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How to Get Ahead in a Sales Career

Robin Reshwan

There are many rumors about careers in sales: sales professionals make millions, it is a "dog-eat-dog" environment where only the strong survive, you are only measured by your most recent sales results, etc. Whether you believe (or have personally experienced) any of those statements, there are some indisputable facts about working in sales. Here are some things you should know if you would like to excel in a sales career.

First, knowing how to sell is one of the greatest skills to possess professionally (and personally). It will be used throughout your whole career. The key here is learning how to do it correctly. Selling is not the act of listing a bunch of features and benefits in the direction of a potential buyer. That is more likely to be called harassment. The art of selling is actually a well-balanced exchange that involves asking questions, listening patiently, following up appropriately and presenting solutions to genuine problems. When done correctly, the seller will learn about the customer, build rapport and trust, and ideally establish a connection. There are some sales nuances by industry, but in general, the act of selling well is universally valued.

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Second, you don't need to like rejection to succeed in sales. I have hired, trained and managed thousands of salespeople over my career and I cannot name one who liked rejection. Most successful salespeople stay in sales careers because they thrive on creating (opportunities, solutions, revenue) and they are comfortable with (and often motivated by) pressure. Oh yeah, usually they are results- and money-motivated, too.

This journey is very similar to that of a musician or an athlete. Musicians and athletes do not pursue these paths because they love practice, exerting endless effort or being told often about their mistakes. Usually they are driven through the trenches for the thrill of the few moments when they are at peak performance -- be it at a game or a concert. The tedium is necessary to equip them with the skills, stamina, confidence and composure to thrive under pressure. For successful sales professionals, it is the same. All of the research, call planning, leaving messages and sending emails are necessary parts to get the moments when you connect with a prospect and convert them into a client. Often, the more effort you put in, the greater the compensation.

Third, not every sales role will make you rich. As a matter of fact, most roles won't. Why? If what you sell doesn't make the company rich after all of the expenses necessary to provide the products or services that are offered, smart employers keep the costs of generating sales in line with an overall profitability model for the whole company. Factors that affect sales compensation are how profitable the product or service is, the length of the sales cycle, riskiness of securing deals, competition, difficulty of training and retaining sales staff and the relative scarcity of the workforce interested and capable of selling it. In other words, if it is not that difficult to get customers or if there is a strong supply of potential employees for the sales positions in a desirable industry, the role does not need to pay as much (and probably won't).

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It is also important to note that high payouts for sales when a product or service is new will almost always go down as the company, business or industry matures. When a business needs to create a new market, they must pay more to attract sales professionals willing to take a chance with something unknown. Once the market is more established and the company has built out the infrastructure to support the business (like accounting, administration, customer service, IT, management, etc.), companies typically adjust sales payout to keep in line with the increased expenses. Salespeople often flee during these transitions because they feel something is being taken away from them. The exodus can make sense for those who love to pioneer into undiscovered territory. However, there are often great benefits for those who stick around.

Fourth, as long as you are not on a sinking ship, riding it out in a transition or high turnover can be a great way to get ahead -- both now and later. Often, in the wake of turnover, existing employees are assigned premium accounts that need ongoing tender, loving care. Companies want to get their arms around their best clients so that they don't follow a former salesperson. Managers are swift in assigning an established (and trusted) team member to maintain the relationship. Prospects that are in final stages of the sales process require attention, too. Furthermore, premium territories are often redistributed to ensure coverage. Finally, transitions are ideal times to show that you can rise to the challenge to take on more responsibility. So not only might you be on the winning end of reallocation of customers, prospects and territories, but you may get a promotion out of it, as well. For your whole career, you will be able to use your stability during transitions as a selling point to future employers of your ability to prosper during adversity and your dedication to your employer during a trying time.

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Whether you view a sales career as a rite of passage or a long-term career path, no one can deny the need for outstanding sales professionals in every revenue-generating business. If you really want to get the long-term benefit from selling, select a team and an industry that will interest you long enough to really master the full sales process. When you can dedicate a minimum of three to five years with one company or at least in one industry, you are likely to receive a first-class education in how to generate revenue through your own actions. If you can confidently sell, you bring a much more sophisticated perspective to any career path. Selling may not be the long-term career path for everyone -- but every professional has much to benefit from mastering (or at least really understanding) the art of bringing in business.

Robin Reshwan is the founder of Collegial Services, a consulting and staffing firm that connects college students and business professionals with the organizations that hire them. She has interviewed, placed and hired thousands of people across a broad spectrum of companies and industries. She is a Careers contributor for USNews.com and her career tips and advice are used by universities, national clubs, associations and businesses. A Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Robin has been honored as a Professional Business Woman of the Year by the American Business Women's Association.

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