2.1. What Does It Take to Be in Sales?

When Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, delivered the commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, he told the story of how he and Steve Wozniak started the now $32 billion company in a garage in 1976. Jobs said, “I was lucky—I found out what I wanted to do early in life.” (Jobs, 2005).

He left the Stanford graduates with some personal words of wisdom to think about as they prepared themselves for their careers: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” (Jobs, 2005).

To be successful in sales, and in life, you must love what you do. If you are not passionate about your profession, you will never be the best. This chapter  will help you determine whether a career in sales will excite you and make you want to leap out of bed every morning.

Are You Born to Sell?

How do you know if sales is your passion or the career of your dreams? The first step is taking this course where you will have an opportunity to learn about sales and put your knowledge to work in real-life situations. After reading this chapter, you will better understand the profession of selling. This chapter includes insights about which personal characteristics and talents are best suited to sales, which industries you might work in, and how you can be successful in the profession. Some people think that successful salespeople are those who have the “gift of gab,” but that’s not really what makes salespeople effective. Although communication and relationship building are valuable skills, just being able to talk to people is not enough to be successful in sales. Consider the following points that make a salesperson successful and see if these are a good match to you and your skills: trust building, listening skills, questioning, willingness to learn, drive, positive attitude, risk taker, independence, passion, order taker, discipline, flexibility, and creating value.

Ability to Build Trust

It never goes without saying that character—the combination of your beliefs, tendencies, and actions that you take—is the single defining trait for a salesperson (or any business person, for that matter) (Kahle, 2008).  Your character defines how you will conduct yourself, and it is the yardstick by which customers measure you. After all, your customers are spending their money based on what you say you will deliver; they have to trust you. If you ever break the trust for any reason, you will likely lose not only the sale, but you will most likely lose your reputation, and, ultimately, your livelihood. According to a survey by Forrester Research, trust and believability are so important in the buying and selling processes that 71 percent of buyers based their decisions on these traits (Bly, 2008) and 90% of companies say they will only buy from other companies that they trust (McConnachie, 2017).

Listening Skills

Enterprise logo
Enterprise logo

Contrary to popular belief, speaking is not the most important aspect of selling—listening is, because “salespeople are communicators, not manipulators.”  (Porter, 2008).  It is interesting to note that many of the salespeople who are constantly talking are actually not successful. Those salespeople who have a genuine interest in listening learn precisely what the customers’ needs, priorities, and opportunities are. Listening skills are the fundamental basis for forming a connection. “Listening builds relationships,” according to Marjorie Brody, author of Help! Was That a Career-Limiting Move? She suggests a “silent solution” to many problems in the form of listening (Holland & Brody, 2005). The challenge for many people is that listening with undivided attention is hard to do. Psychologists say that we listen using only 25 percent of our brain (Atlas, 2010).  That means that the other 75 percent is thinking about a response or thinking about something else. Salespeople who take notes, refer to written material, and are intently aware of their nonverbal cues can be extremely successful because they see and hear things that people who are talking just cannot absorb (Atlas, 2010).  Andy Taylor, CEO of Enterprise care rental, says his salespeople are successful because “the people who are the most successful are the one who listed most closely to the customer. We follow the two ears, one mouth rule here” (10 questions for Andy Taylor, 2007, para 3).

The Ability to Ask the Right Questions

Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first fifty-five minutes to formulate the right question because as soon as I had identified the right question, I knew I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” (Michael, 2009).  This demonstrates the power of asking the right questions. Those questions can only be asked when you listen and have the ability to connect.  (Question types are covered in a later chapter.)

 The Willingness to Learn

Salespeople must not only have product knowledge and understand the buying and selling process; they must also learn skills that will make them more effective and efficient as salespeople. Financial skills, negotiating skills, and even speed-reading courses were mentioned as additional training needs in sales (Tanner, 2008). It is important to note that besides constantly learning new skills, salespeople have to be students of the business. Skills and abilities are developed and fine-tuned over time, and experience plays a role in the learning process. Therefore, it makes sense that salespeople are not “made” simply because they have the title just like a Doctor is not a doctor without 7 years of schooling or a teacher without 4 years of studying or a mechanic without their trades training.  Harvard Business Review (2011) indicates that some people may be more “natural” at sales but being successful in sales requires persistence, time, hard work, etc. (Martin, 2011).  If you are thinking about pursuing a career in sales, keep in mind that like other professions it takes time, training, and experience to be successful.

 The Drive to Succeed

You cannot be successful if you do not set goals. Great salespeople set goals for themselves, achieve them, and celebrate those achievements. They visualize what they want, then put together a plan to get it (Atlas, 2010).  The drive to succeed is important not only in sales, but also in life. Consider Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. He set out to do something that no one else had ever done: win eight Olympic gold medals. It is instructive to look at his drive to succeed and what he did to prepare for and achieve his goals.

Resilience and a Positive Attitude

It is important to remember that you will hear “no” more frequently than you hear “Yes, I’ll take it.” That challenge, however, is offset by the thrill of victory when the sale is made and a relationship with the customer based on trust is built. You can only succeed when you go the extra mile, by investigating one

more lead, going back for the second sales call even when the first hasn’t been successful, and trial closing even if you are not sure you can really get the sale (Kahle, 2016). It’s the eternal optimism that pushes you, even when others might think there is no reason to pursue the sale. If you think you can make it happen, you should definitely be in sales.

The Willingness to Take Risks

Has anyone ever told you, “You won’t know until you try”? That statement is especially true in sales. You can set yourself apart by taking smart business risks. Think about how you consider taking risks in everyday life and how they pay off. For example, let us say you are from a small town and you chose to go to a college in a big city because you wanted to experience something new. That was a risk; it took you outside your comfort zone, but if you had not taken the risk, you would have never known what life in a big city   was like. Great salespeople go beyond the norm to explore and test the waters.  Taking calculated risks will bring you closer to making or closing sales (note the emphasis on calculated—risks that are studied a little before taking like calling an executive you have not yet met or making a presentation to a huge audience of potential customers) (Beals, 2017). Calculated risks are risks taken that limit potential losses  and that can mean the difference between success and failure   as Entrepreneur magazine points out “calculated risk-takers might not play a game of roulette, because the odds are against them, yet they might be open to playing blackjack because it’s possible in that game to tip the odds in your favour through strategic play” (Johannson, 2018, para 6).

The Ability to Ask for an Order

It may sound intuitive that successful salespeople should not be afraid to ask for a customer’s order, but you would be surprised at how often it happens. Most customers want you to ask for their order. “Would you like fries with your hamburger?” “What can I get you for dessert?” and “Would you like to pay with credit or debit?” are all examples of salespeople asking for the order. A large percentage of the time these salespeople are successful and meet their customers’ needs at the same time. You reduce your chances of being successful if you do not ask for the order (Porter, 2008).  In other words, if you do not ask for the order, someone else will.

Independence and Discipline

Most sales positions require independence, self-motivation, and discipline. Although these traits may seem contradictory, they are actually complementary. Independence is especially important if you are calling on customers in person. It usually requires travel, either locally by car or by plane, which means that you have to be able to manage your time without being told what to do. In fact, it means that you set your schedule and do what you need to do to meet your sales goals but having this kind of independence requires discipline and self-discipline is considered essential for successful sales.  “Self-discipline is the difference between success and failure…and in sales, it is what separates the great from the mediocre” according to   Anthony Iannarino, a multi –book writer on the success of sales (Kinni, 2017).


Along with the need for independence comes the importance of flexibility. Just as you are able to set your own schedule, you have to be flexible based on your customers’ needs. Most sales positions are not nine- to-five jobs. That means you might be working nights or weekends, or you might be traveling out of town during the week or even long periods, especially if you are selling internationally. You have to be available when your customers want to buy. Before you cringe at the prospect of grueling hours and long flights, remember that this kind of schedule may also work to your advantage. You may have some weekdays off, which allow you to enjoy family, sports, or other outings that you might not otherwise have an opportunity to enjoy.


If you are not passionate about what you are selling, how do you expect your customers to believe in you and your product? You have to love what you do, believe in it, and feel passionately about it. Passion encompasses all the traits mentioned above; it is how they all come together. Passion is the element that sets you apart from other salespeople and makes your prospects and customers believe in you and your product or service. See why Selena Cuff, head of Heritage Link Brands, thinks passion is what makes a great salesperson. “I look for passion for the product and I don’t think that’s something that you can fake. As a salesperson, you are up against a lot of no’s, a lot of reasons people can’t take the product, and you have to convince them. You can’t do that in a slimy way. You can’t fulfill that need if it’s just about the money or meeting the numbers. Passion is what creates the ability to meet your customers’ needs on the scene and get the sale.” (What makes a great salesperson, n.d.).

Mark Bozzini, CEO of Infinite Spirits, learned a powerful selling lesson early in his career. His job was to sell more bottles of wine than were sold the previous year, which seemed easy enough  but when he called on a wine and spirits retailer, the storeowner told him that his products didn’t sell and he would rather not have them on his shelves. So much for selling more bottles of wine. An average salesperson might become pushy, or even leave and seek a sale elsewhere but Bozzini, an intuitive and passionate salesperson, was determined to make the sale. He spent an hour rearranging the store display and asked the storeowner to give it a chance to see if the product sold better. The new display worked, and the storeowner became one of Bozzini’s best customers. The moral of the story: always remember, “the customer doesn’t care about your stuff. They care about their stuff.” (Muoio, 2007). Bozzini showed passion, resilience, creativity and flexibility—all traits that help salespeople with success.

Creating Value

The role of a salesperson can be summed up in one sentence: “Salespeople are value creators.” (Tanner, 2008). To further describe what this means, think about a recent visit to the Apple Store. If you go to the store at virtually any hour, it is filled with customers. The salespeople are not just those that are pushing a product, hoping that you buy so that they make their sales quota. They are experts who know everything about the products in the store whether they be MacBooks, iPads, or iPhones. The salespeople engage you in dialogue, listen, and learn about what you are looking for. They ask questions like, “What do you do with the photos you take? Do you like to make videos? Do you want to easily access the Web from your phone?” No techno-talk, no slick sales pitches. They just want to know what is important to you so that they can let you try the product that not only fits your basic computing needs, but also blows you away. Apple and its sales team know that computers are complicated and can baffle even savvy users. To build trust and confidence with their customers, they developed the “Genius Bar” so that Apple users know that they can always to talk to an individual and find help with any problem or question they may have. In fact, Apple dedicates a section of their Web site to the Genius Bar and invites customers to make an appointment online to come to a store to talk to one of the “resident Geniuses.” Talk about creating value. As a result, Apple is able to charge a premium for its product and generate such demand that in some cases people are lined  up to buy their products, as was the case for the launch of the iPhone 11 Pro in 2019 (Van Boom, 2019).

What Will You Be Doing?

Bar chart showing the average salary of U.S. pharmaceutical representatives from 2016 to 2018
Fig. 2.1 Average salary of U.S. pharmaceutical sales representatives from 2016 to 2018 in U.S. dollars  [Image Description]

The life of a salesperson is never dull. You could be working with a single customer or with multiple customers. You might work in a corporate office, or you might work from your home. You might talk to customers via phone, live chat, instant message, and text, or you might meet with them in their office in your neighbourhood, your region, or anywhere around the world. You might be working on research to identify new customers, preparing a presentation for a new or existing customer, meeting with customers’ face-to-face, following up to get contracts signed, or communicating inside your organization to be sure all goes well to deliver the product or service to the customer on time and on budget. On any given day, you might be working on any number of activities to support an existing customer or to approach, present, or close a new customer. Finally, sales jobs can be financially rewarding.   According to Indeed   job postings, sales  executive jobs start around $62,000 a year  whereas pharmaceutical representatives made an average of $130,00 in 2018 (Mikulic, 2019,  a sales representatives  for biotech or surgical devices made over $ 164,00.00  (Medreps, 2019).

Bar chart showing Average annual salary of top earners in medical sales

Figure 2.2: Average annual salary of top earners in the medical sales industry in the U.S. [Image Description]

Image Descriptions

Figure 2.1 Image Description: Average salary of U.S. pharmaceutical representatives is a bar chart showing the average salaries from 2016 to 2018 in U.S. dollars.  On the Y axis we see Annual salary in U.S. dollars from zero to 175,000.  On the X axis we see each year (2016, 2017, 2018) each with three bars showing (in order) Base salary, Bonus/commission, and Total compensation.

For 2016

  • base salary is shown as 93,516
  • bonus/commission is shown as 35,286
  • total compensation is shown as 128,802

For 2017

  • base salary is shown as 103,083
  • bonus/commission is shown as 35,024
  • total compensation is shown as 136,480

For 2018

  • base salary is shown as 98,815
  • bonus/commission is shown as 36,398
  • total compensation is shown as 133,563

Additional information provided: United States: 659 respondents; employed in  specialty pharmaceutical sales

Source: MedReps copyright Statsta 2019 [Return to Figure 2.1]

Figure 2.2 Image Description: Average annual salary of top earners in the medical sales industry in the U.S. is a bar chart showing the average salaries in 2018 in U.S. dollars.  On the Y axis we see Salary in U.S. dollars from zero to 200,000.  On the X axis we see three categories (Capital equipment/durable medial equipment, Surgical device, and Biotechnology) each with three bars showing (in order) Base salary, Bonus/commission, and Total compensation.

For Capital equipment/durable medial equipment

  • base salary is shown as 88,146
  • bonus/commission is shown as 88,577
  • total compensation is shown as 167,554

For Surgical device

  • base salary is shown as 86,518
  • bonus/commission is shown as 92,856
  • total compensation is shown as 165,962

For Biotechnology

  • base salary is shown as 112,711
  • bonus/commission is shown as 55,214
  • total compensation is shown as 164,214

Additional information provided: United States: base: 2,793; employed in medical sales

Source: MedReps copyright Statsta 2019 [Return to Figure 2.2]


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The Power of Selling Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Michelle Clement is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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