How to Plan Your Sales Career

The San Diego AA-ISP Chapter’s May meeting asked 5 successful sales reps to share their secrets on how they manage their sales career. Our panel consisted of inside and outside reps and managers at all stages of their careers, working at companies ranging from startup to a large public company. Following are highlights from the discussion.

Interviewing: You Can’t Be Too Prepared

The panel discussed the responsibilities of both the interviewer and the interviewee. As an interviewee:

  • Go beyond the interview and reach out to potential co-workers to learn about working there
  • Do your research on the company and your interviewers
  • Come prepared with hard questions for your interviewers
  • Ask questions about advancement potential and career path
  • Check out rating sites like Glassdoor, read the news, see what others say about them

As an interviewer, you need to find ways to stand out, show candidates your strong culture, and communicate how you treat your employees. That means writing job descriptions that are clear and compelling and treating candidates with respect throughout the process. Demonstrate that you will value them as an employee with prompt and courteous follow up.

Culture Rises to the Top

When looking for a new position, culture was the most important factor to the group, whether they were just starting out in their career, or had a decade or more of experience. Two of the panelists shared that they’d taken a lower position or a cut in pay because of the pull of a strong culture. Fortunately, in both cases their risk paid off and the strong culture became a foundation for growth and success.

Creating a Strong Foundation: The Onboarding Process

Once onboard, the panelists were clear that they needed time to ramp up to be fully knowledgeable of the prospect and the product. They didn’t expect to be “on the phones” for at least a week or two and expected it to be 90 days, even up to six months for a complex solution, before they hit full speed. And these are folks at the top of their game. During that time, besides a phone, laptop, and a subscription to LinkedIn, they were looking to have sales process training, product training, job shadowing, and in-depth role play sessions. As one panelist said, “Would you really want a brand-new sales rep calling on high value prospects before they were ready, and risk ruining a relationship?” They expected companies to have well documented onboarding processes and playbooks.

LinkedIn: Sales’ Best Friend

Panelist Kevin Hopp said it best, “LinkedIn is a gift for inside sales people.” All of the panelists regularly use LinkedIn and Sales Navigator to research prospects and follow what they are saying and doing. This gives them an edge in personalizing every communication. They also strongly agreed that today’s sales rep MUST have a professional picture and well-crafted profile. Their advice: it’s not about your quota success; tell stories about how you help customers.

The panel admitted they didn’t do a lot of tweeting, but they did find Twitter valuable for uncovering pain points and issues for prospects. For instance, if a service provider had a recent outage they were apologizing for, that would be a conversation starter. They followed the company profiles and monitored news and events, in particular conferences and tradeshows they might be attending.

Get a Mentor

Mentors, both inside and outside the company, are essential. Not only should you leverage and engage your manager in your career planning, but you should also have a professional mentor, preferably outside of the company. While it was viewed as useful to have advisors and coaches inside of the company, a true long term mentor should be someone of influence who is outside of the company and can give advice and be a sponsor when needed over many years.

Starting Your Sales Career: To Intern or Not?

When they started out, none of these amazing sales stars planned on a sales career. Their degrees and backgrounds were varied and all either started out in another function or had internships in a variety of roles.

Internships are a common rite of passage for college graduates:
“70 to 75 percent of students at four year [colleges] undertake at least one internship.” See Ross Perlin, Intern Nation: How to Learn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (Verso 2012).
Several of our panelists had one or more internships that gave them insight into various industries as well as different roles and functions inside of organizations. Given that experience, they strongly recommended the intern experience.

Internships are popular in San Diego since many early stage companies and startups simply see it as a way to get low cost labor. Given, that, it’s worth mentioning to California-based companies that they need to adhere to state and federal guidelines.

Sidebar on Internships – Tips for Employers:

Be aware of state and federal laws on internships. A California employer who wants to steer clear of wage/hour liability should be sure that any unpaid intern meets all six factors enunciated by the DOL. Those factors are listed here. If an internship qualifies as a paid position, interns legally must be paid the federal minimum wage for the services they provide within the “for-profit” or private sector. They must also be paid overtime. Both regulations fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Since an internship experience is for the benefit of the intern, that makes sales a bit tricky since that could be viewed as benefiting the company more than the intern.

The Association of Inside Sales Professionals is a valuable resource with educational tools, conferences, webinars, and more, considering joining AA-ISP to advance your sales career.