Career Overview: Sales

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

We all know the stereotype of the salesman: a brash, exaggeration-prone, garrulous type, always ready with a joke-the kind of person who'll readily slap someone he's just met on the back like he's known her for years. The type of character you see in films like Glengarry Glen Ross and Boiler Room. In other words, someone who's half stand-up comic and half con man.

The stereotype, of course, is a vast simplification. While you will find salespeople like this from time to time, the majority of sales professionals are just that: professional-knowledgeable, modest folks whose goal is to help match would-be customers with the product or service that best fits both their needs and their budget.

Sales is an essential function of any business, large or small, public or private. You may make the greatest product or provide the finest service in the whole world, but if you can't get anyone to buy it, your company will go out of business faster than it takes to say "invisible hand." As a result, sales specialists are employed by companies in every industry. Some, such as department store salespeople, need very little in the way of formal experience to fulfill the requirements of their jobs and make a relatively meager salary. Others, like technical salespeople for high-tech or medical equipment companies, need to have a thorough knowledge of the complex products they sell, which in many cases requires a master's or PhD in a technical or scientific field or extensive job training.

Across the board, salespeople have to be good communicators-to learn about the customer's needs and communicate how the products or services they're selling will help the customer satisfy those needs. They also need to have a good understanding of what they're selling and how it's different (read: better) from similar products or services sold by competitors.

What You'll Do
The goal in sales is the same across all industries: Provide customers or clients with goods and services, thereby earning money for the company that produces those items. What varies are the seller's product, technique, income, and title. For example, people who sell for their livelihood may go by the name of account executive, broker, manufacturer's representative, or merchandiser (even the term "relationship manager" is used in certain West Coast sets).

The double-talking, door-to-door charlatan intimidating housewives into purchasing a new vacuum cleaner or encyclopedia is more or less an anachronism. Today's salespeople may sell for a small insurance company, never leaving the home office in Duluth-or they may spend half of their time abroad, selling software applications to firms on the other side of the world.

Who Does Well
A salesperson must become an expert in his or her field-be it telecommunications equipment, retail, real estate, or pharmaceuticals-supplying answers and information as much as goods or services. The contemporary salesperson is a listener more than a talker and tailors the sale to fit the customer's needs.

Establishing and maintaining a wide-reaching customer base is the salesperson's primary responsibility. Though cold calling-the act of initiating contact with a potential customer-is still a major technique in creating such a database, it's becoming less crucial in many industries. Cold calling has been subsumed under the larger umbrella of prospecting, which includes attending trade shows and using data marketing (relying on market research to determine likely customers) in its mix of strategies.

At many companies the sales department works closely with marketing to ensure that a product is getting into the right people's hands and that the right people know about the product.

Maintaining the client base is the key to acquiring new customers because most industries depend on repeat business for survival. To ensure client satisfaction, duties traditionally associated with customer service have become significant elements of the sales function. Salespeople are often expected to handle paperwork, address client problems and grievances, and manage special circumstances (e.g., supervising unusual delivery conditions or alternative payment plans).

Wages vary greatly in the world of sales. Base pay may be literally $0 per year for those confident enough to take a commission-only position. But salaries fall all along the income spectrum, and earnings at the high end can be in the six-figure range. Most sales positions offer a small base salary and pay a commission on each deal. Management positions generally command a reasonable base salary and don't earn commissions because managers usually aren't directly responsible for sales.

Though pressure in commission-only positions can be tremendous, the percentage that, say, a real-estate broker makes on a sale can be quite hefty. In such situations the salesperson can potentially earn an unlimited amount of money-and often earns more than his or her supervisor.


For getting started in sales, unlike the medical or legal professions, experience and talent are more important than education. A college or advanced degree can't hurt-and may be required in more technical fields such as biotechnology or telecommunications-but a proven sales record is generally the most attractive feature to a potential employer. Areas such as real estate and financial services may require a state license or certification, and employers often provide any additional training needed.

Recent college grads with little or no sales experience can boost their chances of getting hired by learning as much as possible about the companies they'd like to work for. Salespeople need a comprehensive knowledge of their product or service, regardless of how much or how little education they have. Most important, they need to be able to communicate that information effectively.

Even without a compelling sales record, a candidate can impress an interviewer by displaying the traits necessary to succeed in sales. Recruiters want people who are outgoing, optimistic, loyal, personable, and highly motivated. The ideal candidates will be organized, flexible, and thick-skinned-rejection comes with the territory. A good sense of humor and good grooming are also required.

Though it probably won't be explicitly stated at the job interview, the salesperson may mean the difference between a purchase and a dismissal from a potential buyer; first impressions are everything, so making a good one at your interview is essential.

If you're not the kind of person who can cope well with the prospect of a significant portion of your total compensation being generated by commissions, you should take that into account as you think about different possible sales careers, or consider another, less pressure-packed line of work.

Job Outlook

Sales opportunities vary by industry sector. High-growth industries, such as business services, are seeing more demand for sales roles than slower-growth or more mature industries, such as manufacturing. Those looking for sales opportunities should look at sectors where trends or other factors are creating strong demand for a product or service and avoid taking jobs in areas of high unemployment.

Following are some U.S. Bureau of Statistics predictions for a variety of sales fields:

Opportunities for retail salespeople, advertising sales agents, real estate brokers and sales agents, wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives, sales engineers, and securities, commodities, and financial services sales agents are expected to grow about as fast as the average for jobs overall between 2004 and 2014.

Opportunities for insurance sales agents are expected to grow more slowly than the average for jobs overall between 2004 and 2014.

Opportunities for travel agents are expected to decline between 2004 and 2014, primarily because the Internet has made it easy for travelers to find the deals they want, and book their travel reservations, without the help of an intermediary.

Career Tracks

Specific titles and responsibilities for salespeople vary by company and industry. Generally, however, there are four types of sales jobs.

Manufacturer's Representative
A manufacturer's representative is a sort of independent contractor hired by a company to sell its product to buyers. A "rep" is usually assigned a territory and is free to hit the pavement (or the phone or email) as frequently or as infrequently as he or she likes. Reps make their own schedules and determine their own income by the number of sales (and size of each) they make. Generally, a manufacturer's representative is a commission-only position.

Besides calling on customers, a rep may be responsible for setting up displays and checking inventory. Products that require installation or service might also be among a rep's responsibilities.

Direct Consumer Sales
Sometimes called agents or brokers, these salespeople work directly with customers-no reps, retailers, or middlepersons needed. Because selling the product or service often requires meeting with clients in person-they may be purchasing life insurance or real estate-the agent may spend the bulk of his or her evenings or weekends working, as this is when the customers are available.

A real-estate broker will spend a significant amount of time outside the office showing homes or property, reserving in-house time for using the computer or doing paperwork. Direct consumer-sales positions require impeccable presentation, communication, and social skills. Understanding the laws governing sales of major matter (real estate and insurance are two big areas) is also necessary.

Corporate Sales
The principles of corporate, or business-to-business, sales (including everything from selling financial services to providing temporary employee help) are essentially the same as in other types of sales, but the rules are a little different. With more room to negotiate, corporate salespeople are able to tailor the services they're selling-or if possible, upsell clients ("You like egg salad sandwiches? You'd love egg salad with relish....")-to maximize value for the buyer and profits for the seller.

Cold calling is still part of the job, but corporate salespeople generally have access to more information about their customers; strategizing is often based on information garnered from the marketing department (which usually works closely with corporate sales).

Sales Management
A sales manager does very little actual selling; he or she develops and implements the training programs and incentives that motivate salespeople or reps. Also, the sales manager outlines department goals and may be responsible for designating specific territories for reps. In smaller companies, the manager creates promotional incentives (such as free merchandise with a certain purchase) geared toward the consumer.

In some situations, the sales manager may work with the research and development department, checking sales results against certain demographics. In larger companies, the manager may work closely with the marketing team to build name recognition or to promote special offers. In both large and small companies, the sales manager projects future sales based on information collected from his or her department and may assist with product research and development based on these findings.


Compensation for people in sales careers varies widely by responsibility level and industry. Following are some sample pay ranges:

  • Vice president, sales: $150,000 to $275,000
  • Director of sales: $100,000 to $190,000
  • Real estate sales agent: $30,000 to $45,000
  • Retail salesperson: $20,000 to $40,000
  • Insurance sales agent: $30,000 to $50,000
  • Sales engineer: $45,000 to $115,000
  • Senior pharmaceutical sales rep: $50,000 to $70,000
  • Discount securities broker: $30,000 to $50,000
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