College graduates – should you consider a sales job?

Sales reps and new college grads

Sales reps and new college grads

From time to time we come across articles that tell a tale of doom for Sales as a career.  The stories predict dramatic reductions in the number of sales reps as the future unfolds.  So if you are in Sales or are thinking about it, it is only a journey for the occupational brave-of-heart – so they say.

Given this rather draconian version of the state-of-the-career, we were delighted to read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Lauren Weber.  Weber points out – “As the economy gains momentum, companies selling technology and other services to corporate customers are struggling to fill lucrative sales jobs.”

Weber’s voice is not one from the wilderness.  Hence we would suggest it’s not prudent to bury the sales profession quite yet.  Yes, there are industries where some companies have instituted substantial reductions in their sales teams.  The pharmaceutical industry comes to mind – for example, Eli Lilly laid off a 1000 salespeople in 2013.  It is also true that the profession is changing.  Today customers want sales reps that can function as trusted advisors not product facilitators and some current sales reps will not be able to make the shift.

However, if one looks across the wide variety of B2B industries, particularly in the technology sector, then the future for sales as a profession is better characterized by words like – expanding, exciting, challenging, rewarding, and even entrepreneurial versus descriptors related to gloom and doom.

Bottom line – if you are in college and just about to graduate then considering an initial job in the field of B2B sales actually is a good idea.

Let’s look at why that might be.  First, a couple of basic statistics – 1.6M students graduated from college in 2014.  The unemployment rate for college graduates between the ages of 21-24 is around 8.5% and the underemployment rate is around 16.8%.  For those underemployed working in jobs that don’t require a college degree, 20% are making $25,000 or less a year.  So although the job market has clearly been improving, particularly in the last several month, the search for great jobs for new college graduates is still challenging.

So why not look to those companies that Weber was talking about that were “struggling to fill lucrative sales jobs?”  For part of the reason let’s turn back to Weber’s article.

She points out that many young people are uninterested in Sales because “there’s a huge stereotype that Sales isn’t really a career.”  We would add to the stereotype description by noting that many young people feel that a Sales job is all about – being pushy, functioning as a lone-wolf, tricking customers to buy what they don’t need, risky because everything is based on commission – and the point of view that either everyone can do it or the perspective that it is a gift of birth.

All of the above is a dated stereotype that is more about Arthur Miller’s fictional character of Willie Loman than today’s B2B salesperson. There are no more born sales reps than there are born doctors or engineers.  So with the unemployment figures in mind and lucrative potential jobs being available, let’s look at some specifics as to why it might be worth considering sales as a first job out of college.

  • Establishes a great foundation.  Whatever your long-term career, having an initial experience as a salesperson establishes a great foundation because it provides an opportunity to interact with a wide variety of customers and other internal staff like marketing and technical support.  If you are a business major wanting to specialize in Marketing or a mechanical engineer desiring to do engineering design, then a better understanding of what customers want and need is a great first step.  
  • Develops a transferable skill set.  In today’s market becoming a skilled sales rep is not about learning a grab bag of tips and tricks or mindless hours learning product pitches.  The successful sales rep possesses competencies related to being a trusted customer advisor such as: resource management, relationship building, consulting and project management.  All of these types of competencies require being proficient in planning, organizing, problem solving, collaboration and communication.
  • Provides financial rewards.  Compensation for entry-level sales jobs and the financial rewards that can be achieved by making Sales a career stack up well against other fields.  In addition as the Wall Street article points out – some companies are rethinking their compensation packages to increase the fixed base portion, while maintaining the commission structure, to make entry-level sales jobs less risky – while still providing the potential for significant financial rewards.  Over time if you decide to make Sales a career in industries such as high-end medical technology, the financial packages can be in the mid six figures for high performers.
  • Creates a personal network.   Even with all of today’s computer-based job boards, the old saying – “getting great jobs is about knowing the right people in the right places” still holds a lot of merit.  An initial job in Sales provides the opportunity for you to meet a substantial number people in a wide variety of companies, as well as, a number of people inside your own organization.  If this resource is thoughtfully developed, it is a huge asset for career building for a multitude of reasons.
  • Provides an opportunity for personal development.  Regardless of your first job, one of the important criteria for selection is the degree to which that job provides an opportunity for personal development.  Does the company provide you opportunities to expand your technical and interpersonal skills? Sales is a key function inside any organization; hence companies invest substantially in the training and coaching of their sales team.  Last year American companies invested 20 billion dollars in sales training.

As a final note having worked over a 25-year period as a sales training consultant with a wide variety of companies, we have had the opportunity to meet and get to know a lot of people in the field of sales.  As a result we would add one more plus for taking a second look at sales as a career – your colleagues.  We have found sales people to be smart, hard working, personable, and perhaps most importantly a lot of fun to work with.

We also found there is a tremendous about of misinformation and myths about what sales jobs look like, what sales people do and work life style of salespeople.

So with all this in mind, if a recruiter from a great company comes by looking for sales reps, take an extra minute and see what they have to say.

If you found this post helpful, you might want to join the conversation and subscribe to the Sales Training Connection.

©2015 Sales Momentum, LLC

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About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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One Response to College graduates – should you consider a sales job?

  1. Rebecca Sherrill says:

    This article and the WSJ column are most welcome, and spot on regarding the value of starting a sales career in today’s B2B (and B2C) environment. Forward thinking companies like SAP – my former employer – and others are aggressively seeking recent grads who don’t buy into the old stereotypes of the sleazy salesperson. These companies fully grasp the energy, creativity, and techno-savvy that Millennials can bring to their sales organization, and they are employing fully validated assessment tools to measure ‘sales DNA’, even in grads who have never sold anything. Those companies who haven’t yet seen the light and developed recruitment plans to capture this pool of talent will eventually fall far behind the pack.

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