Eight Career Paths for Salespeople

If you're in sales and itching to take your career in a new direction, here's some helpful advice

One of the great benefits of a sales career is that once you've developed solid selling skills—and can prove it—you can take your career in at least eight different directions. They break down into two main categories: working for an organization or running your own.

But before you decide which path is best for you, consider this question: How much do you love selling? If what you really like to do professionally is sell, then don't start your own business.

Michael Gerber explores this advice in his landmark book, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It. In one example in the book, a pie baker asks Gerber if she should continue her pie-baking company given that all she really wants to do all day is to bake pies. His response is definitive: "Then for God's sake, get rid of your business…as quickly as you can."

He goes on to explain that when you run a business, if all you want to do is perform the job's main activity or ply your skill (making pies, for example), you'll ignore the marketing, financial, administrative, planning, management, and other duties that are essential to success. Bottom line: If you want to make pies, make pies. If you want to sell boats, sell boats. Of course, many outstanding salespeople take different paths over the span of their careers that involve multiple skill sets.

Here are eight career paths for you to consider, ranging from working as an employee to establishing yourself as a business owner.

1. Full-time sales employee.

If all you want to do is sell, consider a career as a sales professional. You may change products or companies, but you will essentially always be a bag-carrying sales rep. You'll make good money, control your schedule, and be free of the responsibilities of managing other people or budgets. Your compensation plan will usually be based on your individual numbers, not the team's numbers. It will be computed in terms of straight salary, salary plus bonus, or salary plus commission.

2. Corporate management.

If you want the opportunity to manage people and budgets without starting your own company, you could begin to climb the corporate ladder (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/15/06, "Climbing the Ladder: The First 100 Days"). You may ascend within the same outfit or change companies as you progress to sales manager, regional manager, sales vice-president, and perhaps CEO.

Eventually, running an entire organization isn't as unlikely as it sounds. Many in top management came up through the sales ranks. That's no coincidence, since the sales division drives the "top line," which is management-speak for revenues on a profit-and-loss statement.

In management, your pay is based on the results of the area or team for which you're responsible. It might be based on salary or salary plus bonus. There could also be stock options and other goodies. Be aware that the top salesperson in an outfit sometimes outearns those in upper management.

3. Straight-commission sales.

This compensation plan, popular with realtors and direct salespeople, is a compromise between being a full-time sales employee and owning your own business. I don't recommend most straight-commission jobs because the company simply doesn't risk enough to make you successful. It makes money if you sell something but doesn't lose money if you don't. I know some have made a lot of money this way, but many more have worked hard with little to show for their efforts.

4. Business owner.

If you have what Gerber calls in his book the "entrepreneurial perspective," where you see a business as a system for producing results, you might be very successful starting and/or owning your own company. Keep in mind that as a business owner, you now have to care about both sales and expenses because your compensation is based on the difference between these two.

5. Manufacturer's representative.

If you want to start your own company and work more closely with the manufacturer than the customer, you could become a rep of one or several manufacturers. You will usually write sales orders but will not hold inventory or deliver products. Your customers will expect you to have deep technical and product knowledge of your offerings and you might sell items to distributors, franchisers, or end-users in an industry or geographical area.

To maximize your sales and profits, it is best to sell product lines and/or services that are used by the same customers. That way, you can make one sales call and sell prospective customers multiple offerings. That saves time for both parties, making it a win-win strategy.

6. Distributor.

If you want to start your own company and work more closely with the customer than the manufacturer, you could be a distributor. Generally, you'd buy inventory from the manufacturer, warehouse and inventory it, then sell and deliver it to your customers. This is a more complex business than being a manufacturer's rep.

7. Franchise owner.

If you like to sell but are willing to give up some flexibility and money in exchange for running a proven business, consider buying a franchise. They are available for every business idea under the sun—from fast food to printing to junk removal services (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/12/05 "Extending the Front Lines of Franchising").

8. Sell your professional services.

Many sales professionals start their own company sharing their selling expertise. They might sell consulting services, professional speaking engagements, sales training seminars, and books.

I took this route two different times and found that I ended up as both the salesperson and the product. Imagine telling a customer, "She's a terrific sales speaker and consultant. She can move mountains—and make them laugh. She's insightful, cutting-edge, personable—and downright brilliant. Oh, by the way, she's me."

One downside to this career choice is it's hard not to take rejection personally. On the other hand, it feels great when you see the terrific results you helped your customers create.

Over the years, working in some of the careers I mentioned above has provided me with good income. And the sales skills I have gained have contributed to the success of my own three companies. If you're in sales and getting the itch to try something new, I hope this column encourages you to look before you leap, but to definitely take the leap. Happy selling!

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