Finding your dream job -- or gaining the experience you need to start your own dream company -- often means changing industries and gaining experience. However, breaking into an industry is difficult if you don't already have experience and contacts.
One way to "get your foot in the door" in a new industry and accumulate both contacts and experience is to land a sales job. Think of it as internship where you can get paid good money from the get-go.
Many companies are flexible when it comes to hiring salespeople. Rather than expertise or fancy degrees, they're looking for candidates who have the potential to do "consultative selling."
Consultative selling isn't that traditional sales-pitch and sign-on-the-dotted-line stuff. Nobody wants that any more. Consultative selling means researching a potential customer, understanding their needs and presenting a compelling solution.
Thus, unlike other jobs (where the interview process bears little relationship to the eventual job) interviewing for a sales job is more like an audition: the hiring firm will know if you can do the job depending on how well you interview.
This column explains the basics of landing a sales job at a top company. I've condensed/expanded it from an article that was published a few years ago on a site that has, alas, since disappeared from the Web. Enjoy!
1. Research the hiring firm
Examine the website of the company you want to join. Notice how they communicate about themselves, how they view their market, and whom they see as their primary customers.
Now use Wikipedia and other online resources to learn the basics and the background of the industry and market. Try to get a sense of how this company fits into the picture.
Then use LinkedIn and online news stories to learn about key individuals in the hiring firm, especially those working in sales and marketing. Those are the people you'll want to contact in order to land an interview.
2. Write a flawless query letter.
So, you see, you're auditioning from the very start. Review my previous columns on the subject. A great query letter will be short and to the point. It will explain in one or two sentences why the sales or marketing manager should interview you.
I've been selling my ideas to people for years. I also love the sports industry. I think I have what it takes to sell for your company.
Is that a possibility?
Note that the message doesn't go on and on about you. Also, the call to action is the lowest possible barrier to starting an online conversation. (i.e. the five taps).
Once you're in an online conversation, ask for a brief telephone interview. Again, you're going for the lowest possible barrier to continuing the conversation.
Hint: when you ask for the telephone interview, just ask if the manager is willing to have one. Wait until you get the commitment before trying to pin down the time and date. If the manager is savvy, he or she will "get" that you understand how to set up meetings.
3. Prepare for your interview
The moment you land the first telephone interview, return to your research and prepare to articulate intelligent answers to the questions that you will almost undoubtedly get asked::
- What do you know about this company?
- Why are you interested in working here?
- What is your view of our market?
- What is your opinion of our products?
- How do you view our chief competitors?
You might also want to review the "standard interview questions" and the stupid trick questions like "why is a manhole cover round." Frankly, though, I'd question whether you want to work for a bozo who asks those questions. Just sayin'.
4. Create a personal story
The interviewer will want to understand how you'll fit into the organization. Communicating this effectively requires more than the information covered in your resume. You need a "narrative" -- story about yourself where the natural conclusion is being hired by the interviewer's firm.
This is important because the interviewer will rightly see your ability to tell a coherent, compelling story about yourself as evidence that you can do the same for them.
Your personal story should begin with some event in your life that inspired interest in the firm's business and market. It should then go through your life and job experience, showing how you've been preparing for a sales career in the hiring firm.
For example, if you're interviewing for a job in the chemical wholesale business, you might want to start your story with the chemistry set that you had as a kid. Explain how you've always been fascinated by how the chemical industry is at the foundation of every other industry.
Arranging your experience into a narrative also allows you to explain problematic gaps in your employment history. For example, suppose you were unemployed for six months soon after accepting a new job. Without a narrative, this seems a bit flaky.
With a narrative, you can explain that you were so eager to start the new job that you didn't do enough research and, when it didn't work out, you decided to take as much time as necessary to find the exact right position.
5. Conduct yourself like a professional
As the old saying goes, you don't have a second chance to make a first impression. Get lots of rest the night before an interview, wear your best clothes, leave plenty of time for traffic, and arrive at least ten minutes early.
Just before the interview starts, take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand, which is not "getting the job," but determining whether your capabilities and interests match the position you are exploring.
The flip side to how you conduct yourself is observing how you are treated. The sophistication and professionalism of a company's hiring process speaks volumes about how they operate as a company.
If the interviewer or the interview is sloppy and unprofessional, or if you're treated with less respect than you know you deserve, you might want to reconsider whether you want to work there! Just sayin'.
6. Ask thoughtful questions
In addition to answering questions, you'll be expected to ask questions that illustrate your sales and business acumen. These questions play a dual role; they show your ability to probe in a sales situation, while their answers will help you better assess whether this is a good fit...for you. Some typical questions are:
- What makes people successful here?
- What was it about my resume (phone call, email, etc.) that intrigued you?
- Where do you see the firm heading in the future?
Don't ask any questions that could be answered with a little research on the Web. Instead, ask questions, and start conversations, that build on the research that you did earlier.
It's also a mistake to ask about salaries and commission too early in the conversation; such questions make it seem as if you're only interested in the money and not as much in the job or the company. Similarly, avoid questions about vacations, health plans, or retirement, until after you're certain that you'll be getting an offer.
7. Sell yourself as a solution.
Once you've gained a more nuanced picture of the hiring firm and feel comfortable that it's a good fit for you, it's time to "sell yourself." Provide relevant examples of what you've done in the past and tie them into the requirements of the specific sales role, as you now understand it.
As the interview comes to its conclusion, it is perfectly appropriate to ask questions about the process in order to move the opportunity forward:
- May I ask where you are in the interview process?
- What are the next steps?
- Can we schedule the next interview?
These questions are like "closing" on a sales opportunity. Warning: if you don't attempt to close the interview will assume that you won't be able to close a deal if you get hired.
8. Execute a flawless follow-through.
Following the interview, send an individualized, well-written email to each person you met at the company. This tells the hiring team that you're interested and lets them know that you'll treat customer opportunities with the same dedication.