“Do you know what a sales interview is?” a friend of mine quipped. “It’s one person lying about the future, talking to another lying about the past.” My friend knew his joke contained truth. We chatted over lunch, and my friend, newly-retired from B2B sales, wasn’t sanguine about the future of the profession. It was a lively talk. No need for alcohol.
Selling ain’t what it used to be. It’s possible that my friend stowed his sales bag for the last time because he was burned out. Though, at age 61, it was probably the right time to get off the bricks. The rest of that afternoon and into the next day, I thought about what he shared with me. I ruminated on the meaning of his sardonic joke. I considered how I might respond if a young person sought my advice about whether to pursue a sales career. My introspection yielded an assessment that did not come easily: look elsewhere. Today, there are better choices.
When I began my business career in the early 1980’s, things were different. Salespeople were respected. While most of us toiled in offices with a boss sitting nearby, salespeople had autonomy. They worked variable hours. They dressed well, and from all appearances, they lived well, too. At many companies, salespeople could expect higher-than-average income, often garnering better pay than managers. At a time when level of education predicted lifetime earnings, selling careers flamboyantly defied the calculus. A salesperson’s earning ability depended more on his or her motivation, tenacity, and street smarts than having a college degree. It still does.
At the manufacturing company where I worked my first job out of college, you could easily identify the cars that belonged to the salesmen (the company had no female sales reps): big, new, four-door, and well-appointed. A sales rep’s car did not just provide transportation, it proclaimed success. An important message for customers and coworkers to hear.
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As the company’s IT Manager, I had nebulous goals. But the salesmen were measured on one thing – revenue production. And they were paid accordingly. No mealy objectives, no ambiguity, and no boss holding sole power to dictate next year’s income. If salespeople felt anxiety about their compensation at risk, their job perks and upside income potential eased the pain. For these reasons and others, I too became drawn to a sales career.
When I was hired for my first sales job in the 1980’s, Marketing Representative was a common title for entry-level salespeople. Dale Carnegie, Zig Ziglar, and Brian Tracy were popular role models. I read their books, and listened to their tapes on the way to sales calls. Their messages brimmed with optimism, and were consistently inspiring. “Success is getting what you want . . . Happiness is wanting what you get,” Dale Carnegie wrote.
I learned that great power came from an unwavering belief in yourself. Good stuff. Today, those messages can still be heard, but they’re muted beneath the torrent of condescension and humiliation that spills unabated into my newsfeeds. Mislabeled as coaching and tips for self-improvement, today’s writing upbraids the rank-and-file. It carries titles like Salespeople – Shut up and listen!, and Salespeople Can’t Sell Anymore . General Patton would be proud.
What happened? The sales profession has lost its allure. Technological, economic, and social forces have combined to erode many of the once-valuable tasks that sales professionals provided. None have been profound than Artificial Intelligence (AI), data warehousing and distributed information systems, and investor demands to increase profits.
AI: AI has displaced thousands of repetitive, tedious sales tasks, and enables buyer self-service. Lead qualification and content fulfillment, once large drains on selling time, can now be performed better, faster, and cheaper by using algorithms.
Data Warehousing and distributed information systems: The ubiquity of customer information has allowed companies to knock down the massive walls that once surrounded the sales organization. Today, almost any employee can make rain, or generate revenue. In departments as disparate as customer support, maintenance, and route delivery and logistics, employees can upgrade service, sell new products, and make other changes without referring customers to a “sales desk,” or an assigned salesperson.
Investor demands to increase profits: Spending excess has always been a popular target for the CFO’s scalpel, and sales operations contain conspicuous fat. Peeling back the covers on Sales, General & Administrative expenses reveals copious spending hiding in plain sight. Cutting high sales salaries, generous incentive pay, over-the-top benefits, Quota Club, annual golf outings, and season tickets at sports events, quickly gains approval from investors. “Think about it: If you have to ply your clients with gifts or meals to get them to do business with your firm, then your product probably isn’t worth its price,” Andy Kessler wrote in The Wall Street Journal this month (The Expense-Account Racket, December 4, 2017).
Young people will find sales and business development careers less promising than when I started out. Some key issues:
Money. Meh. Commonly used as a recruiting tool, the promise of high income for salespeople is often illusory. A chunk of annual comp is “at risk,” which means what’s actually earned might be less than what’s projected (recall my friend’s joke at the beginning of this article).
The University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce Destinations Report for 2017 reported average total compensation for its newly-minted grads who accepted sales and sales management jobs: $61,300. Tepid, compared to other business disciplines listed in the report. Among McIntire grads, the best coin goes to investment bankers, who were rewarded with a list-topping average annual comp of $115,000. Finance holds the #2 spot, at $90,294. (The average starting pay for 2017 undergraduates across all categories is around $50,000, according to Money magazine.)
Career path. You might think I’m mansplaining, but I’m not. There are two well-established trails:
- Revenue you produce meets or exceeds quota – keep your job
- Revenue you produce is less than quota – get fired.
If you crave a position in northern part of the corporate org chart, the likelier route to get there goes through finance. “About 30 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs spent the first few years of their careers developing a strong foundation in finance. This is by far the most common early experience of today’s CEOs,” according to an article in Forbes.
Autonomy. Thanks to CRM software and advanced analytics, selling has become the most scrutinized, measured, and micro-managed business activity. “Drive higher quota attainment across your entire sales team by recording, transcribing, and analyzing their sales conversations,” one product website says. Some reps might welcome the assist. But I question the reasons. If a sales rep or manager needs software and spreadsheets to learn how customers perceive his or her words, or if they struggle to recognize positive things to say, maybe they’re in the wrong job. Or, maybe management simply doesn’t trust them to have adequate judgement.
Culture. A sales organization’s mission is to produce revenue, and its activities are aimed toward that goal. That’s a good thing if you don’t mind thinking about money above all else. But if you’re moved by more than how much business you will close this quarter, or the gross income figure on your W-2, that can become stultifying. Further, employers are often conflicted about sales. Sales VP’s expect reps to open accounts and build customer relationships, but they feel threatened when customers become more loyal to a sales rep than to the company. Hiring managers promise high income, but ratchet it back when they feel reps earn “too much.” It’s a power game, and companies try to maintain hegemony. As one district sales manager I worked with described it to me, “My ideal rep is a young guy with a stay-at-home wife, a mortgage, a baby, and another one on the way.” I’ve heard similar sentiment from others. A rep in a consumption trap can be controlled.
Goal conflict. Almost every sales position faces this problem, and it can be gut-wrenching to navigate. “Above all, make your number!” versus “Serve our customers!” It’s hard to keep two masters happy. But companies put their reps in a moral vise when they tie job security and pay to revenue results.
I don’t mean to imply that sales experience isn’t worth having. In fact, hands down, nothing prepares a young person better for success than gaining the rare combination of skills needed for converting prospects into buyers. This knowledge transfers to every business discipline, and provides understanding for how an enterprise achieves its central mission: acquiring – and keeping – customers.
You can’t learn any of it in a college classroom, and no other business experience provides a person anything more useful. People who have sales background understand not only that revenue doesn’t roll in on its own, they know the nitty gritty details of face-to-face selling. If you can get the opportunity to sell door-to-door, work as a sales intern, or have another sales experience, take it! And if the work pleases you, stay with it. But keep your options open. There are other careers that are possibly more rewarding, and they can also benefit from your energy, effort, and passion.
From accounting to zoology, every career has its unique set of warts. Those that sully professional selling are no better or worse than any others. But whatever career you choose, make sure the warts that exist are warts you can live with. And as many in sales have learned, stay vigilant, because new warts sprout all the time.
“Today, it is estimated there are anywhere from twenty thousand to forty thousand distinct occupations in the United States,” writes Robert Moor in his book, On Trails. “Rapid changes in technology, culture, education, politics, trade, and transportation have combined to allow people access to an array of lifestyles that was previously unthinkable. In the aggregate, this is a positive development, proof that our life’s paths are evolving to meet our varied desires. But a side effect of this shift – halting, gradual, and unevenly distributed as it may be – is that life’s options continue to abound until they overwhelm . . . Collectively we shape [life’s pathways], but individually they shape us. So we must choose our paths wisely.”
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