I see the job situation gradually improving. Companies are hiring, because executives in many industries are optimistic. They are also more willing than ever before to let go of underperformers and look for better talent. At the same time, sales professionals are moving around more than ever before, changing jobs, looking for a better career opportunities and greater earning potential.
There is good news and bad news. The good news is that good salespeople are landing better jobs than they had--jobs with higher pay potential and with the promise of career advancement based on achievement of performance goals. Direct sales is a good place to be right now. Why? It pays very well and, as far as I can see, direct selling jobs can't be outsourced overseas.
There is bad news for many who are seeking out a new job in sales. Just as buyers have gotten better at buying, many managers and executives have gotten considerably better at hiring. Having been through the experience and cost of hiring the wrong people, possessing a higher degree of accountability and putting more focus on effectiveness and productivity, they are more determined to do it right.
I spend a fair amount of time assisting companies hire the right salespeople. We don't accomplish that by chance or through gut feel. We depend on a hiring process I've developed which includes, among other components, comprehensive job profiles, probing interview questions, and the formal training of a hiring team. I become part of the hiring team, performing many interviews with candidates for sales jobs--at the rep, support, management, and executive levels.
From my perspective as a hiring coach, influencer and recommender, here are 10 critical success factors for getting yourself hired:
Have a plan
There are a good deal of similarities between seeking a new job and running a sales campaign. (When seeking a job, you'll be doing a fair amount more buying than you do in your sales job, but you'll still be doing a considerably amount of selling.) So, in keeping with my recommended format for a sales plan, the following should be the format of your plan to get the job:
- Situation assessment. Ask yourself these questions: What are your skills, your experience, and your past performance against quota? What industries (or companies) are hiring? What are the hirer's expectations (perhaps a "golden" Rolodex)? What compensation level is realistic to expect? What are your decision criteria? What are theirs? Are they employing a hiring process? If so, what are the steps? You will also need to assess your prospective employer's industry and company, just as you would a prospect.
- Objective: To be offered three positions on or about a specified date at a specified OTE (on-target earning) potential.
- Strategy: What are you going to count upon to compel that executive to offer you the job you want for the pay you deserve?
- Tactics: How are you going to manage it all? The interviews, differentiating yourself, timing, your current job, negotiations, reference checking, your due diligence, responses to the most common objections?
This same planning model is equally as applicable, on a smaller scale, to a single interview or other meeting with your targeted employer. Your ability to have an impact on the outcome of that interview is directly proportional to the amount of time you spend planning and preparing for the event.
Specify what role you are seeking.
One of the mistakes candidates make is in not being specific enough about what job they are interested in. I've seen job objectives at the top of candidate's resumes where I couldn't discern whether the candidate was interested in a job selling, in business development, sales management, or channel management. The shotgun approach doesn't work. Hirers don't want to compromise, and they don't want generalists. The days of hiring a person and then finding the right place for them are over. Executives want the right candidate for a specific job. If you've got broad experience in a number of different areas, position that as added value which will make you even more qualified for the job for which you are applying.
One of my clients is currently looking for a very experienced sales rep. They do not need someone who is interested in a management position. Many of the candidates who want to be considered have sales management experience and it isn't clear from their resumes whether they want a sales rep or sales manager position. My client doesn't want to hire someone who isn't 100 per cent focused on selling. They don't want someone who is just selling in order to "qualify" for a sales management job. So if a candidate doesn't specify that they just want to sell, we are passing them by.
Clean up your resume
Don't lie on your resume. In my experience more than 60 per cent of resumes of salespeople do not accurately represent the facts about the candidate. That includes inflated titles, incorrect dates meant to cover gaps in employment, team accomplishments attributed solely to the candidate, etc. Lying or misrepresentation on a resume is immediate cause for rejection.
What do you do if there is a period during which you were between jobs? Explain it. Why did it happen? What did you learn from it? What will the benefit be for your next employer? It's your job as a salesperson to effectively position yourself. Get to work cleaning up your resume and polishing your story. Leave no inconsistencies, holes, or doubts as to what you really accomplished, however big or small. Recruit a friend or associate to mentor you through the process.
A colleague and friend just started in a terrific new job as VP of an $80 million division. The job was definitely a reach, since he had never managed a business unit that large. He worked hard on effectively positioning the truth. Yes, he had not done this before, but he was more than ready for the challenge. In fact, this was the right time in his career for a move exactly like this. He was able to succinctly and compellingly discuss the advantages of hiring him over someone who might have appeared to be better qualified on paper. What might have been a disqualifier for someone else was turned into a reason for hiring him.
When I see the resume of a salesperson or executive and there are no performance statistics, I am skeptical. Although smart executives know that the past doesn't equal the future, they do know that a resume without performance stats probably means that salesperson doesn't have a record of which they are proud. If you misrepresent how much you've sold and your prospective employer asks for your W-2s (tax statements) for the past 5 years, you're toast.
One more point about resumes. Presentation counts. Please, no typos, nothing fancy, no downloadable graphics, not too long, nothing irrelevant, and take the time to customize the resume for the job for which you are applying. I'm not saying that presentation counts more than past performance. I'm just saying it's representative of you.
Learn about the company with whom you will be interviewing
Winners would never think of making a sales call on a decision maker without having learned about that person's company, their industry, and the person themselves. This is a practice that should be applied in a job seeking situation. Even if you are being pursued, if it's worth an hour of your time to talk to someone from that company, it's worth some more time to do a bit of research on that company, their industry, and the person or people with whom you will be speaking.
This knowledge you gain will help you in other ways. You really don't want to go work for the wrong company. So you've got to perform your due diligence. Dig into their history, management team, financial viability, culture, products and services, alliances, attrition (or lack thereof) of their sales staff, marketing capabilities, reputation in their industry, etc. Obviously, some of this can wait for the second interview. You don't want to have to be explaining to your next potential employer why you made an uninformed decision going with a company that went belly-up shortly after you joined.
When I coach sales reps (and VPs of sales for that matter) who are seeking a new job, I tell them that one of their biggest challenges is going to be in doing their best to time their job offers so the most desirable ones all come in at the same time. That way the candidate can compare and contrast them according to their decision criteria, selecting the best one at that time. The alternative is to have an offer come in when you are in the midst of the interviewing cycle with what appears to be a more exciting opportunity. If you take job #1 without fully exploring job #2, you may be missing out on what could be a better opportunity. If you stall job #1, they may hire someone else and then you are left with job #2, which may not be as good as job #1 appeared to be. Something to think about in advance.
Another aspect of timing is to begin looking for a job while you still have your current one. When it comes to hiring salespeople, you are inherently more marketable if you are currently employed.
An ethical question comes into play here. Is it right to interview for another job when you are on your current employer's payroll? For some, the answer to that question is that they got their current job while on their previous employer's payroll, so it all works out. For others, making up any time spent on job searching is the answer. They work extra hours on the weekends, for example. Other people don't worry about such things. They suggest it's a cost of doing business for their employer. Ultimately that decision is yours, but I recommend making up any time spent on job searching.
I got some terrific advice many years ago when I was looking for a sales job: make certain your first interviews aren't for your most promising opportunities. Interviewing, like any other skill, requires practice. If you haven't interviewed for a while, take interviews with some companies that you don't really believe you want to work for or wouldn't likely hire you. You want to be as polished, confident, and comfortable as possible when the ideal interview comes along.
My clients understand the value of rigorous reference checks. You can ruin your chances of landing a job, not to mention your reputation and your relationship with a recruiter if a reference disputes claims you made on your resume or during the interview process. And don't think that potential employers will only call the names you've provided. The savvy ones have contacts in the industry and may perform blind reference checking on you, as I often do.
Hirers also know that you are only going to list names of people who will provide a positive recommendation. Please don't think that experienced executives are going to call one of those people, smile, and feel that they have all they need. That's happening less and less.
Who is selling and who is buying?
The answer to this question is, "it depends". There is almost always a degree of balance between hirer and candidate and buying and selling. Digging in a bit further: If you are relatively inexperienced or have a less than stellar resume, you may be selling a lot more than buying, at least early in the interview cycle. If you can really convince the hirer that you are right for the job, you can transition to a bit more of a buying mode. On the other hand, if you've been taking home $500k a year and are being recruited into a hot start-up you're definitely starting out as a buyer. That could come to an abrupt change when the recruiter tells you that there are two other candidates involved, each of whom made $750k. Now, if that job is as attractive as can be, you're like to move into selling mode. Decide which mode you should be in at any given time and be effective in that role.
Position your negatives
Last year I rejected a VP of sales candidate for a client because the candidate couldn't admit that he had any weaknesses (which when you think about it is a weakness in itself).
Positioning a strength as a weakness doesn't really work either. "One of my weaknesses is that I am too determined when it comes to winning business..." Statements like that provoke some interviewers into thinking, "What do you think, I'm stupid?"
Everyone has weaknesses. Spend some time determining in advance what yours are and what you are hopefully doing to improve yourself in those areas. If that's the case, try something more like this. "You can tell by my track record that I've been a consistent performer. But I am always looking to improve. Right now I am focusing on improving my ability to read and interpret financial statements. I know that this will enable me to be even more credible in front of C-level executives."
Add value at every turn
I love interviewing candidates for sales positions where the candidate has done their homework and tells me something that I don't know and that I believe my client doesn't know either. I react in the same way your prospects react when you do that to them. I see value, the candidate has differentiated themselves, and I am interested in hearing more.
During an interview for a sales job for one of my clients, the candidate provided observations and very specific recommendations regarding how my client was positioning their offering in their market. He suggested that a lot of what he saw was good, but certain points could be made much more effectively, which, he added would help him and the other salespeople to sell more effectively. His comments made sense. I noted them in my debriefing document, which was sent to the VP of sales and other key executives. Having done this certainly contributed to that candidate getting hired.
If you are looking for a sales position and are winging it, consider adopting these recommendations above. They could make a world of difference in your career and your bank account.
About the Author:
Before founding his sales consultancy, The Stein Advantage, Inc., in 1997, Dave Stein served for more than 20 years in various corporate executive sales and marketing roles.