certain dollar revenue using your skills and resources. Ideally, each territory and sales quota assignment should be equalized across the entire sales force. In reality, this is not always the case. That is to say, all sales assignments are not created equally.
Some territories, customer bases, competitive landscapes, and geographies are simply healthier and of higher potential than others. Having sold in the target rich and highly-competitive Chicago market, I have seen certain high-turnover territories become depleted over the years, with the larger accounts assigned to senior reps. It is for reasons like this that I recommend understanding the history of the assignment (franchise) you are being offered and how they compare with your peer’s assignments.
Quota is the holy grail in sales. This is a revenue goal that you are expected to know and meet, if not exceed. Your quota should be a number that was determined by top management using data, logic, and reason. For example, elements like territory history, current territory activity and forecast, product history, and competitive landscape should all have been considered when arriving at a number. Many companies will ask you to prepare a business plan every year to present just how you plan to make quota. As I mentioned earlier, a good manager will work with you to help make that happen.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Make sure you have agreed to a compensation plan that will motivate you. If we are honest, money really is the main motivator for most of us. It is a reward for all the hassles and challenges that are part of a sales rep’s life. And while I have intentionally avoided much discussion on this topic in order to paint a conservative picture, still, I am
forced to use a wide brush to describe what to expect, given the varied array of compensation plans and management schemes in sales. Fortunately, many companies follow similar guidelines.
During the early years of selling, you may have worked under a compensation (comp) plan with a small salary, say $20,000 to $30,000, and a larger commission potential, which could add $20,000 to $40,000. These plans are designed primarily to reward near-term (i.e. monthly) performance. If you sold at 100% of quota, you may have earned $60,000 to$80,000 annually, plus benefits. Though this seems like a pretty great deal for someone in their twenties or thirties, the near-term performance model comes with a cost. As I have stated, sales requires consistency of performance, and if you do not make quota on a regular basis, you will likely earn substantially less, or eventually be terminated. You need to perform to stay in the line-up.
The game changes at the strategic sales level, where the stakes and the rewards multiply. In most cases an employer will invest in your product training and measure your progress on a quarterly review basis, rather than monthly, as you are now selling more complex solutions with a longer sales cycle. It will be understood, by both parties, that your employment is a long-term, mutual investment, assuming all goes well.
If you look at twenty different sales forces, you will find twenty different sales force cultures, schemes, and management styles. And while they are all different, they should all follow certain guidelines in order to stay competitive and attract, and retain, sales talent. To attract good talent, a decent starting salary of $60,000 to $80,000 a year, plus a company car, expenses paid, with a benefit package is not uncommon. At this higher level of sales, you should have the realistic opportunity to earn $100,000 at or near quota, and in many cases, much more.
Companies that I call “sales-centric” understand the important role the sales force plays and will offer them a comp plan that makes that clear. These companies get the fact that their top performers bring in the money that helps them grow the business. Clearly, this is a situation the savvy sales rep will want to determine before joining their ranks.
A good comp plan should be easy to understand, logical, and reasonable - not a 28-page manifesto of legal and accounting jargon with various hoops and loopholes. If you have a good sales manager and a team who can explain how the plan works, what it takes, and how to get to quota, you are headed in the right direction.
Remember, by this point in your career, you will have proven you have what it takes to succeed in sales. Now it is up to you to make the most of that leverage. Be choosy, be confident, and be smart, and you will find yourself part of a winning team.
In the final essay of this series, I will reflect on the many lessons and experiences you have gained by leaping into the sales arena. I will discuss how those lessons and experiences will prepare you for whatever challenges and future endeavors you encounter. Once again, thank you for your attention, and thank you for serving 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. 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, The Athletes of Business, are available on request to him at the above email address and on Amazon.
By John Finney