Bill Hannan wasn't supposed to be here. A 2005 graduate of Villanova University with a degree in finance, he wasn't thinking about sales training sessions three years ago while working as a commodities trader. But reality crept in, in the form of the financial crisis, leading him to give sales, the profession of his father and grandfather, another look.
At a Dale Carnegie Training session in a midtown-Manhattan basement, Hannan was one of 18 salespeople listening attentively as a trainer explained the importance of classifying buyers. About half of the attendees had already been in sales for years, but the rest had recently entered the field after exploring other career paths.
There are certainly those who gravitate to sales early on, but sales jobs are also uniquely attractive to people looking for a plan B. An expertise in sales can provide a feeling of safety in a tight labor market, teach fundamental skills like fundraising, or in some cases allow job changers to remain connected to their original fields of interest. For some professionals, working in sales serves as both a cushion and a springboard for their careers, providing immediate financial support and the potential for upward mobility.
Hannan, a 28-year-old life insurance rep, signed himself up for the eight-week program at Dale Carnegie to hone his presentation skills and help him improve his professional relationships.
"The goal right now is to open my own business selling State Farm products like my father and grandfather," he said. "First I need to gain more person-to-person sales experience and develop my relationships with clients and co-workers."
Foundation for Future Success
Hannan broke into sales after spending three and a half years trading commodities for a small firm in Manhattan. That job came to an end in 2010.
"The writing was on the wall," Hannan said. "It was a small office and a small trading desk and business was moving slow. I was the youngest on the desk with the least amount of experience and business relationships, so I was prepared to go." After that gig ended, Hannan decided to get into a more customer-based selling job, hoping for more long-term security.
The biggest benefit of working a job in sales is that it helps individuals develop a foundation for their future success, said Louis Paolillo, the trainer at Dale Carnegie. "We're always selling." he said. "Whether we're selling ideas, selling products or selling our own talents."
The majority of the Dale Carnegie attendees said they want bigger roles in the future -- either running their own businesses or taking high-level positions at other companies -- and view sales as the key to getting there.
"One of the things you are most focused on as an entrepreneur is your fund raising skills and being in sales plays an instrumental role in developing those skills," said Eli Bronner, head of sales and a co-founder of the New York-based start-up Lua, which provides communication and project collaboration software for entertainment companies.
Bronner, 24, launched his business with two friends after graduating from Wesleyan University in 2010. He originally considered taking a real estate job with CB Richard Ellis in Beijing, but when he decided to grow Lua as a business instead, he realized that he needed to learn the fundamentals of sales and sales training.
Stay Connected to Field
"The dream is to build a well-oiled machine so eventually I won't have to be the one going out and selling our services directly," Bronner said.
Others view a sales position as a way to earn more money while remaining connected to their fields. Jason Canouse, 34, worked as an environmental consultant for 10 years before taking a regional sales manager job at Land Science Technologies, which produces technologies to allow land development at contaminated sites. In his new job he began learning the ropes of selling products and services in a niche industry.
"I worked for a really great firm as a consultant, but my position had a low ceiling in terms of upward mobility and pay," said Canouse, who graduated from Hofstra University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in geology. "I started to feel like if I am going to put in these 60- to 80-hour weeks, let the amount of work I put in be equal to what I get out of it."
A shift to sales does have its challenges. Those new to the field need to know how to work alone and be able to handle rejection, said John Treace, author of "Nuts & Bolts of Sales Management." "Most salespeople who fail at their jobs give up or get fired because they don't know how to deal with rejection when it happens," he said.
The total number of people working sales jobs on a national basis has gradually declined by 7.8% over the past five years, from 16.7 million in 2007 to 15.3 million in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey. That drop correlates with the loss of jobs throughout the country during those years, said Karen Kosanovich, a labor economist for the BLS. But the agency predicts that the trend will reverse and that the number of people working in sales will grow by 12.5% between 2010 and 2020.
In three and a half years in commodities trading, Hannan said, he learned many nuances of finance, but left with little else. The biggest benefit of taking a job in insurance sales is the long-term professional relationships that can come from it, he said.
"In commodities trading I was dealing with financial institutions around the world and communicating with people mostly over the Internet," Hannan said. "At the time it wasn't clear to me how important a client-relationship is, until I left and had little business to bring with me. Now I'm seeing that the more you gain a client's trust, the longer that connection lasts."
Write to Damian Ghigliotty at Damian.Ghigliotty@dowjones.com