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Have I got a career for you: if you're independent, flexible and thrive on challenge, try sales.

In good times or bad, companies always need salespeople. Just take a glance at the want ads in next Sunday's newspaper. Future projections look even better. By the year 2005, the U.S. Department of Labor expects employment in sales occupations to increase by 24%-4% higher than employment in any other profession.

"We've had a tremendous call for sales personnel, particularly in computer, pharmaceutical and medical sales," says Terri Smith-Croxton, CEO and president of JD & Associates Inc., a Dallas-based executive search firm. "When the economy is down, that's when most people beef up their sales force."

Other job recruiters who place salespeople tell the same story. "I'm high on the health care industry," says Kenneth P. Kelley, president of Strategy 2000, a Warsaw, Ind.-based consulting firm with a specialty in diversity.

Verba L. Edwards, president of Wing Tips & Pumps Inc., a Troy, Mich., search firm, agrees. In the last two years alone, he has experienced close to a 30% increase in requests for sellers of medical equipment. "The number one sales area for us would be medical or pharmaceutical sales, followed by computer-related and technical sales," he explains.

And in Cleveland, Eral Burks, president of Minority Executive Search Inc., placed up to 200 sales reps in jobs in 1992; again, many of them in pharmaceutical sales. According to Burks, pharmaceuticals is a stable environment and a good area to go into; however, "there are very few African-Americans in the business"

Douglas Braddock, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), cites the Industry Occupation Matrix, an employment database that projects growth patterns into the next century. By 2005, that matrix projects a 111% increase in the number of salespeople employed in data processing services and a 45.2% increase in those working in pharmaceuticals.

The BLS doesn't track industry-specific minority representation in sales, but African-Americans currently make up only 6.6% of all people engaged in sales, according to Tom Nardone, another BLS economist. While corporate downsizing has put a damper on employment in almost every industry in recent years, the odds for African-Americans of getting and keeping a job in sales over the next decade are good. This turn is due to changes in work-force demograhics--changes driven partly by the push for corporate diversity policy and partly by marketing strategies of companies that use field sales representatives.

Besides pharmaceuticals, other industries have potential for sales employment too. Both Braddock and Michael Pilot, head of the Labor Department's division that produces the Occupational Outlook Handbook, say that sales connected with recycling and infrastructure (included by the BLS in the category of heavy construction) are up.

That's confirmed by James Gibbons, president of the Manufacturers' Agents National Association (MANA) in Laguna Hills, Calif. "Over the next 15 years there will be a lot of fertile ground to be explored in the treatment of water," he explains "Some bright entrepreneur is going to find a way of desalinating the Pacific Ocean. Businesses that reduce air pollution and handle waste disposal require a lot of ingenuity and a lot of salesmanship to make them swing."

Not all areas of sales are booming, however, and not all areas offer the same opportunities, especially for African-Americans. Kelley points out that in some consumer-goods companies, sales opportunities for minorities are limited because the companies "are extremely image-conscious. Right off the bat this is going to have an impact on less European-packaged African-Americans. It's an extremely dynamic field, but if you don't have the look, then it's more difficult to get into."

Other industries are known for being largely closed to anyone who hasn't paid professional dues. Broadcasting is a good example. Robert Cambridge, vice president of target marketing for Tribune Entertainment Co., a Los Angeles division of Tribune Broadcasting Co., supervises a sales force that places Tribune's minority programming with local TV stations and sells the broadcast advertising time supporting the program slots. "These are high five- and six-figure salary jobs, but if s a tough business," he emphasizes. "You have a limited number of time periods and limited lucrative time periods. And if you're selling ethnic programming, that limits you even more. This business also requires a college degree and internships. Then, moving up is a matter of networking."

Travel agents are among the lowest paid of all salespeople. David Love, of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) in Alexandria, Va., says a recent ASTA survey found the average travel agent earns a modest $15,000 to $17,000 a year. But such perks as free or deep-discount travel continue to attract people to the trade. Nearly 73,000 new employees will come into the industry over the next 15 years, according to government figures.

The demand for computer-related sales reps may seem surprising in the wake of massive layoffs announced by IBM Corp. and Digital Equipment Corp. last year. "IBM may be downsizing," Edwards says, "but that does not mean corporations don't use computers." In a sales context, computer industry downsizing really means that the market has shifted away from hardware (where net employment will increase by less than 1 % from now through 2005) and toward software and user support (where sales employment is expected to more than double in the next 10 years).

The Sales Career Path

Whatever the industry, professional sales is a high-pressure career, especially the competition at the entry level. Billy R. Allen, head of Minority Search Inc., a Dallas recruiting firm, puts it this way: "Many businesses in America have been driven by the good old boy network. They did not have to openly compete for business; instead they based their sales on relationships. But now, as we move into a more global and diverse economy, market expectations have revolutionized the way business is done in the country." According to Allen, as prices become more competitive, deals are being made more on quality and cost, than old business relationships.

Despite--or rather because of--challenges like these, professional sales is a well-compensated career, and it offers day-to-day independence and flexibility available almost nowhere else in the corporate environment. Most sales reps at this level do put in more than 40 hours a week, but they very often make their own hours, work from a home office and drive company cars. It's not unusual for trained and motivated business-to-business sales reps, with the right image and solid credentials, to make more than $100,000 a year in salary and bonuses.

The popular image of salespeople as unkempt cigar-chomping hustlers doesn't reflect the reality of a sales arena where capital equipment production materials, business services and consumer products move through the market. Today's sales professional is likely to be a dressed-for-success corporate player with at least one college degree; many have MBAs as well. "I look for an individual who is degreed," says Edwards. "We have found that academic performance is an indicator of how you do in corporate America. A lot of corporations are recruiting people with nothing less than a 3.0 GPA [grade-point average]."

Virtually all successful sales professionals have gone through specialized training in sales techniques and product knowledge, not once but several times in their careers. Darryl Forest of Westlake, Ohio, is a case in point. He's represented SmithKline Beecham Corp. in and around Cleveland for just over a year. Forest didn't have a background in pharmacology when he joined SmithKline Beecham. He had earned a degree in industrial management and engineering from Purdue University in 1984. After three years as an industrial engineer with General Motors' Electro Motive Division (EMD), he moved into technical sales at Mobil Oil's U.S. marketing and refining division in Cleveland. There, after a five-month training course, he spent three months telemarketing industrial lubricants and three years at Mobil as a sales engineer. He moved again in December 1991--this time to pharmaceutical sales because, as he says, "I felt the medical industry was more stable. It's not affected by the bad economy. And I chose SmithKline Beecham because they have the best training program in the industry."

Forest says that drug manufacturers generally hire people who have two or three years of sales experience behind them: "If pharmaceutical sales is something you want to get into, then pay your dues someplace else and get sales experience. Don't be so concerned with the medical aspects, because in most cases the companies will train you." A college graduate in science with no sales background and an experienced sales rep with minimal science education will generally start with the same compensation package--$29,000 to $35,000, plus bonus--in major pharmaceutical companies. Forest started near the top of the range with SmithKline Beecham because of his field experience. An experienced rep can expect to work up to a total compensation of between $50,000 and $60,000 within four years.

Forest believes that black sales reps do especially well in pharmaceuticals because of the way prescription drugs have traditionally been marketed--at doctors' offices. Salespeople in this business have maybe five minutes to explain why a busy physician--who knows more about pharmacology than the salespeople do--should prescribe a particular drug.

A successful deal depends upon making the right impression and the ability to say the right things very quickly. Forest says, "I only know of a couple of white reps who cover the territory I do. Any time you're in the inner city of a metropolitan area like Cleveland or Chicago, the physicians are going to be black, Filipino, Indian, Korean, Chinese; very few are white. Betting on a positive reception, some companies automatically send minorities into these neighborhoods."

Sales of state-of-the-art medical equipment have boomed in recent years, and so have the careers of medical sales reps. Medical sales is procedure-driven, meaning reps work with surgeons in operating rooms, talking physicians through their part of the surgical procedure when they're using an instrument for the first time. If the tool is beneficial to the procedure, the surgeon gets the hospital to purchase the equipment and the rep gets a commission of up to 15%--a significant amount on a sale of, say, a $10,000 surgical camera. A standard compensation package--base salary of $40,000 plus commission--comes in at about $100,000 a year for people with experience, according to David Blakely, a 10-year veteran of the trade. "There are people in medical sales who make a lot more than that," says Blakely, who has a B.S. in industrial design from the University of Illinois.

Like the majority of medical equipment reps now in the field, Blakely, 36, got his training from the industry leader, U.S. Surgical Corp. in Norwalk, Conn., which is famous for its rigorous technical training and aggressive sales practices. His field experience prepared him to become an area sales manager for Endomedix Corp., a year-old Irvine, Calif., manufacturer of medical devices. But Blakely cautions that this extremely lucrative market is also hotly competitive and not for everybody. if s not unusual to get 20% turnover in this business because management puts a lot of pressure to sell in high volume. Some people can't take it' he explains.

Selling is definitely not a career for the faint of heart. "The sales force is extremely visible," says Derek J. Battiest, who has sold mini-market convenience store franchises for ARCO Products Co. in Southern California since 1988. "Getting gas station owners to expand into the convenience store business is one of the toughest jobs in the company." Battiest, 29, has a B.A. in communications from the University of Southern California and spent two years implementing programs and promotions to grocery store managers for Pillsbury before moving to ARCO. "The major portion of ARCO's business comes from the petroleum industry," he says. "But an ARCO sales rep is also a retail franchise consultant. We wear several hats to increase ancillary sales and food promotions [within our convenience stores]. I'm responsible for anything that happens at the facility that affects the franchises at the state, county or federal level."

Battiest has faced a few special problems in his job. "You're dealing with different cultures--from the Middle East, Asia, from rural America, from the black community," he says; "It's a challenge when people are not used to working with a minority with heavy responsibility, because you're dealing with their money and net profits." But Battiest focuses on upside career potential. ARCO wouldn't disclose specific numbers, but compensation includes base salary, plus bonus programs and expenses. "Compared to the petroleum industry as a whole, ARCO pays above average." he says. "It also emphasizes long-term career growth more than other companies."

Marva A. Bennett has stayed in sales with the same company since she graduated from the University of Texas with an MBA in 1983. Now a senior marketing rep for IBM in the Dallas area, she has seen the high-tech market shift from the inside. "Hardware is a mature market, and my goal now is to make a transition within the marketplace. One option would be to sell software services in an emerging growth market."

Whether Bennett makes those sales at IBM or another computer company, she'll probably bring home a fat salary in 1993. "What we consider a low salary base in the computer industry may be competitive in other industries," says Grace Young, who spent nearly 12 years selling $500,000 to $20 million computer systems for Digital, one of IBM's major competitors. "Most entry-level college graduates start at $30,000 or $40,000. But a very seasoned sales pro would demand a $60,000 to $70,000 base. Bonuses could be $20,000 for sales above 100% of your sales goal. Once you hit that mark, your income goes up significantly beyond that."

Young got hooked on sales after taking a course on the subject taught by a salesman-turned-professor at Northeastern University in Boston. She received several offers from high-tech computer companies before accepting the one from Digital. A marketing major, she got the computer background she needed from Digital, which like IBM runs well-regarded sales training, advanced marketing education, management institutes and customer education conferences.

Young's response to changes in the high-tech marketplace was to change industries last year. She's still working in the Dales-Fort Worth area but new sells corporate diversity training and productivity consulting for Innovations Consulting International Inc., based in Salt Lake City. "Its a much smaller company," she says, "but I'm moving more toward people-development instead of systems development."

Factors Of Success

The keys to real career advancement in sales, aside from an aptitude for selling, are sales experience, education, technical knowledge, superior communication skills, an ability to play the corporate game and appropriate physical presentation. The required combination of characteristics and skills varies both from industry to industry and within industries. In general, however, the more technical the industry, the more educated and technically oriented its successful salespeople are.

One company strong on technical sales is Mays Chemical Co. Inc., a $56.7 million chemical distributor based in Indianapolis (No.13 on the BLACK ENTERPRISE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100). Mays buys large quantities of chemicals from manufacturers and delivers production-process quantities to such makers of industrial, pharmaceutical and consumer products as Procter & Gamble Co. and Eli Lilly and Co. According to John Thompson, vice president of sales and marketing, a technical background is standard equipment for Mays' sales force. "Many of our people have degrees in chemistry, engineering, microbiology," says Thompson, whose own education includes a degree in chemical engineering and an MBA. "Many candidates with technical degrees who come to us either have prior chemical sales experience or come right off campus. Many of our reps have sold chemicals for Fortune 500 corporations and join us with that experience." Mays pays sales reps a base salary, plus commissions and bonuses. According to Thompson, entry-level reps might come in at a salary of roughly $30,000 a year. But he adds, "That's low. Some of our salespeople make six figures."

Kevin Benjamin is part of a technical sales group for ALCOA International Holdings Cos. in Houston. His chemical engineering degree from the University of Connecticut and MBA from Indiana University earned him a base salary of more than $50,000 right out of school. He sold specialty lubricants for Exxon for three years before moving to ALCOA, where he sells aluminum-based catalyst absorbents to heavy industry. "The combination of the MBA and a degree in chemical engineering makes a very good fit for selling in the technical arena," he says. "You need to know how things are going to work. The MBA is where the sales and marketing aspect is covered, and the technical background is good for communicating with purchasing agents or plant engineers."

The earning potential of securities broker-dealers and investment bankers is legendary. A guaranteed salary of $60,000 to $80,000 is standard for entry-level people, but the real money is made on bonuses. By the end of two years, a good performer earns a salary and bonus of about $100,000. After that $250,000 to $500,000 a year is not unusual.

That kind of income is based on not only specialized education but special federal licensing as well. Jonathan Webb earned a degree in banking and finance at Morehouse University in 1985. His first industry job was as a securities analyst. He now sells bonds and other fixed-income securities to institutional investors such as banks, insurance companies and pension funds. "It was tough to get from research into institutonal sales without a graduate degree, and it was a clubby industry at that time," says Webb, who took advantage of an in-house program that trained non-MBAs as investment bankers.

Now 30, Webb is a vice president of regional institutional sales at the Chicago division of Shearson Lehman Bros. He stresses the connection between technical knowledge and sales effectiveness. "There's a misinterpretation by people in finance that sales doesn't take a lot of skill. They think it's door-to-door and you don't have to draw upon your analytical, quantitative or decision-making skills. But understand that at Lehman Bros., if you work as a lending officer, you have to prepare a lot of numbers and sell it internally first so your client outside is not misled. You need strong communication and sales skills."

Making Career Plans

Most people who have done it agree that selling is a learnable skill. Technical knowledge isn't everything, even in technical sales, and many successful salespeople change companies and even industries several times in their careers. And although there are exceptions, such as investment banking,the higher the compensation package and the more competitive the industry, the more important sales experience and training generally are than industry-specific knowledge.

For someone right out of college, sales experience may seem hard to come by and an actual position in professional sales is impossible to land. One way around this is to take advantage of campus recruitment; the large corporations historically have been active in recruiting minority graduates and summer interns.

In general, the larger the company, the more likelihood of success for someone new to sales. Smaller firms can't afford to invest as much in in-house sales training, which is why they tend to hire experienced reps instead of trainees. That doesn't mean big companies are willing to absorb nonperformers indefinitely, but it does mean they have the resources for intensive training. "As long as the company is not going to throw you out there without training, you're okay," says Eral Burks. "You must know the terminology, and you want the company to educate you as to how to use its product Good companies don't want to send someone out there who doesn't know what they're talking about, and that's why they put a lot of money into training their reps."

Another option for moving into sales is to get some down-and-dirty sales experience on your own before moving to bigger jobs. While he was still in college, Kevin Benjamin went door-to-door for Southwestern Great American Inc., a Nashville book distributor that hires many college students to sell educational books and bibles. That experience gave him the confidence and people skills he needed to pursue a sales career. "The best thing to do is to really target some company that has a good sales training program," says Benjamin. "By reputation, IBM has a great program in the computer field. If you can get into the door, then you can propel yourself into any position you want. Once established as a salesperson, you can start moving around and go into any job you want."

Don't be misled, though: Sales is an environment of aggressive activity, of territories and quotas that are sometimes realistic and sometimes not. It makes sense that assignments are carved out based on opportunity and past performance, but in shaky economies and in markets that are mature and competitive, the reality is that corporate assignments may be based on needs of management, not the market. Add to this the fact that corporations have responded to the current recession by trimming employees on manager tracks in all departments, and it's obvious that the small management pyramid, where African-Americans are already very few, is going to get smaller, while the role of corporate politics is going to got larger. "For African-Americans to survive in corporate America, it's important to be centered in who you are, knowing and being proud of who you are and having a balanced life," says Kelley, "And you must have an agenda. There's an aura you send out which says people like being around you. I don't care how much training you have, if you have negative aura you won't get any sales."

Marva Bennett puts it slightly differently: "When you're working for a company or market in transition, it would behoove the salesperson to develop his or her own transition plan to move up in a career."

"The field of sales is growing," says Eral Burks. "We are all salespeople in our own way. Sales is not an industry to exclude from anybody's job search. We may not be selling a product or service, but we do sell ourselves."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on what makes a good salesperson; sales management
Author:Crown, Caryne
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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