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The Ultimate Guide to a Career in Sales

If you hear “ABC” and “Always be closing” pops into your mind, a sales career may be the perfect match for you.

But if you’re thinking “Huh? What does that mean?” don’t worry. You’ve come to the right place to learn what it’s like to have a career in sales, and it’s about much more than the close.

Sales seems like a fast-paced, hardball kind of career. That can be true. There’s the hustle to find leads, the hundreds of calls, and the high of delivering a flawless pitch. But it’s also about relationships, follow-through, communication, analytics, and patience. So how do the two connect? What’s a typical sales career path? How do you get started in sales? Is the sales job market strong enough to support a career?

This guide will answer all of those questions and more. By the end, you’ll know what skills can help you break into sales, what jobs are available, and whether or not sales is a good career for you. As the saying goes, “Time kills all deals.” So let’s get started!

The Sales Career Path

Sales spans every business and every industry. Small businesses need salespeople, as do massive enterprise companies. There are a variety of roles and responsibilities that fall within sales, but the core of all sales careers are the same.

Choosing a career path in sales depends on your experience, company, and industry. Here’s a look at a common path you can take, from beginner rep to established executive.

Sales Beginner and Mid-Level Careers

Sales Development Rep (SDR)

Sales development reps (also known as business development reps, or BDRs) are responsible for the first step in the sales funnel: bringing in qualified leads. They conduct research to find prospective customers, reach out to gauge people’s interest in the offering, and decide whether or not the lead is ready to move down the funnel.

Due to the role’s responsibilities, the best SDRs have strong interpersonal communication and organizational skills, understand the ins and outs of the products or services, and make a lasting impression.

Once the SDR has determined the prospect is ready to be contacted by the sales team, they send the person over to a closing rep. This process means SDRs typically aren’t held to traditional quotas but to the number of calls they make or qualified leads they gather. Depending on the company, the compensation for an SDR can be a base salary, commission-based, or a combination of base plus commission.

According to Glassdoor, the average base salary for an SDR is $46,936 and PayScale reports the average commission ranges from $4,000 to $26,000.

Sales Development Rep Career Path

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An SDR role is right for you if you’re looking to start your sales career and don’t have much experience. You’ll gain skills researching and calling prospects, sending emails, understanding the offerings, and organizing leads. Once you’re crushing the numbers, you’ll be ready for that promotion.

Inside Sales Rep

In an increasingly digital world, inside salespeople are the go-to for prospecting, nurturing, and converting leads remotely. They rely on email, phone calls, videos, and virtual meetings—instead of face-to-face interaction—to build relationships and move people through the sales funnel.

Inside sales reps need a number of skills to land clients from afar. These include good verbal and written communication skills, the ability to cold-call prospects, and a deep understanding of the products or services offered. It’s important for this role to educate prospects and follow up once a sale is closed to maintain customer satisfaction and encourage repeat buyers. As a result, inside sales reps typically have a hybrid compensation package that includes a base salary and commission.

Per Glassdoor, the average base salary for an inside sales rep is $42,932, and the average commission ranges from $2,000 to $27,000 per PayScale.

Inside Sales Rep career path

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Similar to SDRs, inside sales reps roles are a great launch point for a sales career. The path to a promotion is clear, and you’ll gain the skills you need to level up to a managerial position. Most people in the role have under four years of experience, but depending on the company, can also include people with five to 20 years of experience.

Outside Sales Rep

If you imagine jet-setting to new locations to pitch prospective clients, an outside sales rep role could be the career for you. People in this position typically spend their time traveling from place to place to give demos, attend conferences, and meet with buyers.

For the same reasons that inside sales reps roles are growing, outside sales reps now often rely on technology to land customers. Nearly half of their time is spent selling remotely (i.e. using Zoom, Skype, email, and CRM). That may be because 63% of sales leaders find virtual meetings just as or more effective than meeting in person. Since travel can be part of this role, you can expect a larger compensation package. Just consider the time and energy it takes to be on the move—a taxing situation if you’re not ready to constantly pack your bags.

According to Glassdoor, the average base salary for outside sales reps is, $56,150 and according to PayScale average commission ranges from $4,000 to $46,000.

Outside Sales Rep Career Path

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When considering an outside sales rep role, make sure to research the industry and company before jumping into this sales career. It’s good to check how much travel is involved, what technology you’ll have access to, and what performance metrics you’ll be evaluated against.

Keep in mind that the majority of people in this position have several years of experience since they often have to work independently and excel at time management. If autonomy is your thing, this role may be right for you.

Account Manager

Building and maintaining customer relationships is essential to growing a business. This is where account managers come in. People in this role work with customers after the first purchase and act as the point person on behalf of their company for customers. They’re responsible for maintaining relationships, understanding customers’ needs, acting as advocates for clients, and staying up-to-date on industry trends to create long-term sales strategies.

Account managers are evaluated on customer retention and satisfaction metrics. Their main goal is to help customers increase the ROI on a purchase, so they’ll often connect with a salesperson if an opportunity to cross-sell or upsell arises. Some companies offer account managers a base salary, while others include commission sharing for the clients you help nudge to a sale.

In 2021, the average base salary for an account manager. Average base salary is $58,090, and the average commission ranges from $2,000 to $37,000.

Account Manager career path

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If you’re considering a sales career, an account manager role is ideal if you enjoy building lasting relationships. You’ll have to gain customer’s trust, understand their industry, and help them achieve their goals. As the internal go-to, you’ll have direct access to customers and work to maintain those relationships over time.

Sales Manager Careers

Account Executive (AE)

Once you have some experience in sales, an account executive position is a natural next step. This role is focused on figuring out prospective customers’ needs and entails giving demos, running presentations, educating leads on a product or service, addressing a buyer’s questions, figuring out exactly what people need to convert, and finalizing the sale.

If the idea of collaborating with clients to land a huge sale thrills you, an AE role may be perfect. Your performance will largely be measured on the number of sales you help close, so you have to be prepared for rejection. You may put in the work, only for a lead to change their mind or delay a purchase. The rejection and rewards can be big.

The average base salary for an account executive in 2021 is $57,000, and commission can range from $4,000 to $51,000.

Account Executive Career Path

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Resilience and the ability to foster relationships are crucial to succeed as an account executive. You will need experience in an entry or a mid-level sales role before making the jump to this position. You may also need to collaborate with the marketing team to manage personalized materials or advertising for leads, so a background in cross-functional collaboration is helpful for landing a job.

Regional Sales Manager

Regional sales managers oversee the sales reps in their district, including SDRs, inside and outside sales reps, and account managers. They’re responsible for developing strategies to meet company sales goals.

People in this role need to be great at monitoring and motivating salespeople, so they must have the skills to lead a team and dig into the details and analyze sales data. Creating reports, introducing new products, developing creative ideas to attract leads, and coaching new salespeople are all part of the job. This also means being responsible for hiring and firing employees, and running performance reviews. As such, the compensation for this role is higher than an AE position.

According to Glassdoor, the average base salary for regional sales managers is $75,600. For commission, PayScale reports an average range of $5,000 to $50,000.

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A regional sales manager job may be right for you if you’ve been in a sales position for more than three years. You should have some managerial experience and understand what it takes to bring in new customers. If you’re lacking some skills required for this role, ask your manager what you can do to expand your skillset. Get feedback on any projects or volunteer opportunities, and use it to grow into the leader you want to become.

Sales Operations Manager

If running an internal team is more attractive to you than managing customers, a sales operations manager may be your speed. This position requires software, data analysis, and leadership skills in order to train and support a sales team. The aim is to make sure the sales team is running smoothly by minimizing friction in the sales process.

You need experience using technology to simplify and automate sales operations, as well as the skills to organize and analyze data, distribute it to the sales team, identify areas for improvement, and help train the team on new processes. On a basic level, you help others achieve their goals.

The average base salary of a sales operations manager is $68,877, and commission ranges from $2,000 to $39,000.

Sales Operations Manager

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Part of a sales operations manager role is working with senior leadership to solve issues or roadblocks within a sales department. You may have to meet with customers and senior executives to get to the root of a problem. So if you love solving for specialized needs and optimizing processes, you’ll likely excel in this role.

Sales Engineer

Sales engineers have a unique combination of technical engineer skills and business acumen. They’re responsible for increasing sales and profit by understanding what customers need and working with the product, engineering, and sales teams to develop a solution.

This role is also known as “systems engineer,” “pre-sales support,” or “field consultants.” People on this career path typically have an engineering background and gain experience by working with customers to understand and address their needs. They enjoy mixing their complex technical knowledge with superior people skills. Since this combination can be rare, sales engineers enjoy a higher median compensation than other sales manager positions.

The average base salary of a sales engineer is $87,598 and the average commission can range from $5,000 to $43,000 per year.

Sales Engineer Career Path

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Most companies look to hire a sales engineer with five or more years of experience in a sales-related role. In order to take this step in your sales career, you should be able to drive the company’s product and sales direction. You must communicate with customers to understand their technical needs, collaborate with the engineering and product team on solutions that will maximize sales, and provide guidance on technical questions or proposals from the sales team.

Sales Executive Careers

Director of Sales

Sales Directors maintain the quality of a sales team by working with managers to set quota goals, develop strategies, and hire exceptional reps. People in this position are responsible for creating a vision for salespeople to follow and communicating company directives to the team.

To become a director of sales, you need to show a history of strong sales performance. Your region and reps should show a pattern of growth, and your leadership skills should inspire your team to grow beyond their responsibilities. Experience in marketing and customer satisfaction is key to this role since you can be asked to come up with new marketing tactics to attract customers. As a manager, you’ll also likely be responsible for hiring and firing employees, leading training sessions, working with poor performers, and representing management.

The average base salary for sales director roles is around $123,306, and the average commission is between $8,000 and $73,000 per year.

Director of Sales Career Path

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You’re ready for this role if you’re a sales manager who forecasts like no other, notices gaps in the sales process and knows what it takes to fix them, and delivers solutions customers love.

VP of Sales

An expert in sales and leadership can rise to the VP of sales position. This executive role typically works on a large national or regional scale to supervise sales managers and ensure company sales strategies are properly rolled out.

To reach this point in your sales career, you need the skills to help your team and company scale. This includes creating revenue reports on a monthly, quarterly, and annual basis, staying on top of trends to notice changes in the market, developing strategies to increase sales efficiency, and communicating with the company’s executive and board.

The increase in responsibilities comes with an increase in compensation, as you’re evaluated on the performance of your team and earn a commission when your team meets or exceeds goals. The average base salary of a VP of sales in 2021 is $163,520 and the average commission ranges from $10,000 to $103,000.

Vice President of Sales Career Path

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According to Glassdoor, 44% of people in a VP of sales position have five to seven years of experience, 29% have more than eight years, and 27% have two to four years. If you’re aiming for this role, learn what’s required of a VP, shadow a sales executive, and develop your strategy and people management skills.

Chief Sales Officer

The Chief Sales Officer is a scarce and competitive role usually found at large companies. It’s the pinnacle of a career in sales and demands highly-honed skills in strategic sales, leadership, business development, and revenue growth tactics.

This role often reports to the CEO and advises on how to drive growth for the company as a whole. People in this position work alongside the executive team to develop complex strategies that will yield better revenue and results. This includes leading sales forecasting, setting sales targets, overseeing execution, reporting results to stakeholders, and working cross-functionally to ensure collaboration and efficiency across teams.

The average base salary for a chief sales officer role is $182,876 and commission can range from $15,000 to $176,000 per year.

Chief Sales Officer Career Path

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Becoming a Chief Sales Officer requires experience at the manager, director, and VP levels. PayScale reports that 80% of Chief Sales Officers fall under the “late-career” and “experienced” levels.

Is a Sales Career Right for Me?

You’re interested in the sales career path but are unsure if it’s the right choice for you. Do the following characteristics sum up your personality and ideal responsibilities?

  • You’re self-motivated and enjoy having a goal to reach.
  • You’re interested in learning about people and helping solve their problems.
  • Money is a motivator that makes you want to work harder and smarter.
  • You enjoy managing your own schedule and working independently.
  • You’re an excellent communicator and enjoy talking to people.
  • You want to constantly grow and evolve your skills.
  • You like working with others to build lasting personal relationships.
  • You have a competitive streak that makes you strive for success.
  • You prefer to interact with people in your day-to-day work.

If this list gets you excited to job hunt, then sales may be the right fit for you. Now you just need to decide where to begin. Your education and work experience can determine which role you land, so see where you fit before starting to apply for jobs.

Best Degree for a Sales Career

Education isn’t always a factor to build a fulfilling career in sales. Sometimes, a high diploma is all you need to get your first job offer. But if you’re looking to climb the ladder and keep your options open for management positions, a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement. One in four salespeople majored in business, yet 17% never attended college.

Once you get to senior leadership roles, a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) program can give you a leg up on other candidates by teaching you the skills to run and manage a business.

The following degree programs are the best choices for a successful sales career.

  • Finance
  • Economics
  • Marketing
  • Business
  • Management
  • Psychology
  • Communications
  • Public Relations
  • Life Sciences (for pharmaceutical sales)
  • Engineering (for sales engineers)

To show what employers look for in each role, PayScale shows the most common degree requirements along the sales career path.

  • SDR: A high school diploma is the minimum requirement, and some employers may require a bachelor’s degree.
  • Inside Sales Rep: The education requirement varies for this position but typically is a minimum high school diploma or equivalent certificate. Time management and people skills are essential for this role.
  • Outside Sales Rep: This role usually requires a high school diploma, previous sales experience, and excellent communication and social skills. A specialty sales certificate may also be accepted in place of formal education.
  • Account Manager: Employers are looking for people with a bachelor’s degree in business, finance, communications, marketing, or economics. Experience in customer service and computer skills will make your resume stand out.
  • Account Executive: A bachelor’s degree in marketing, business, or another relevant field is required for this role, as well as proficient computer skills and experience in sales and customer service.
  • Regional Sales Manager: A bachelor’s degree in marketing, finance, business, economics, or another relevant field is required. Employers may accept a proven track record as a sales manager in place of a degree and look for skills in product and sales software.
  • Sales Operations Manager: A bachelor’s degree is typically required, along with two years of experience in a relevant sales position and management experience.
  • Sales Engineer: Employers look for people with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and several years of experience in sales, engineering, customer service, or another relevant department.
  • Director of Sales: An MBA or bachelor’s degree in business, marketing, or finance are the best degrees for this role. Employers look for several years of management and sales experience and may choose candidates with marketing knowledge.
  • VP of Sales: An MBA and bachelor’s degree in business, marketing, finance, or another relevant field are the best degrees for this role. Companies will also look for candidates with eight to ten years of experience in marketing or sales.
  • Chief Sales Officer: An MBA and bachelor’s degree in business, marketing, economics, or finance are the best degrees for Chief Sales Officer positions. Senior leadership positions also often require a decade or more of experience leading sales teams and conducting data analysis.

Beyond formal degrees, you can benefit from joining professional sales associations and organizations like the National Association of Sales Professionals or the National Sales Network. Those who plan to take on a senior leadership role sometimes go back to school to get an MBA or a graduate degree in a relevant field like marketing, management, or finance. If you’re unsure if this is the path for you, check out this quiz by The Princeton Review to see if an MBA program is the right fit.

How to Start a Career in Sales

Due to the rapidly growing e-commerce industry, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects sales occupations to drop 2% from 2019-2029. Yet in 2021, Monster has seen month-over-month growth in sales job postings.

The good news is that every business needs sales, especially in the services and wholesale industries where maintaining customer relationships is fundamental to developing a strong customer base. Sales roles also exist in nearly every industry at small, medium, and large businesses.

Here’s what you need to land the job you want and kickstart your sales career.

1. Figure out what type of career you want.

With so many companies offering entry-level sales jobs, take the time to pick the industry that interests you. Research the products or services you’d be selling, consider the company culture, and see the career paths salespeople within the company take. You should be excited about both the short-term responsibilities and long-term career potential.

2. Build and utilize your network.

The saying “Your network is your net worth” rings true in sales. The more people you know, the more opportunities come your way. See if anyone in your network is on their own sales career journey and reach out to ask about their experience. Join a professional sales organization and attend networking or webinar events to meet people. Keep an open mind and be intentional with conversations—you never know which connection can lead to an introduction or job offer.

3. Know what roles to look for.

Whether you’re starting your sales career or looking to level up in seniority, you want to apply for positions that offer training programs or mentorship. Sales can be tough. A mentor or access to resources can make all the difference when you’re down after losing a sale or looking to build the skills you need for that promotion. Make sure to take your weaknesses, strengths, and needs into account when looking for roles. You want a company that can help you grow into a sales leader.

4. Do your research to learn about the industry.

You have to understand a product or service to sell it. So going into a sales job interview without information on the industry won’t get you anywhere. Show that you know how to educate yourself and customers about an offering, understand what type of customers want to buy the product, and are able to build trust with people.

5. Be ready to adapt.

Products change, companies reorganize, leaders leave. You have to stay adaptable through the ups and downs as a salesperson. If the product you’re supposed to sell isn’t ready to go to market by the deadline, you’ll be the one explaining the delay to potential customers. Resiliency and quick thinking can get you far in sales, so highlight your ability to adjust to change.

Making a Career Change to Sales

Considering a career change to sales from another field? Lucky for you, entry-level sales roles don’t often require specific degrees or experience. The skills you gain from a job in finance, marketing, management, public relations, or customer service can be enough to convince employers you’re right for the role.

To make the switch, you need to research the roles you’re after to find what the hiring managers want. They look for candidates who are great at communication, relationship building, problem-solving, working independently, organization, and self-motivation.

Make sure to consider the type of compensation as well. If you’re coming from a role with a steady paycheck, a pure commission-based salary may seem too stressful and risky. You can ease into sales with a hybrid base pay plus commission salary to prove you have what it takes while giving yourself some wiggle room.

A core set of skills and the ability to sell yourself can get your sales career started. But what about the people who advise to stay away from sales? Are the stress of quotas and working your way up from the bottom worthwhile? Let’s break down the pros and cons so you can decide for yourself.

Why Sales is a Great Career

Like most careers, sales has both positives and negatives. But the negatives can be tough to handle: performance-based payment, continual rejection, repetition chasing leads, and poor reputations.

So why is sales a good career?

1. Sales drives company growth by bringing in customers.

Despite its bad rap, sales is essential to converting customers and growing a business. Seventy-five percent of online buyers want to receive two to four calls before salespeople give up, and 12% want a company to try as much as it takes to get ahold of them. You can be the one to create a positive sales experience for customers by listening, providing relevant information, and not pushing for a close.

2. Your income is based on effort.

The more work you put in, the greater your reward. And there are very few careers that leave room for massive income potential like sales. You do have to hit quotes or revenue goals, but you also get rewarded for meeting those goals. (Think bonuses, commission, trips, swag, prizes, and more). While you may not be bringing in the Benjamin’s early on in your sales career, the earning potential increases alongside your experience. PayScale found that commissions for sales careers vary between $2,000 to nearly $180,000, and Monster shares certain sales commissions can reach in the millions.

3. You gain in-demand skills.

Salespeople learn soft skills like persuasion, communication, creativity, collaboration, flexibility, time management, and customer service. These abilities are invaluable to any career, including sales. Research by SHRM found that 89% of new employees fail because of a lack of soft skills. So even if you decide to transition out of sales, you’ll have the skills you need to succeed elsewhere.

4. Sales is good for working remotely.

More than half of the US workforce works remotely part of the time, and managers expect nearly 27% of employees to be fully remote in 2021. Sales is no exception. Indeed listed sales consultant as one of the 15 great remote jobs that pay well. With a global decrease in travel and sales technology usage increasing by 567%, all trends point toward salespeople sealing deals from the comfort of a home office.

Sales Career Resources

You now know the ins and outs of a career in sales. Ready to apply for your first role? As you start your path and land that sales job, take time to learn how to close your first sale, become an effective sales manager, and explore your options for digital sales roles. Just remember to continue learning, growing, and expanding your skillset, and you’ll be on the path to a successful sales career.