Role Basics: What is Sales?
Sales is responsible for bringing in revenue. This includes building lists of people to reach out to (or responding to inbound interest), talking with people to understand their needs and the internal process and dynamics affecting how purchasing decisions are made, and customizing a solution and influencing people to buy it.
Flavors of Sales roles:
Sales organizations (and roles) vary based on organization size and the value of what you’re selling. (For more information, see the sales learning curve.) Common roles in sales are:
- Account Executive (AE): This is probably what you think of as sales — someone who’s responsible for closing deals and, for larger
- Business Development Representative (BDR): Someone who’s responsible for building lead lists, executing outbound outreach, and qualifying leads before
- Sales management and support: Depending on team size, companies will also have Sales Managers, Directors, VPs, and often have sales ops or sales enablement teams, responsible for process efficiency and creating collateral and training, respectively.
- Customer Success Representative: Often within a sales team, the Customer Success team typically has quotas as well and is responsible for maintaining and upselling customers.
- Others: You might hear the terms “inside” versus “outside” sales, which traditionally refers to whether sales happen inside or outside the building — where the only products that justify the added time and expense for outside sales are typically much more expensive.
Example projects in Sales:
Unless you’re a sales manager or at a very early stage startup, or in sales ops or enablement, you typically won’t have discrete projects. Instead, your work will be a constant stream (or “pipeline”) of leads, opportunities and clients to reach out to, speak with, and close. But here are some projects for sales-adjacent roles:
- Sales manager: Review performance of sales team, and work with individual sellers to pinpoint and improve their weaknesses.
- Sales enablement: Review and improve sales content by speaking with the sales team and leadership, creating a catalogue of all existing content, identifying weaknesses and gaps, and revising and creating new content and making it all accessible for sales team, so they can save time accessing it. This content can include case studies, white papers and ebooks, demo presentations, pricing and discount information and rate sheets, and competitive briefs.
- Sales director: Review sales organization performance to identify where to focus time and resources on improving, and then develop a strategy to improve. Strategies might include improving operations to increase the number of demos and deals closed or decreasing the time of contract negotiation; improving close rate by better qualifying deals, better training staff, or better allocating leads among the sales team; revising the incentive plan or changing team structure to improve results; or many other options.
- Sales operations: Build and revise an information management process using Salesforce or another CRM system. Create a set of reports for the sales team lead and members showing daily, weekly, and monthly progress towards goals.
Common activities in Sales:
The process and number of touches varies a lot based on deal size and company maturity, but all sales teams must go through the same steps in the sales funnel:
- Lead generation. While this usually happens on the marketing team, the starting point of a sales process is often collecting leads — or people who are interested in learning more about a product or service. Often, this happens by creating free resources useful to your potential customers (like a white paper or eBook) that require an email to access. People responsible for lead gen create these resources and market them through ads, SEO or other promotion, so that sales teams (and email marketers) can reach out to them to nurture and qualify the leads.
- Building lists. Typically done by the sales development representative, this stage involves using LinkedIn to identify target companies, roles, and individuals who might be buyers or users for your product and getting their information (email, phone, and any details required to personalize the outreach like their interests or background details or company-specific information). Sometimes this is done manually, sometimes through tools, and sometimes through external lead-gen services.
- Outreach. Often outreach will happen through automated email tools (and sometimes through automated LinkedIn messages), so you can mass-customize messages based on the information you’ve collected. This involves writing and sending emails (typically in sequences of 3-4 emails, spaced out by a few days), that aim to get recipients to take an action — usually booking a demo.
- Lead qualification. Qualification is the process of ensuring a lead is likely enough to buy a product to warrant investing the time selling to. Typically, this can be done in three ways: by researching them and their company on LinkedIn (for example, to understand their role, responsibilities or company/team size), by collecting information from them in a signup form (for example, when they sign up to receive an eBook), and while speaking to them on a demo. Typically, you want to understand whether they are experiencing the problem your product solves, what their budget is and whether they have authority to buy the product, and how they’re currently solving the problem. Typically, each sales team will develop its own qualification criteria, that it uses and adapts to determine whether (and how much) a lead is worth investing in.
- Managing email. After the initial email is sent, you’ll typically spend a lot of time replying to emails — answering questions, scheduling follow ups, and scheduling calls.
- Conducting demos. Software sales typically uses a “demo” as the opportunity to learn more about the lead and their company — focused on what their pain is and how they’re currently solving the problem — and to show off your product and illustrate how it could create value for the lead and their team/company. Based on the information you gather in the demo, you’ll ensure they’re qualified to proceed and make an ask to move them along in the sales process.
- Developing and negotiating the proposal. Depending on the scope of a project, there may be protracted negotiation. For lower-value contracts, this is often relatively simple — often, the client presses for concessions, and you consult your rate sheet for what you can offer and how it will affect your compensation. But for larger, more complex deals — such as enterprise or custom software, or large service contracts — this process can be much more involved. It may require delving deep into their interests and how they’re structured to create a winning proposal.
- Managing CRM and process. Throughout the sales process, everyone on the sales team is responsible for updating the CRM (or Customer Relationship Management) system. This is where people log important information about the customer — from the stage in the process, to important notes about their needs, to answers to qualifying questions — both so different stakeholders in the sales (and, eventually, customer success) team can stay aligned, and so that managers can clearly see an overview of what’s going on in their team and across the entire sales organization.
- Managing process and content. Sales ops and enablement team members are responsible for creating and improving sales content, and for creating and improving the process and the CRM around that process.
- ARR / MRR. The most important metrics for a sales team are Annual and Monthly Recurring Revenue — how much subscription revenue comes in each year or month.
- Sales funnel. Typically, people look at the conversion rate from one stage in the funnel to the next, as well as the amount of time each funnel stage takes.
- Funnel health. Typically pipeline health looks at the number of deals in a pipeline and the stage, giving an expected revenue number (each deal’s projected value multiplied by a probability of closing based on its stage in the funnel).
If you’re good, sales is one of the best-paying roles in tech, but most selling roles are driven primarily based on commission. Entry-level roles may start at $40K or more, but target salaries will be much higher and excellent sellers can make $100, $200, or even $500K+.
Sales career path:
For enterprise businesses (and for people who enjoy selling and the performance-oriented culture of a sales team), sales is a great career path — you can climb the ranks in sales, or remain an individual contributor who sells increasingly complex and lucrative deals. Eventually, you can lead sales and marketing, and progress to becoming CEO.
How accessible are Sales jobs?
- Time to learn. 0-3 months to be able to ace an entry-level interview, out of college.
- Selectivity. Low. There are many entry-level sales roles available for people straight out of undergrad, though senior sales jobs can require much more expertise.
- Ease of working remote. Easy. This depends a lot on the company and your level of experience. More junior roles are often better to do co-located because learning and mentorship is often easier in person, but the actual work can easily be accomplished anywhere with good internet.
Job Requirements: What you need to be competitive for sales roles?
Key skills for Sales:
- Written communication
- Verbal communication
- Asking questions and listening
- Perspective-taking and problem-solving
Professional background for Sales:
Large sales-driven organizations have entry-level sales roles, but it’s also possible to enter sales from a variety of backgrounds:
- Customer service
- Marketing (particularly content or lead gen)
- Consulting or MBA — especially for higher-value or more complex / consultative sales roles
Prior accomplishments to be competitive in Sales:
- For entry-level, something that shows your persistence — it could be academic success, extracurricular projects where you have to convince a lot of people to do something, or athletics where you need to be disciplined and persistent over time
- For more competitive roles, experience selling something or managing a process where you generate revenue or in-kind support, creating a proposal and getting multiple stakeholders to buy into it (it could be fundraising, sponsorships for an event)
Personal characteristics for success in Sales:
- Results-orientation — often people look for “competitiveness,” which is one type of results orientation, but the key is to be someone who wants to produce objective results and values a role where performance is transparent and unambiguous
- Resilience — this is probably the most important characteristic, as you’re going to spend most of your day in demos being told “no,” and will need to keep running through the process to get to “yes”
How to prepare for and get a job in Sales?
Projects to learn and prove yourself:
- Help improve sales for a local small business
- Actually join sales for a local small business
- Manage fundraising for a nonprofit or political campaign
- Find sales reps you can shadow
- Find alums who are founders or in sales leadership roles, and ask if you could read their sales manuals
- Create a product or business that you have to sell, and generate revenue
- Convince an organization (it could be your school, a company, or another organization) to implement a project or program, where you have to get signoff from at least 3 different people