Know What the Red Flags Are (and How to Avoid Them)
Preparing for your first sales job is similar to preparing for a big sale. You must do your research, build the right toolbox, and have experienced leaders on deck to help.
As director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program and a professor at Tufts University, this is the first piece of advice I give my students. I offer to help each of them find their post-graduate jobs, but they must hold up their end of the partnership. They have to show up and do the work.
I recently had a student visit my office for help landing his first job. First, he brought me the LinkedIn profile of a connection I had at his target company. Then, he shared the front page of the company’s website. Lastly, he presented his value proposition (more on that below). This young man had done the work, and I was happy to send a message on his behalf.
So, how do you get started? I’ve placed students in jobs at LinkedIn, Google, HubSpot, Fidelity, and Amazon, and I’m sharing with you what I’ve shared with them. You’ll find my tips and advice below, but it’s up to you to show up and do the work.
How to Start a Sales Career
Have the right tools
1. Business Cards
When I advise students to order business cards, I often get questions like, “Isn’t that presumptuous?” or “Why do I need them?” Think of it this way, if I take you to a business meeting and the host gives you their card, how will you respond?
Without business cards, you’d be in the uncomfortable position of scribbling your contact information on a two-week-old pizza receipt. It’s an unprofessional and unreliable first impression.
Have business cards printed with your name, website, and contact information included. And, while we're on the subject, made sure all of this information is on your email signature. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to learn about you.
2. A Very Good LinkedIn Profile
I've had several hiring managers tell me the only reason they look at a resume is to get the correct spelling of the person's name to find their LinkedIn profile.
When searching for your first (or any) job, it’s important your LinkedIn account be in top shape. You should have at least 250 connections to give you authenticity as a candidate and play to LinkedIn’s algorithm.
After all, while you’re busy finding the right role, it never hurts for LinkedIn to pull your profile into employer searches. Optimizing your account ensures your name shows up when it counts.
You should also source three solid references. Don’t confuse references with skill endorsements on LinkedIn. Ask previous employers, professors, or mentors to write three-to-five sentences about your performance, work ethic, and strengths. This will impress future employers and do more to demonstrate your value than a static “endorsement,” which anyone can submit.
3. Your Professional Value Proposition
In my experience, a good resume is read in less than 60 seconds. Make sure your application stands out by building an airtight, attention-grabbing value proposition.
Each week, in my class, three students present their value propositions. They’re around three bullet points, each approximately two sentences long. And they highlight why the student is passionate about their career path, what sets them apart, and the value they'll bring to the right company.
After each student’s presentation, they conduct self-critique, and the rest of the class offers constructive feedback enabling all of us to improve our own unique value propositions.
I’ve interviewed 10,000 salespeople throughout my career, and I can easily say the value prop is any job candidate’s most important asset. Spend time on it, and you’ll benefit from your efforts for years to come.
Master the “marketing of me”
I often take students through a market targeting exercise. The takeaway of this particular assignment is if you’re selling red pens, you need to market to the persona who wants to buy red pens. I encourage my students to identify the “persona” of the business they’d like to work for, so they know how to market themselves.
We start by answering a series of questions:
Where do you want to work? Start with the geography of where you’d like to live and work.
What market vertical are you interested in? Identify whether you’d like to work in consumer products, the automotive industry, or medical sales. Often students will give me an answer like “healthcare.” This isn’t specific enough. Within healthcare, what industry have you identified? Are you interested in biotech, hospitals, or IT? These are important questions to answer.
Explain the job you’d like to have. Are you looking for entry level sales jobs? Are you interested in getting broad marketing experience? Verbalize what your ideal role entails.
What size of company are you considering? Get specific here. Don’t just say, “middle market.” Decide what the approximate headcount of your target organization is. Are they SMB or enterprise?
What are the best skills you can market? When I say “skills,” I’m talking about skills you’ve been trained in, such as deal closing, discover, or relationship management.
Are their specific companies you’re interested in? Explain why you’re interested in these companies. Don't have a specific company nailed down? Simply say, "I'm interested in companies such as Pfizer, Merck & Co., and Johnson & Johnson."
What’s your value proposition? Pull from the section above for help here.
Once you’ve answered these seven questions, you should have a better idea of the job you want. You also have the foundation for a great cover letter.
Now’s also the time to reach out to your connectors. These are people like me who are connected, experienced, and willing to help. Present your “marketing of me” exercise and value proposition to them, and ask for assistance in reaching out to potential employers. If you’ve done the work, they’re likely to say “yes” to your requests.
Know what the red flags are (and avoid them)
Before I agree to help a student, I look for a few things. The first is red flags. If I’m dealing with a person who’s always expecting something from me, I immediately take a step back. I don’t like working with anyone who believes they’re entitled to help or a position -- and my connections don’t either.
I also pay attention to how well the person listens. If I’m working with someone who’s ready to pounce on every word I say, or interrupt and disregard what I’m bringing to the conversation, I already know they’re not ready to successfully tackle a role in sales.
What I look for in candidates are attributes. Many people confuse attributes with skills. Skills can be learned, while attributes are usually natural abilities that are harder to pick up. Here are a few attributes I look for in successful job candidates:
Curiosity - This is baked into you. It’s not a skill. You must be curious about your customer, your role, and your company’s success to be a great employee.
Work ethic - When I hire people, I want to know they’re going to work as hard as I do.
Commitment - I want to see you’ve devoted time and attention to something. It might be a job you worked all four years of college, a summer internship, or a hobby you’ve practiced consistently for years. Whatever it is, I want to know you have what it takes to see work through.
Drive - Are you hungry for the job and for the work it will take to get there?
Passion - If someone says they’re “excited” about a job, I want to correct them. Excitement is something you feel about graduation or a big trip. I want to know you’re passionate about the job you’re applying for. Passionate folks do great work.
Not everyone is enrolled in a class like the one I teach. You might even be several years or decades into your career. And that’s alright. Reach out to a mentor, an old professor, or even a successful aunt, and ask for their help.
Everyone’s been in your position, which makes most of us willing to help. Ask for guidance, and then be willing to put in the work necessary to succeed.
Originally published Mar 23, 2018 7:30:00 AM, updated March 23 2018