Why Now is the Perfect Time to be a Sales Professional… Even for Millennials


Share on LinkedIn

In the previous column, I introduced the notion of Sales as a Profession (SaaP) and some of the steps that have been cataloged toward professionalism (full-time occupation, training school, university programs, etc.). While many salesmen and saleswomen today are full-time and considered successful, it is also true that the vast majority of these started out as something else before “falling into” or “winding up in” sales.

One reason, and one that is now at least beginning to be addressed is that there were few academic institutions teaching sales. As noted, this is slowly changing and just under 100 universities now offer at least a few courses introducing and/or teaching sales. Another reason is negative impressions, or misperceptions, of sellers. We asked readers what misperceptions they felt were most frequent and received nearly 200 responses (see below).

Source: Sales as a Profession: Perceptions, Misconceptions, and the Way Forward

Reps talking too much and listening too little was the clear front-runner; reps being time wasters was a distant second. So what are these reps so busily talking about?

Think Industry Trends, Not Products

Most often, the answer is: their product. Product knowledge was once considered a rep’s greatest weapon and these reps, in effect, became walking/talking product brochures. Everyone knows this is career limiting, certainly conversation limiting, and, yet, it persists. Further, with product information readily available on company web sites, industry and customer reviews, and more, buyers typically have plenty, if not all, of the information they need for initial discovery. Whereas, sellers often still lack much of the information they need to advance a sale and/or assist in a purchase.

The easy answer to why this continues is, well, it’s easy. Talking about your product or service, once a rep has enough experience/familiarity to do so, takes little effort or preparation. Understanding an industry, its problems and challenges, and applying these to a specific prospect is a more complex undertaking. The data clearly and consistently show, providing buyers new information about innovative customer implementations, insights about newly emerging trends, and in some cases, challenging current thinking, have elevated reps to higher level relationships with their buyers and higher-level performance with their companies.

This lack of preparation has been exacerbated by new technologies and services. The popularity and proliferation of mobile apps/devices have seen pre-call planning go out the window. News flash: sitting in Starbucks 10 minutes before a sales call checking a prospect’s LinkedIn profile is not pre-call planning. It may be a small portion but does not answer the questions about what information you want to get and give, or what commitment is needed/desired as a result of this upcoming call.

You Still Gotta Do the Work

Similarly, with inside sales applying automatic/advanced dialing applications, inside sales reps jump on calls with little more information than the name and title of the individual answering the phone. Thoughtful list creation is needed (i.e., lead grouping) to avoid simply jumping into a conversation with nothing more than a practiced elevator pitch. Steve Richard of ExecVision coaches: 3X3. Take 3 minutes to identify 3 things that would be of interest to the person you’re about to call.

Many of the “Other” comments received suggested the misperception choices offered weren’t applicable; these didn’t comport with the individual’s own experience. So maybe sales is seen more as a profession today, not just a bunch of fast talkers. Let’s check that with this mental exercise.

You’re at a cocktail party and meet someone for the first time. You ask her profession and she says, “I’m a neuro surgeon.” No kidding, you’re a brain surgeon? How long have you been doing that? Her reply, “25 years.” Wow, you must be really good at it.

You move on to the next person and ask what he does. His reply, “I’m in sales.” Really, how long have you been doing that? “25 years.” So, you’re a sales manager or vice president? “No, I’m a salesman.” Do you have the same impression of someone who must be really accomplished? Or, do you wonder where this guy made a wrong turn in his career?

This to me speaks to the question of SaaP and what has to change. Really preparing for calls and listening more might be a good place to start. Setting out to become a professional seller and consciously considering what this means would also be helpful starting out. In response to the prior article Andy Rudin, Managing Principal of Contrary Domino, wrote to say a young person just starting out today should pick a career other than sales. He makes some good points about how sales used to be, then concludes with, “If money is what motivates interest in a job, I’d encourage a young person today to go into data science, software development, cyber-security, or finance.” You can read his blog here.

In fact, Andy concludes with “find something different” (than sales). What is interesting to me is that last year, I’d written a paper: “There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be In Sales.” Rather than debate these perspectives here, if interested, you should read them both and decide for yourself. You can access the paper here but let me share a couple relevant points. In a survey of 900 full-time sellers, 85% would recommend sales as a career to young people starting out today (15% agree with Andy).

Perhaps more interesting is why. Ranked in order of frequency the reasons named were:

  1. Job varied and satisfying
  2. Continuous learning and self-development
  3. Career with a future
  4. A great job for the right person
  5. Earnings are commensurate with effort
  6. Self-determination
  7. Working in sales prepares you for other careers

While Andy, and many others, feel money is the main motivator, it actually was well down the list of what attracted full-time practitioners to sales. Sure money is important, and having it is better than not having it, but all the mythology of reps being “coin operated” and “only money motivated,” which you can see came in 4th in last month’s survey (see graphic above), are simply that: myths.

Baby-boomers who came of age in the 60’s and 70’s wanted peace, love and understanding. Millennials today want work that’s purposeful, collaborative and has meaning. I would argue sales is the place to find these principled visions and SaaP is continuing to evolve in this direction.

Barry Trailer
Barry has been involved in complex B2B sales for over 30 years and is intrigued with how it's changed/changing and what this means to Sales as a Profession (SaaP). Salesware, the analytics company he co-founded, was acquired by Goldmine Software in 2000 and his next company, CSO Insights with Jim Dickie, was acquired by Miller Heiman Group in 2015. He has twice been published by, and been a keynote for, Harvard Business Review, and is author of Sales Mastery, a novel.


  1. Hi Barry: first, thanks for sharing my article and perspectives on sales as a career. To clarify my view: compensation has been, and continues to be, a strong recruitment tool for attracting sales personnel. I make no judgement on this – just an observation. While I haven’t formally surveyed sales job boards to identify the percentage of instances where ‘high compensation’ or ‘high earnings potential’ are listed as attributes, a search on ‘sales job high earning’ yielded about 1.87 million results. And while just 10% of your survey sample indicated that ‘salespeople are overpaid and money motivated,’ I always consider which artifacts are driving the perception.

    Given the prevalence of compensation as a recruiting appeal, there is a severe disconnect. Sales jobs are overwhelmingly paid based on a combination of fixed and variable pay. That translates to income at risk for the rep, and no right-thinking employee puts income at risk without expecting an upside – i.e. greater pay. Yet, the percentage of salespeople making quota declined every year between 2012 and 2015 (63% – 57.1%) according to your CSO Insights survey. Since quota under-performance creates a large negative earnings factor, I expect that every year, a significant proportion (around 40%?) of salespeople are disappointed with their income.

    Anecdotally, I have found universities reluctant to introduce sales into their curricula. This is true for my alma mater, as well. The primary objections I receive are 1) lack of qualified faculty to teach sales classes, who often must have earned a PhD. Historically, career salespeople have been recognized for their “street smarts,” “aggressiveness,” “drive”, “tenacity,” and yes, “money motivation,” and not for academic achievement. PhD’s abound in the the more ‘white collar’ biz dev roles like marketing, advertising, PR, and increasingly data science. But they’re rare in sales. 2) several deans have shared with me that student demand drives curriculum, and they’re not hearing much clamor for sales courses. As one told me, “employer campus recruiting activity drives student interest,” and I’m assuming that recruiters in fields like engineering, health care, and CS are doing a better job of selling to students than . . . sales recruiters! Go figure. Maybe if students perceived sales jobs were as hot as other fields, the effects would ripple into more course offerings in selling.

    Interestingly, my article, Will the Next Sales Achiever Need an MBA http://customerthink.com/will_the_next_sales_achiever_need_an_mba/ generated quite a bit of vitriol, and my background survey on LinkedIn revealed not only an ambivalence toward salespeople with college degrees, but an animosity. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting that level of dissent, and the message came across loud and clear: “your degree and ambition for self-development are not welcome in this career.” I think that’s terrible. There are so many careers where just the opposite is true. For a young person, why not pursue a career where education is valued?

    You made some excellent points in your paper, There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be In Sales. I emphatically agree with your points that Sales is a great job for the right person (#4) and sales prepares you for other careers (#7) – a point I made in my article as well. My point of departure is absent the tenuous but consistent recruiting draw of ‘high earinings potential,’ I think sales as a career has lost much of its appeal.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here