First, some good news: there will be plenty of job openings for sales professionals over the next eight years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of sales positions in the United States will increase by a hefty 13% by 2020, with the fastest growth in insurance, retail, manufacturing, and financial services.
Now for some bad news: in a weak economy, fewer companies provide the sales training, coaching, and mentoring that, in previous years, could have helped you build long-term career growth. "Investment in sales training drops when times are bad," says Dave Stein, chief executive of ES Research, a research firm that studies the sales training industry.
More than ever, the fate of your sales career lies in your own hands. To help you make the right choices, we asked four experts how to take charge of your future as a sales professional.
More Sales Advice from Geoffrey James
Here's what they told us:
Make career development a priority
When you're working on sales, it's easy to fill up your workday with tasks that are both important and urgent. Between building your pipeline, meeting with customers, and handling inevitable problems, it's hard to find the time to do the kind of deep thinking that's required to plan your career or develop new skills. Even so, it's the time spent on activities that are "important but not urgent" that is most likely to pay off long term, according to Philip Strylund, CEO of The Summit Group, a sales and marketing consulting firm. "Set aside an hour each day to focus on your career without interruption," he advises. "Give it priority over day-to-day demands of your job and certainly over distractions like surfing the Internet, playing computer games, and watching entertainment."
Define what motivates to you
Everyone wants to be successful, but success means different things to different people. If you're going to be successful, you must be keenly aware of what motivates you to work hard. Is it money? Is it leadership? Respect from your peers? The better you define what you want out of your career in sales, the easier it will be to make the right career decisions. "You must be clear about where you are headed or you cannot possibly pick the correct path to get there," points out Sam Reese, CEO of Miller Heiman, the world's largest sales training firm.
Set motivating career goals
Once you know what motivates you, define career goals that take advantage of that motivation. Such goals should be specific and measurable, rather than vague and abstract, because "ambiguous goals create an 'escape hatch' every time the going gets tough," explains Reese. For example, the goal to "create quarterly sales revenue in excess of a million dollars" is more likely to keep you motivated and on target than "make a lot of money selling." When you've defined your goals, write them down and post them someplace you will see them every day.
Increase your business acumen
It's not enough to simply know about products and services you're selling, according to Jerry Acuff, author of "The Relationship Edge: The Key to Strategic Influence and Selling Success." "To be successful in today's market, you must understand your own industry, the role your firm plays in that industry, and the competition that you face on a day-to-day basis," he explains. If you're selling business-to-business, you also must understand your customer's industry, the companies that compete with your customers, and most importantly, how you can help your customers address their own customers' needs. "Top sales people are seen by clients, superiors and colleagues as experts because they devote extra time to developing meaningful expertise," says Acuff.
Request tough assignments
While "cherry picking" easy accounts for sales creates quick monetary reward, taking on the more challenging sales tasks, like accounts and regions that have been experiencing declining sales, is more likely to lead to long-term career growth and larger rewards. "You'll not only be forced to develop new sales skills but you'll learn invaluable information about how your company works and how it serves (and does not yet serve) its customers," explains Reese. As an added advantage, top management will see your willingness to attempt a turnaround as evidence you're both ambitious and a team player.
Build a professional network
"If you're in sales, you're in the people business," points out Sharon Daniels, CEO of the sales training firm Achieve Global. "From the moment you begin your sales career, start surrounding yourself with people who can help you be your best." She warns that developing, maintaining, and growing such relationships "doesn't happen by chance and takes time and focused attention." Your professional network is much more than just a list of contacts, according to Acuff. "Top sales performers constantly look for opportunities to serve others and help them succeed at what is important to them," she explains. "They are the masters of unexpected, thoughtful acts and they never stop looking for ways to help others."
Hone your communications skills
When you're in sales, everyone automatically evaluates how well you communicate, according to Reese. "Learn to be clear and precise in your communication so that you can be authentic, engaging and brief," he advises. "Frame discussions so that customers, coworkers and company executives can clearly follow and add value to the conversation." Don't be lulled by the casual nature of the Internet into thinking that you can wing it when using email or social networking, says Acuff. "Always work hard to find words and phrases that are compelling and interesting."
Expand your online persona
Prospective employers and customers alike will check "who you really are" online before doing business with you, warns Daniels. She recommends tuning your image on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networking sites so that it matches and reinforces the image you project during face-to-face meetings. In addition to expunging anything that might prove problematic (like frat party photos), you should craft your online profiles so that they're simple, clear, and easily understandable. "And don't forget to keep your profile up-to-date," Daniels advises. "Think of your online persona as an ongoing project."
BIO: Geoffrey James is a business journalist who writes "Sales Source" on Inc.com, the world's most-visited sales-oriented blog. His newly published book is "Business to Business Selling: Power Words and Strategies from the World's Top Sales Experts." (Prentice Hall, 2011).