Categorized | Career

Careers in Technology Sales

Posted on 23 October 2009

Are You Cut Out for
A Career in Technology Sales?

Let’s face it. Some graduates with technical degrees are excited by the prospect of sitting in front of a computer all day, writing miles of code for new programs, designing complicated networks or developing faster Internet connections. You, on the other hand, may be a different breed. You may have studied computer science because that’s where the economy is moving these days. But you may want a career that puts you in contact with lots of people — and allows you to earn big money.

Perhaps you’re cut out for sales.

In the high-tech world, which encompasses a range of products besides computers, selling is a viable career. Positions range from pure sales professionals to sales hybrids. For instance, some highly technical professionals accompany sales representatives when they call on customers and make presentations. Called systems engineers or field applications engineers, these professionals provide the technical insights many sales reps lack about their products. They review the company’s situation, assess its challenges or problems and make product recommendations and configurations, says Harvey Bass, president and managing director of the Sparta, N.J., office of Sales Consultants International, a recruiting firm based in Cleveland.

“This is sales support at a high level, and great technical expertise is required,” says Bass.

Many new graduates who want to break into high-tech sales initially take customer-service, telemarketing or other sales support jobs before moving to outside sales slots, Bass says. However, there’s plenty of opportunity at all levels. Nearly two-thirds (60%) of all U.S. companies planned to increase their sales and marketing staffs , according to a Sales Consultants survey. Demand is particularly strong in high-tech fields, with almost 80% of telecommunications companies and 65% of information-technology firms planning to hire sales and marketing personnel, the firm reports.

It’s one thing to be hired and quite another to be successful in high-tech sales. You need to be made of strong stuff. This is true of sales in general, but in the high-tech world, the competition is tough. You may feel more tested than you would selling consumer goods or pharmaceutical items. “The average tenure of a new sales person is 12 to 24 months because this industry is so volatile and entrepreneurial,” says Bass.

To help you decide if a high-technology sales career is for you, ask yourself these questions.

1. Do I have the right degree and background?

Surprisingly, almost any background will do as long as you can sell. While many technical companies require new sales hires to have bachelor of science degrees in electrical engineering, B.S. double-Es don’t always make the best sales people. Liberal arts graduates often are more adept at understanding customer needs, gaining their trust and building the relationships that are all-important to a successful sales career, says Arthur Demirjian, regional director of sales for Integrated Systems and Services, a software company in Little Falls, N.J. Demirjian prefers to hire liberal arts grads for sales jobs and assign technical pros who want to break into sales to such roles as identifying and qualifying prospective clients and making appointments until they gain needed sales skills.

Steve White, a political science graduate of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., started his career selling copy machines in Boston, but he quit after 10 months because the field was so high-pressured. He then started managing a suburban Boston office of Agency Rent-a-Car, a Cleveland car rental firm.

While the new position was less stressful, he wasn’t getting rich. A friend who worked in computer sales told White about a position at Data General Corp., a Westborough, Mass., minicomputer company that was hiring sales people.

White interviewed and landed the position. During his four years at Data General, he learned important sales essentials. He built a successful track record that helped him land his current position as an industry sales representative in eastern Massachusetts for Dell Computer Corp., a direct-sales personal computer firm based in Round Rock, Texas.

2. Do I have sales skills?

To many high-tech employers, selling abilities are more valued than technical savvy — at least initially. Anita Damron earned a chemical engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. After graduating, she sold computer tables, storage cabinets and other peripherals for Wright Line, a computer-furniture company in Wooster, Mass. She also sold software to auto dealers for Automatic Data Processing Inc., a Stamford, Conn., payroll and tax-filing processing firm. In the meantime, she tried to start a business based on a skin-cream product she’d formulated. It was a brief, humbling experience.

Damron abandoned entrepreneurship and took a part-time sales position at a mall to pay bills while lining up a new opportunity. The position was at Wentworth Galleries, an art store owned at the time by Fidelity Inc., the Boston mutual-fund company. She didn’t view it as a serious career step until she began earning commission checks of $10,000 to $20,000 monthly.

It was at Wentworth that she learned how to ask for orders and to accept rejection. She realized she had flair for sales and, after Fidelity sold Wentworth, parlayed her sales success and computer background into selling chips for Intel Corp., a Santa Clara, Calif., microprocessor maker. Now she’s a sales representative in Woburn, Mass., for Lucent Technologies Inc., a Murray Hill, N.J., telecommunications equipment company.

3. Can I ask good questions and really listen to the answers?

When you’re face to face with prospective customers, the gift of gab isn’t what’s required. The best sales people ask questions and listen to the answers to assess a customer’s wants and to see how they can fill their needs. Selling isn’t telling. You’ll sell more if you listen and respond to what you hear, not trying to convince customers to buy based on your notions of their needs.

Asking questions also helps you to fit what the customer wants to the product line or service you sell. This big picture view includes:

  • understanding all aspects of the product and the consequences of the purchase to your customers
  • being able to explain to customers how the complicated items they purchase will fit together and solve their problems.
  • offering the best terms and conditions, lining up financing and licensing and troubleshooting throughout the relationship

4. Do I have the right work style?

You must relish the challenge of having to meet specific sales goals to earn your target paycheck. In this sense, you’re working for yourself. Your pay will likely be part salary and part commission or bonus, paid monthly, quarterly or annually. If you make a $100,000 sale and your commission is, say, 10%, you’ll earn $10,000. At many firms, your income potential is unlimited. The companies are more than happy to pay you big commissions because it means you’re selling lots of products.

Many new graduates don’t realize that what they earn in sales depends on how much they can sell. Companies look very closely at the bottom line. While you’ll be given a certain period of time to reach your target sales volume, you won’t stay long if you don’t achieve it. Moreover, your goals will increase the longer you remain in the business and the larger your territory becomes.

In the high-tech industry, new sales hires may receive an added incentive — stock options. These allow you to buy a certain number of company shares at a certain price. The hope is that the price at which you may exercise your option to buy the stock will be well below the stock’s trading price when you eventually decide to sell and that you’ll reap a large gain on the difference.

Bass estimates that about half of all high-tech sales professionals nowadays receive stock options, but most companies granting options aren’t public yet, so their stock may have little value when you first receive it. If the company launches an initial public offering, employees may reap windfalls, but not every startup reaches this stage, he says.

“Seventy percent of the companies granting options are pre-IPO, so the options are relatively worthless, but they attract the hell out of people,” says Bass.

Liking people and having the gift of gab isn’t enough to succeed in this field. Neither is being an avid computer and e-mail user. To be a successful sales person, you also must be a highly motivated self-starter. You may be part of a sales team, but often the other team members’ roles involve supporting customers and the product. You’ll be working alone a lot of the time, with no one to rescue you.

Damron puts in long hours, always returns phone calls, asks for what she wants and needs, earns customers’ trust by listening carefully before responding and accepts rejection. White also gets up early, makes lots of calls, follows through on promises to customers and quickly recovers from defeat. He isn’t always comfortable with the pressure on him to sell, but he’s dealing with it.

If you’re serious about a high-tech sales career, find an employer who believes in you and will teach you everything you’ll need to be successful. Convincing a company to hire you is the first and most important sale you’ll have to make.

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