What’s it like working in sales?

9th July 2020 |   Joanna Aitkens

A career in selling can be vibrant, fast-paced, bold and exciting. It can also be demanding, challenging and subject to long hours in a busy, target-driven environment. But the sales function is the bedrock of any business so, if you’re committed to developing client relationships and providing valuable solutions, sales can be a highly rewarding, dynamic and fulfilling long-term career.

At the start of 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 5% of the total US population worked in sales (just over 14 million people). Over the other side of the Pond, Statista reports: “As of 2019, there were 979,000 sales, marketing and related associate professionals in employment in the United Kingdom.” Taking a wider perspective, the Association of Professional Sales (APS) estimates there are over three million people who are working more broadly in sales jobs throughout the UK.

Salespeople are in huge demand

Although the runaway success of e-commerce (from the likes of global giants Amazon and Alibaba) are continuing to disrupt B2C and retail sales, B2B remains fertile ground for a sales career. Closing deals and increasing sales has always been, and will remain, the top priority for businesses.

Sectors such as finance, technology and pharmaceuticals are seeing a steady supply of available sales roles. Specialist sales recruitment agencies report that now, more than ever, they’re being tasked with finding top sales talent. As businesses re-open after the COVID-19 lockdown, and the impact on the world’s economy becomes clearer, there is huge demand for high-calibre salespeople who can generate a pipeline of future business and transform the fortunes of companies around the world, from retail to tech, real estate to automotive, and FMCG to pharmaceuticals and finance.

Men in a sales apprenticeship

What type of sales roles are there?

Here are some of the key roles:

  • Sales Development Executive/Representative – Primarily focused on acquiring new customers and selling additional products or services to existing ones, you’ll be tasked with conducting research, prospecting and qualifying leads. This is a standard entry path into the profession. LinkedIn’s 2020 Emerging Jobs Report states the role of Sales Development Representative (SDR) is among the top 15 emerging jobs in the US. Skills unique to this particular role include Salesforce, cold-calling, Software as a Service (SaaS), Lead Generation and Sales (see our “Jargon buster” for more information). Hubspot tells us that “Since 2010, the number of businesses bringing on board SDRs with less than one year of experience has increased four times.”
  • Account Executive – An account executive supports existing customer accounts. You’ll find yourself running demos, presentations, identifying and addressing buying obstacles, creating personalised value propositions, gaining commitment to purchase and negotiating terms with customers.
  • Key Account Manager – You’ll build long-term relationships with valuable customers. This can involve turning buyers into business partners but, along the way, the KAM will offer support with personalised offers and dedicated resources.
  • Sales management and leadership (Sales Manager, Sales Director, VP of Sales) – Sales experience is vital for these senior roles, in order to understand how best to hire, train and motivate your sales team. But you will also have to learn all about effective management – not something all salespeople want to do. The Sales Manager will be responsible for setting goals, coaching and guiding the sales team in the best way possible. More senior sales leaders are responsible for setting targets and developing sales strategy and may have an international role.

What will I be doing on a day-to-day basis?

Selling is all about people. However, in today’s competitive markets there’s also an emphasis on technology, social selling (via social media) and customer relationship management.

You’ll quickly find that working in sales means that two days are rarely the same and you’ll need to think on your feet! In some sales teams you’ll be learning to identify and approach new prospects (cold calling). In others you may be passed “warm” leads to nurture. You’ll need to be a good communicator and negotiator, and there may be multiple challenges along the way, so you’ll need to be organised, patient and unflappable.

When the world isn’t dealing with a pandemic, many sales roles require you to be “in the field”, visiting customers and making sales calls in person. Travel is often within an assigned territory but that could be a small local area or a larger territory spanning different regions or countries.

What will my colleagues (and customers) be like?

In some companies, you’ll be part of a large sales department and, in others, you’ll be in a smaller team; in a small company you might be the only salesperson. Your colleagues are likely to have a range of experience and seniority to you. If you’re working for a large company, you may have admin and support staff who will work alongside you. They are there to help you manage the sales process, not to do your job for you! It’s fair to say, that some customers you’ll really enjoy working with while others may seem difficult and demanding. You need to like people!

What are the good and bad bits of the job?

Good bits: There’s nothing better than clinching the deal, earning well-deserved commission and turning a tough client into a happy customer who places repeat orders with you.

Bad bits: Learning how to deal with rejection can be exhausting. Not everything goes to plan and good deals can fall flat no matter how hard, or how long, you and your colleagues have worked on them. If you’ve done your best, you shouldn’t take it personally.

Women in a sales apprenticeship

What is gender equality like in sales?

I started my first sales role during the late-1980s and, it won’t surprise anyone that the sales profession was a male-dominated environment back in those days. However, while the profession has changed significantly since, women still remain under-represented. And this is despite it being proven that companies with more diverse workforces perform better. Respected consultancy Gartner reports that “62% of companies who had 45% or more women in their sales ranks drove higher-than-average levels of profitable revenue.” Quite simply, we need more women in sales – especially in senior roles!

But sales has a poor reputation!

As sales roles have continued to develop, professionalism and commitment to high standards has risen. Sales is now a professional discipline that has become far more regulated and valued in recent years. It attracts increasing numbers of graduates and good qualifications can help you land the very best sales jobs.

Selling in the virtual world

At a time when face-to-face selling has been severely hampered by COVID-19, lockdown conditions and home working, advances in technology mean that we’ve just been catapulted into a new and exciting era of sales. During the first half of 2020 we’ve seen an explosion of online tools. Video-networking conducted on platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams has quickly replaced traditional meeting spaces and now seems completely normal. CRM systems, cloud storage, automation, AI apps and online tools have all been vital to productivity during lockdown. Many of us have also embraced virtual learning to enhance our career prospects and continue our personal development.

Where do I begin?

As any good salesperson will tell you “it’s important to do your research!” Start by taking a look at the detailed information and practical resources supplied by the Association of Professional Sales. The APS encourages high standards in the pursuit of a structured career path by providing qualifications, professional membership and lettered accreditations, while upholding standards of ethical selling. A visit to The Institute of Sales Management will also help to give you a clear idea of where your sales career could be headed.

If you’re looking for a sales job in a particular industry or location, there are many excellent recruitment companies that can help. Some like Pareto Law and Peak Sales Recruiting work with a variety of business sectors and offer sales positions around the world from offices in the UK, EU and USA, but there are others that specialise in specific markets. Industry bodies are also a useful source of information. For instance, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has details of specialist recruiters in the pharma sector, whilst CW Jobs specifically highlight those in the IT sector. UK & EMEA specialist recruitment agency Sales Logic covers sales positions in software, E-Commerce/Social Commerce, IT, Market Research and Business Services, whereas emedcareers focuses on healthcare and medical markets. For UK students and graduates who are looking for a variety of career resources, Milkround advertises hundreds of internships, placements, graduates jobs and schemes.

What qualifications do I need and what training will I get?

While on-the-job experience is a great way to build skills, successful salespeople have usually had excellent training. Some even study sales at university. Ten years ago, very few universities around the world offered recognised sales education programmes. Today, however, there are established university recruiters, university sales competitions and industry-sponsored programmes. In the US alone there are approaching 150 universities providing sales education. The Sales Education Foundation (SEF) also lists a further 20 or so in Europe. Getting some serious sales training under your belt before you even start applying for sales jobs can help your CV stand out. See our article “Latest courses for students and apprentices” for more information.

Future-proofing your career

Selling typewriters and dictation equipment was once a lucrative career; that said, back in those days there was no such thing as artificial intelligence outside the world of science fiction….You can see where I’m going with this. Do some research about the industries that interest you most and look at how they could change over the course of the next ten years. For instance, if your interests lie with electric cars, wind energy or organic food, there are many different sectors that offer long-term environmental credentials.

In conclusion, remember that salespeople play a vital role in the business world. According to the SEF, nearly 40% of a customer’s decision is based on the added value the salesperson brings to the relationship. That’s why salespeople matter.

Freelance Journalist at Aitkens Media Ltd | + posts

Joanna Aitkens is the founder of Aitkens Media Ltd., an international digital marketing agency based in the UK, specialising in the medical and technology sectors. She has over 25 years’ experience as a freelance writer and journalist and her work has appeared in a variety of journals, newspapers and websites around the world.

Previously, Aitkens worked as part of a national sales team in real estate and international property relocation. This was followed by field sales roles with software and medical companies, culminating in the role of Sales and Marketing Director for an IT hardware reseller. Her love of the sales process comes from an entrepreneurial spirit fostered from a young age.

As a photographic model in the 1980s and 1990s, Aitkens realised she could earn more if she didn’t have to pay 20% commission to her agent. Unusually for the time, she set herself up as a freelance model and cold-called every photographer and ad agency in London, Paris and New York (this was before the days of being able to Google everything!) sending out mail shots and attending numerous castings. Her hard work paid off and she landed modelling jobs with L’Oreal, Chanel, DeBeers, TV commercials, and also guested on chat shows.

Today, Aitkens works from the rural English countryside of Rutland and is also an accomplished portrait artist in her spare time.