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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

How to Break Into Sales & Business Development

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Ever wondered how to get started working in PR, entertainment, finance, or another profession? Over the next two weeks, we’re putting together a guide to breaking into these cool fields and more, brought to you by those who know it best. Check in all week for an inside look at how to launch your dream career!

If you’re sharp, dynamic, and love talking to people, sales or business development could be a great fit for you. You’ll get to work in a job where every day involves helping different customers or working with different products, and where the results of your efforts are very tangible, in both quotas and commissions.

But to successfully break into sales or business development, you have to be able to sell yourself as the best person for the job. To help you out, we’ve talked to five professionals in the field to get their thoughts on what it takes to impress.

Cynthia Schames, Director of Business Development

Company: Performance Horizon Group

Years of Professional Experience: 15+

Brief Description of Job: My role is focused on the creation and development of direct relationships with global brand advertisers, large digital agencies, and major publishing portals. I sell enterprise software-as-a-service to C-level and VP-level contacts.

Why did you choose sales and business development?

I originally wanted to work in marketing, and the first job I got out of college was in a marketing support firm. As it turned out, marketing support really meant pre-sales. I had always said that I didn’t want to be in sales, but once I got into it and saw that sales is really about solving problems for your customers, I fell in love.

The things I love most about sales are forming relationships that provide value to the customer, solving real business issues they are facing, and learning to ask the right questions. Being curious is pretty much the best qualifying skill you can have if you want to be a successful sales or business development professional.

What was your first job in sales, and how did you land it?

My first sales-related job was actually as the inside sales rep supporting an outside salesperson. My job was to qualify prospects and set appointments over the phone with high-level executives in Fortune 1000 companies. It was an incredible foundation in sales, because it taught me professional presentation skills, persuasion, and how to navigate complex corporate structures.

This was my first job out of college, and it was a fairly straightforward process; I have a BA in Communications, and was able to leverage both my education and my experience in public speaking and performance to land the job. If you’re in this situation, don’t forget to highlight your extracurriculars. Even if it’s kind of nerdy, things like Debate Club can prepare you well for a job in sales.

What is different about the hiring process in sales than in other fields?

It’s been my experience that getting a job is less about networking and more about being findable and pointing to real, quantifiable results on your resume and online profiles.

The hiring process is unique as well, because the first rule of sales is that people buy from people they like. Interviewers know this, so it’s important to be likable and make a connection with your interviewers and recruiters. I’ve seen less-qualified candidates get a job simply because they were the kind of person that the sales director wanted to work with.

One key thing to remember is that every sales organization is different. You’ll want to remain teachable, flexible, and open-minded. What works in one industry or company may not work at all in the next role, so always look for ways to learn and grow as a salesperson and professional.

Shawn Keeler, Director of Business Development

Company: Smart Ink

Years of Professional Experience: 5+

Brief Description of Job: At Smart Ink, I focus primarily on new client acquisition. I investigate potential clients, speculate as to their needs, and develop a strategy to satisfy those needs. I also aid in the management of our production schedule, supplier network, and existing client demands.

What did you want to do growing up?

I was always urged to be a lawyer. I think that’s because I never stopped talking and I had an answer for everything. As I became older and actually thought about it, one thing was clear—I knew I wanted to be around and interact with people every day.

I studied broadcast journalism at Arizona State with a focus on media management. My plan was to enter the media industry through one of the three traditional channels—TV, radio, or print—and work my way up the sales ladder.

What was your first job in this field, and how did you land it?

I was an Account Executive for a local news and talk radio station. I leveraged a family connection and the skills I gained from my degree to land an internship during my last semester at Arizona State. I worked very hard for five months, and then asked my boss if I could apply for a full time Account Executive position once I graduated. He agreed to give me an interview and I came prepared.

For the interview, I created an operation manual for myself, the “SK-5000.” I confidently led the first half of the interview, talking through the high points of investing in this “creative sales machine.” At times he laughed, but most importantly, I had his full attention. When I finished my presentation he conducted the remainder of the interview and it went very well. I began the company’s two-month training program the following week. While I no longer work in radio, it was that start in sales that brought me where I am today.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into sales?

Be bold. Careers in sales and marketing are challenging, but not without reward. I have always prioritized the importance of cultivating genuine relationships. Fortunately, the available platforms for communication and sharing make this much easier. Take advantage of that. One of the greatest byproducts of the digital age is access and the availability of information.

As far as customer satisfaction goes, be honest and always manage expectations. Our business environment is changing and it’s exciting. Don’t be afraid to take chances and don’t be afraid to take credit.

Christine Chang, Business Development Manager

Company: Mobile MedSoft

Years of Professional Experience: 5+ years

Brief Description of Job: As my official title would imply, Business Development is my primary role. However, working at a small company, my job also includes all marketing and advertising initiatives, as well as many product and project management and sales responsibilities.

What did you want to do growing up?

For the majority of my childhood, I was a huge animal lover, and wanted nothing more than to be a veterinarian. As I got older and the rose-colored glasses faded with the reality of what a profession in animal medicine would actually entail, my sights turned toward pursuing a career in nursing. I attended The University of Texas at Arlington with a declared major in nursing for almost three years before ultimately deciding that my talents and personality were better suited for the world of business marketing.

This decision was not reached lightly—I had over three years of time and money invested in nursing and many of my credits wouldn’t transfer, putting me over a year behind my original graduation date. But it was absolutely the right decision for me. Plus, as the Business Development Manager for a company that develops technology and software for the healthcare industry, I’ve been able to combine my two passions.

What was your first job in business development, and how did you land it?

What began as a sales position for a sports memorabilia company in Dallas, Texas, progressed into managing the marketing, sales, and business development departments. I met the owner of the company at an event several years before I started working for him. Several years later, when I was looking for a job, I got back in touch and he offered me the position. I’m a firm believer in the benefits of networking and building relationships—you just never know what may develop.

What has been the most surprising thing about working in business development?

The variety of things that the field requires you to do or to learn. I’m constantly using or learning different skill sets, tools, or experiences to address problems or tackle new things. It’s this variety that makes me absolutely love what I do.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into business development?

First, do whatever it takes and never be complacent. Business development is a dynamic industry, so if you want to stay relevant, you must constantly evolve with it.

Next, it’s OK to say “no” sometimes. You can’t do everything—or at least you can’t do it all well. Taking on every request will eventually lead to many mediocre projects completed. In order to always bring the best to each project, it is important to know your abilities and strengths as well as to know and respect your limitations.

Finally, do your homework. Know who your industry leaders are, what they are doing, how they are doing it, and, most importantly, why that makes them successful. Then decide where you’d like to fit into that equation, determine what is required to achieve that, and create a strategic plan of action to make it happen.

Rachel McLaughlin, Senior Sales Associate

Company: Bloom Energy

Years of Professional Experience: 4 1/2 years

Brief Description of Job: Bloom manufactures solid oxide fuel cells that produce electricity on-site without combustion. I work predominantly with energy, sustainability, facilities, and finance professionals at Fortune 1000 companies as they evaluate and purchase a Bloom system for their future energy needs. My specific functions include presentations on the system technology and financial business case, financial modeling, sales process management, and contracting.

How did you end up working in sales?

After graduation, I lived in Indonesia for a year on a Fulbright Fellowship. I returned with $0 in my bank account, student loan payments looming in the distance, and the 2009 job market. One hundred applications and 20+ informational interviews later, a friend’s brother suggested that I apply for a Sales Analyst position at SunEdison, a solar company where he worked.

Since I didn’t know anyone who worked in sales, energy, or Cleantech, I never contemplated a career in any of these fields. Despite this, I left the interview energized because my conversations with my future co-workers were refreshing, intellectually challenging, and fun. I took the job and it ended up being a great fit because at the core of everything I enjoy doing is a desire to contribute to new ideas for big problems that our society needs to fix.

What has been the most surprising thing about working in sales?

Before I worked in sales, I viewed this field as one that fostered manipulative behavior and a lack of transparency. I thought talented people created things and salespeople just memorized specifications and regurgitated them. These are common misconceptions.

The truth? Sales is a diverse and vibrant field. It’s also difficult. The best sales teams are more like consulting teams. They identify and help solve their customers’ problems and they do so with superb communication skills, business acumen, and efficiency. They are often the first to identify a new product’s market potential because they are on the frontlines speaking with people that use the product every day.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into sales?

Big companies like GE have entry-level sales training programs, and these programs work well for recent graduates who are seeking to build a foundation. However, if you would like to work within a specific industry and yours doesn’t offer one of these programs (Cleantech, for example), inside sales is a great place to start.

This type of role provides an opportunity to learn the ropes without immediately taking on the pressure of a sales quota. Some inside sales roles are 100% cold calling. Some involve financial modeling, customer proposals, contracting, and a little bit of cold calling. You should opt for the role where you can wear as many hats as possible.

What is different about the hiring process in sales than in other fields?

Unlike other fields, jobs in sales have performance metrics that are clearly defined and easily measured. Either you met your number or you did not meet your number. Either you carried a quota or you did not.

Most companies will not hire someone for a direct sales role without experience carrying a quota and exceeding it. Due to this, most people break into the field through an indirect role (not quota carrying) like inside sales and then move into a role with a modest quota.

Even for indirect sales roles, the hiring manager will discern your ability to thrive under pressure and your comfort level with the risk/return trade-off. Working in sales is riskier, but if you exceed your number, commission packages usually have accelerators that make the reward great.

Daniel Dykes, Sales Consultant

Company: Foreign Cars Italia

Years of Professional Experience: 5

Brief Description of Job: Sell high-end performance cars to a wealthy clientele.

Why did you choose sales?

It came out of personal interest. When I was in high school, I became really interested in cars, especially fast ones (cliché, I know). I read about them all the time, would go to track events and races to watch, and really enjoyed hanging around sports car dealerships with my friends on the weekend. Outside of building or racing the cars, sales was the most exciting (and realistic) option to me.

What was your first job in sales, and how did you land it?

My first job was actually washing cars, but it led to my job in sales. With luxury sales, especially Ferrari, most people have extensive experience and, once they land these positions, they don’t let them go. So, it’s hard to break into.

I applied every month for six months at this Ferrari dealer and made friends with the staff. When they had a car wash position open, I jumped at it. I worked two other jobs, but always showed up on time, dressed better than the position required, and looked for ways to contribute beyond my role, treating tasks sales members dreaded as my opportunity. I spent a lot of time learning the product and finding ways to demonstrate my knowledge. I received my first promotion after a few months, later became a sales assistant, and entered sales before my two-year anniversary.

What is different about the hiring process in sales than in other fields?

Your prospective employer is your client when you interview with them. In a consulting interview, you may do a case, but in sales, your entire interview is a case. How you contact your interviewers, follow up, and present yourself is a preview of what they can expect. Your interviewers are asking themselves: Would they buy from you?

I’ve seen countless resumes and participated in numerous interviews for my previous employer, and many people new to the role think it’s about being persuasive and smelling good. Yes, the business is about results, and an ambitious or aggressive nature is a prerequisite. But it’s also about trust, knowledge, and service. Find a way to demonstrate these items and you’ll be trusted with the lifeblood of any company—its customers.