Why It's Hard To Fill Sales Jobs

The best and brightest stigmatize sales jobs. But they're fundamental to the success or failure of small business.

When I mention the word 'sales' to most people, it conjures up the idea of smarmy used car salesmen pushing shoddy cars or annoying telemarketers interrupting dinner to pitch services no one wants to buy. As a business owner, this is a huge problem for me.

My company is currently hiring in-house sales reps for our telephone sales team. Our salary and commission structure is attractive, and we offer great benefits like health insurance (fully paid by the company) and a 401(k) program—benefits which are not always available at small companies. When I posted my sales job openings earlier this month, I was really hopeful that we would get a lot of good applications, especially considering the current high unemployment rate. However, only 11 out of the 86 people who checked out our ad on monster.com decided to apply.

Selling, when done right, is about matching the right people with the right products. A good salesperson listens carefully and helps fill needs and solve problems that a customer is facing. A great salesperson takes responsibility for keeping a customer informed about developments in his industry and helps the customer make the most of that information. A superior salesperson has the ability to strategize with a customer to find out which products would help the customer grow his business, and in the process, grows his own. Selling can be a challenging and fulfilling brain game. Why do so few of the best and brightest job candidates flock to sales for their career of choice?

For starters, most colleges and universities offer no courses in selling. Even many of the best business schools do not include sales in their curriculum and if they do, it is usually treated as a footnote in the marketing area. The result is that the most fundamental aspect of any business—selling—is not taught. Thousands of business school graduates leave the university with no idea how to sell, which is a huge competency problem when they reach the workplace. Every job involves selling. If you are in public relations, you are selling a story. If you are an accountant, you are selling your accuracy and financial understanding.

The fact that sales is not taught makes graduates think selling is not important, or that it can't be taught and should be left only to the gifted ones—the natural salespeople. In reality, selling is a skill that can be acquired and that everyone is able to do on some level. Certainly some people are born skilled at sales. The majority of people aren't naturals, however, but they can be taught to be great if they are given a structure to follow. If college career services offices and academic departments across the country placed more importance on selling and sales jobs, candidates would realize a job in sales is not a fallback career, but the most important position any company can hire for.

Another obstacle to finding the right sales hire seems to be salary. Sales jobs usually have a compensation package that is based either entirely or in part on commissions. Many candidates seem to shy away from a commission structure, writing it off as risky, or unstable. What they do not consider is the flip side—commission-based compensation also means that a candidate can determine her own salary. If she wants to earn more, she has only to sell more. To fast-thinking, motivated candidates, this should be an exciting opportunity to make a quick trip up the compensation ladder and gain the glory of writing their own ticket.

As an example, my first job out of college was as a wholesale jewelry sales position with a small base salary and a commission component. But as it turned out, my first-year total compensation beat the seemingly sky high salaries of even my friends who went into investment banking—and by a lot.

As I said, 'sales' should not be a dirty word. It is the communication mechanism between customers and creators, the vehicle by which amazing inventions live or die, and the determining factor between a business thriving or stagnating.

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