My boys are getting older and as time passes I find myself thinking of their entry into the workforce. These thoughts are punctuated with a desire to protect them as long as possible, but in the end it is inevitable.When I entered the world of sales it was not a conscious choice. I was in university and needed a part time job. I applied all over the place including a high end men’s wear retailer. I was given the job of ‘Chief lackey’ doing everything from cleaning closets, to folding sweaters and fetching customers drinks (We served coffee and pop). As time passed, I watched the sales team and began learning .. slowly understanding what separated the good from the bad while acquiring that competitive spirit (Which I attribute to one Gordon Gecko ‘want-to-be’ who got me into reading business books). From that point on, I shunned what most business school students seek – the ‘marketing’ job – and sought out sales jobs.
In retrospect, I ask myself would I enter sales again? The answer is a resounding YES and if my boys seek my guidance on their career paths I will lay out the pros and cons from my pragmatic viewpoint. That viewpoint:
The Pros of being in sales:
1. Salespeople are always needed. You can build the best product in the market and not be successful. The best companies in the world have great sales people and they remain in high demand. In the June 2005 Fortune (Salespeople in the catbird seat), they note that in a recent poll of 65 Fortune 500 companies:
- 80% think they have cut costs about as much as they can and are now looking to grow revenue
- 77% are hiring more field sales reps
- 50% are adding telephone and web sales people
- 56% are boosting base pay to acquire talent
- 34% are raising commissions
One executive stated “we never laid off any salespeople during the tough years”
2. Sales is the best way to make money. If you are motivated by money, there is no better way. In that same survey they noted that at 90% of these Fortune 500 companies, top sales people earn more than their direct bosses and 19% earn more than the CEO. I can still remember coming out of school and everyone talking about that coveted IBM or XEROX marketing job that paid $40,000. After a few false starts, I really began my sales career at Canon selling faxes and copiers. I was earning $1000 per month in salary and in the first year, I grossed $105,000. In the second year I earned $145,000 and from there it continued to grow. At 29 I broke $200,000 and never looked back.
3. Flexibility: I caveat this statement as it is for outside sales people. Salespeople are measured – at all times – by one simple benchmark: revenue. If you earn your revenue (or gross margin – depending on how the business measures it), you are afforded flexibility. Salespeople are allowed to work the hours that they want, in the manner that they want with a healthy dose of autonomy as long as they hit the number. I often refer back to one of my first mentors: he was earning $350K per year selling photocopiers while spending more time watching the O.J. Simpson trial than making calls. Why? Because he was very good at what he did and he made his numbers – his way.
I provide one other caveat: I also know salespeople who continue to work 75 hours per week to make their numbers due to many factors. This could be because of the fact that they are bad at sales (And should do something else), they have a poor territory, they are given an impossible quota or they work for a company that has built a culture where this is expected. This is the case for EMC, where their sales culture is built around working hard, playing hard, making big money and never spending time with the family. I always remember when I went to EMC (I only stayed a few months – morally, ethically and personally – I was the wrong fit for that culture and was not interested in lowering myself to ‘fit in’. There are lots of ways to make big money, despite EMC’s assertions). My brother-in-law handed me a Fortune article that had just been published about the sales culture, profiling a salesman who left his daughter’s christening to make a call and try to close a deal. I cringed … and left soon after.
4. The sky is the limit: With sales, the traditional constraints of the corporate office are often left behind. Sales people have the ability to innovate and be entrepreneurs. How much time you put in, how you use that time and how much you earn is often limited internally – not externally. As I noted, I was able to join that 2% of workers who earn more than $100K per year in my second year due to hard work, passion for learning and great mentors.
The Cons of Sales:
1. There is no where to hide. You are measured on your number – miss the number too many times and you are gone. Simple. There are very high highs, but there are also very low lows … this job can be very stressful on many fronts (Not hitting your number puts your job at risk, hurts your pocket book and for those who let their external environment get them down – be very demotivating).
2. Driving for the number creates competition. Attaining your number will be at the expense of someone else losing the deal. You must be prepared for ruthless competition.
3. Not everyone will like you. Some customers will hate you because you are in sales, not willing to give you a chance based on their previous bad experiences with some slimy sales person (We have all had this experience!). This can be tough for people who are very sensitive. In sales, you cannot be friends with everyone.
4. Not everyone is good at sales. I never considered myself a natural – I really had to work at it. I read books, I had mentors, I went to courses, I practiced, I made mistakes and I listened to tapes. It is a skill that just will not happen, the best people work at it and are always improving. But even after all of that effort, you can still suck as a salesperson. Look inside yourself, you will know if this is right for you.
I am often approached by technical people, consultants and marketing folks about what it takes to get into sales. My coaching is always the same, there are great rewards for the successful sales person – but there is also great risk. Thought should be put into the decision, before you jump (smile).
In the end it is a personal decision, there are many choices beyond sales. As the judge would say “Well Danny .. the world needs ditch diggers too”