Sales is not an easy job by any means. It’s incredibly competitive, demands long hours and requires an unwavering work ethic. For those with drive and the ambition necessary to succeed, it can be a rewarding and fulfilling career.
But how do you really get ahead and rise to the top in the cutthroat world of B2B sales?
Rather than talking about it in theory, we spoke with sales reps, sales managers and sales VPs about how they navigated their own career paths. They shared stories of working hard to impress management, finding valuable mentors, and constantly staying on the cutting edge. These talented sales professionals revealed how they got ahead and if you follow their advice, you can succeed in your career as well.
(Check out our Sales Career Paths Chart to find out where your sales career may be headed.)
As a brand new sales rep just starting on the job, it can be tough to differentiate yourself from a pack of reps all vying to be the best. You can’t just put in the bare minimum and expect to be recognized and promoted. Hard work was the key to success for Daisuke Yasutake, Account Executive at InsightSquared, who was promoted from outbound sales, to inbound sales, and then to AE in less than a year.
“The one thing you can control no matter what your job is, is the amount of effort you put in,” he explained. “I looked at who was successful here and saw them get into the office early and stay late, so I decided to do the same. If our dial number was 60, then I did 80 each day. Get away from the noise and excuses. If you don’t hit your number, it’s OK because you did everything you could do.”
But it’s not just enough to be the hardest worker, Yasutake noted. You also have to be reliable, and show management that you can be trusted to take on challenging work.
“I made it known that I was willing to help with whatever,” he said. “Who’s responsible enough to handle these valuable inbound leads? Who’s willing to help figure out this inbound process? Who’s been working closely with marketing? Management looked to me.”
Yahya Mokhtarzada, VP of Business Development at Nanigans, has worked in sales for 8 years, and got his first promotion after just 1 and a half years on the job. He agreed that early on, the key to advancing your career is not just consistently hitting sales goals, but also earning the trust of management.
“Someone once told me, ‘Be indispensable.’ Simply put, take ownership of the tasks that matter and handle them well,” Mokhtarzada said. “Make it so your CEO or manager can’t live without you. Secondly, take initiative. It’s easy to be an order-taker, and there’s nothing wrong with being an order-taker – but if you want more from your career you need to stop focussing on what you’re asked to do and start focusing on what needs to be asked, then do it.”
To succeed in a sales career, it’s unfortunately not enough to work the hardest and earn respect from management. Ambitious reps can’t just sit back and expect to be handed a promotion, according to Chris Snell, Sr. Inside Sales Manager at Care.com. He has worked in sales for 15 years, and advises reps to be proactive in growing their own career.
“The advice I’d give to sales reps looking to become a manager in the future is this: Take your career seriously and own its trajectory,” he explained. “Ask for more responsibility without expecting a change in your quota. Talk with your manager about what it is that you want to do.”
If you consistently ask for more responsibility, you will begin to learn more and more, Snell said. But just learning on the job isn’t enough either. Snell said sales professionals should constantly learn new skills and improve themselves professionally, which he does himself.
“I try to attend as many sales leadership events as I can – the AA-ISP and SalesHacker events are great,” he revealed. “I’ve always got a sales-focused book that I’m reading in my bag, and then another that I’m listening to during my hour and 30 minute commute. I have multiple 1:1’s with other leaders here at Care to better my management skills. While I adhere to Alec Baldwin’s A-B-C, Always Be Closing; as it relates to moving my career forward, it’s Always Be Cultivating.”
Jim McDonough, VP of Sales at Attend.com, agreed that every ambitious rep, manager and VP must keep up on the latest developments in sales strategies or else fall behind in the industry.
“I think it’s important to be a student of the profession,” he said. “I’m constantly reading about the latest trends. What you’re learning today might change a year from now. Make sure you’re subscribed to the blogs that are putting through leadership out there and read the books talking about the latest sales methodologies. That’s something I continue to do and always will.”
Reaching the Next Level
It’s one thing to be promoted from a BDR to an AE, but another thing entirely to move to management or even up to a VP role. It’s tempting to resort to underhanded tactics to get what you want. But Jaime Muirhead, SVP of Sales at RingLead, cautioned that no matter how ambitious they may be, reps should not lie their way to the top.
“Display admirable qualities in every sales role,” he advised. “While opportunities may arise where you can benefit by being untruthful, mistrust from colleagues and leadership is potentially the largest inhibitor to advancement within an organization.”
“Colleagues are very perceptive, and simply telling people what they want to hear will not gain respect,” he continued. “If your superiors and colleagues do not respect you, they certainly will not promote you. Respect, demonstrating integrity, and completing tasks that are self-assigned and assigned by others will demonstrate a level of commitment that leads to advancement through the ranks.”
It seems especially daunting to reach that VP level, but it is possible, according to McDonough. He has been working in sales for 10 years, and quickly advanced to VP while working at a number of growing startups. He said that for anyone who’s ultimate goal is to become a Sales VP, they have to find someone they admire in that role and learn everything they can from them.
“To get to the executive level, you need to learn how to navigate within the organization and manage internal relationships,” he said. “How do you make relationships work with the product team, marketing team, and engineering team? Find a mentor, whether within the company or outside of it. Ask those questions, ask what keeps them up at night, what are they working on? Keep learning.”
He advised reps to stay 100% focused on achieving their goals, and to always have another new goal lined up after they achieve the one in front of them.
“I thought becoming a Sales VP was going to take a lot longer, to be honest,” McDonough explained. “But that’s the good thing about working for startups and venture-backed companies – you can make your own path and you can do it quickly. My next long term goal is to be CEO. I’m confident that I can do it. It keeps me going, that drive.”