A career working in sales: myths, tips, and the skills you need to succeed

You might not think you want to pursue a sales career after graduation. Yet, having strong selling skills is an integral part of building a successful career – whether it be investment banking, law, accounting, pharmaceuticals, travel, education, retail, or starting your own business. Even interviewing for a job requires good selling skills.

At our recent ‘Working in Sales’ event we were joined by panellists Barney Ely (Director, Hays – the world’s leading recruitment organisation) and Regina Van Burkleo (Group Talent Acquisition Manager, Enterprise Rent-A-Car – Target Jobs’ Graduate Employer of the Year 2016).

Our panellists helped us to uncover what a career working in sales really means, and shared some top tips to enhance your sales skills and increase your future employability (whatever career path you pursue). In this blog, we’ll round up some of their insights:

The myths of ‘working in sales’

Sales is all about having ‘the gift of the gab’: As the saying goes, ‘we’re given two ears and one mouth for a reason’. Listening is an essential skill for a career in sales. When you don’t listen to a potential customer, you don’t learn about the individual, the company or their priorities. You won’t be able to address their needs, and your chances of making the sale are greatly diminished. Great salespeople have fantastic customer service skills – would you go back to a company if you had received very poor customer service? It’s very unlikely! It’s the same when making a sale.

You need to be an extrovert to do well: Sales roles often involve a lot of interacting, but that doesn’t mean you need to be an extrovert to be successful. Introverts can be fantastic sales people due to their ability to listen and tune into the needs of their customers.

There’s no career progression: Working in sales is usually a complex job, and a graduate role will give you a firm grounding in all aspects of the business you’re working for. Roles can often be extremely varied, and the skills you develop can be transferred to a wide range of other positions across the business.

Sales is simply about cold calling: Gone are the days that sales was all about cold calling – although it can still be an element of the job, cold calling is a dying art. Due to the rise of the internet, the general trend has been for salespeople to work more closely with marketers to target individuals and businesses in more specific ways. Also, it’s worth noting that as your career in sales progresses, you’ll find yourself doing less and less phone work – you may find yourself handling fewer, bigger accounts with major clients as opposed to making individual new sales.

Top tips for success

As senior representatives of their respective companies, Barney and Regina offered some useful advice for graduates looking to pursue a career in sales.

Show up, step up, wise up: In a sales role, you need to be on top of your game. So when you show up, you need to give it your all. Stepping up to new challenges and technologies is also important. At Hays, CVs used to be faxed to clients, but now Hays has millions of connections on LinkedIn, acting as a live source of data on candidates. Finally, wise up about what ‘sales’ actually means – don’t fall for the ‘myths’.

Network, network, network: Being a good networker and building connections is essential for a successful career in sales. You can get far from showing a genuine interest in someone – whether that be face-to-face, or via channels such as LinkedIn. You’ll never know if you need to work with that person in the future, so make a good impression.

Look ahead: Profile the job you want not only now, but where you’d like to be in 3-5 years’ time. You’ll outgrow your current role, so by looking ahead you can get a better understanding of how you can progress and move forwards.

Sell yourself in an interview – but be yourself! If you lie in a job interview, it’s very likely the interviewer will see right through you – and if they don’t, it’s very likely the job won’t be right for you. Be yourself, be genuine.

Be prepared: When attending an interview, ensure you’re fully prepared to to showcase the skills that will set you apart; have ten or so stories ready to fit into any situation the interviewer may ask.  The STAR technique (Situation, Task, Action and Result) is also useful for ordering your thought processes and can make you be more specific with your answers. For more tips, see our post on How to Ace A Job Interview.

Key competencies

Many graduate employers look for natural competencies that would suit a career in sales with their company, and then train the specific skills. Our panellists listed the top competencies they look for in a candidate:

  • Recruiters look for resilience in candidates – the ability to pick yourself up and dust yourself off after a setback. Sales people need to be able to keep motivated and driving forwards.
  • Drive is a key skill that employers test for in candidates applying for a role in sales – you need to be able to self-motivate and have a strong desire to succeed.
  • The ability to offer high levels of customer service is essential. Listening to a customer and discovering and addressing their needs is a key part of the sales process.
  • Strong networking skills are helpful is most roles, but they’re even more important in sales. The ability to do this effectively (whether face-to-face or online) is something recruiters look for in a candidate.

Help and advice for your future career

The Employability & Careers Centre provides a varied and comprehensive careers guidance, information and vacancy services to all University of Surrey Students, from first to final year undergraduates and postgraduates, and to recent Alumni. Discover more about what is on offer and how we can support you via our website.