What skills do you need to grow your sales career?

At QuotaPath, we’re invested in helping salespeople chart the course to achieving their sales goals. But we also know that your career in sales will amount to so much more than how your numbers stack up this month, quarter or year. We believe it’s important to invest in yourself and develop the skills that will help you to have a long, successful career.

That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to growing your sales career, from choosing the right company all the way to refining your selling style. Read on for practical advice on what skills you should hone, what questions you should ask, and more: how will you be compensated? Read on below to see what to look for in a good sales comp plan.

Table of Contents

  1. How do you find the right sales job for you?
  2. What makes a good sales compensation plan?
  3. Building your sales skills on the job
  4. How to perfect the art of the follow-up email
  5. How to keep learning and developing your skills

How do you find the right sales job for you?

When you’re trying to decide where to take your talent, there are dozens of intangible factors you’ll naturally take into consideration. How the recruiter and interviewers make you feel, your general impression of existing employees’ job satisfaction, and the feel of the office culture are all tough to quantify, but they’ll likely make an impression in your first few interactions with the company. These intangibles should absolutely not be ignored, but they’re not sufficient to tell you whether the company will be a good fit for your goals.

Instead, it’s important to ask some pretty concrete questions about the organization, such as:

  • What is the growth trajectory in this industry? For the company in particular?
  • What percentage of the sales force hits their targets regularly?
    • In an ideal company, about 80% of sales reps hit their targets regularly. If the number is much higher or lower than that, there’s a good chance that sales managers aren’t assigning realistic quotas.
  • What’s the return rate for the product?
    • The return rate (or “clawback rate,” when talking about commissions) shouldn’t exceed about 2% on average. If it’s significantly higher, there may be a problem with the quality of the product, or the fit for the audience.
  • How often has the company changed it’s comp plans in the last year? What were the motivations?
    • Comp plan changes are ok, but they need to be for the right motivations. Red flags would be that the “board” is driving those changes or that the company is trying to catch up with market shifts or trends

Knowing these stats can help you see how sustainable and realistic the company’s current sales practices are, and whether they’re setting reps up for success. Another thing you should take into consideration before accepting a job: how will you be paid? Here are some factors to look for:

What makes a good sales compensation plan?

What makes a good sales compensation plan?

Even if you’re working in a cool office with catered lunch and ample vacation time, you won’t be very happy or successful at any company if you’re not paid fairly and competitively. Here are some signs that a sales plan is on the right track:

It’s simple to understand

The best comp plans are so simply designed that they could fit on a napkin. If there’s a lot of guesswork or confusion about how your pay is calculated, your morale is likely to take a hit, and you may be less driven to reach your goals. More than about 3 variables in any compensation plan should raise a red flag.

Correct ratio of OTE to quota

There’s some variation depending on industry or company, but generally, your on-target earnings (OTE) should equal roughly 15-25% of your sales quota. That means if you have a $1 million quota, your OTE should be somewhere between $150,000 and $250,000.

Realistic goals

A sales plan is only as good as it is realistic. Quotas should be ambitious, but they should also be achievable. As we mentioned above, a company with realistic quotas will have about 80% of their sales reps hit the mark every period. In addition to realistic quotas, the best companies will account for an appropriate ramp-up time for their sales cycle, and a way for sales reps to get paid until that ramp-up period has passed.

What are some red flags in a comp plan?

Complex or moving targets

There are a lot of legitimate reasons to shake up sales compensation plans, but too many changes or complications in a short period of time can muddy the waters, obscuring progress toward goals and hurting morale. Companies that frequently change sales compensation plans, quotas, or reporting periods (monthly to quarterly or quarterly to yearly, etc.) may be helmed by leaders who don’t understand the company’s sales cycle or how its products should be sold.

A higher-than-average clawback rate

Clawback policies are common in many sales organizations. Essentially, they mean that if a customer cancels a sale or asks for a refund, the credit for that sale and the associated commission will be taken away from the sales rep who closed the deal. They’re a bummer, but they ultimately shouldn’t represent a huge percentage of your total commission as a sales rep.

In general, a clawback rate higher than about 2% may indicate that: a) the company’s product doesn’t work as advertised, and/or b) sales reps aren’t getting sufficient training to help them identify the right customers.

100% commission jobs

Even at the beginning of your career when you’re trying to get your feet wet, just say no to any sales job without base pay. If a company isn’t willing to pay you for your labor, you aren’t really an employee. Only invest your talent and energy in a company that’s willing to invest in you.


Building your sales skills on the job.

Once you’ve accepted a job as a sales rep—whether it’s your first sales job or your tenth— it’s time to get the lay of the land and sharpen your skills so you’re set up for success. Let’s look at some of the specific job skills that will help you get more wins (and more commission!).

Does cold calling still work?

It seems like every few days there’s another splashy new article being passed around LinkedIn declaring the death of cold calling as a sales tactic. These articles are good for generating engagement, but are they accurate?

Not exactly.

While it’s true that some common practices associated with cold calling have fallen out of favor, the practice as a whole is alive and kicking in many sales organizations. As with any other sales technique, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do cold calling. Here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.

Don’t: read a script. Do: talk like a person.

Robotic script-reading is one big reason cold calling has gotten a bad reputation. While having a list of talking points available is a great idea (and can help you keep the conversation headed in the right direction), reading a formulaic message indicates to the person on the other line that you’re uninterested in what they think or care about. Make sure you’re asking questions and keeping the other person engaged.

Don’t: call without doing some research first. Do: have an idea of who you’re talking to.

With the amount of sales intelligence tools the average salesperson has access to (including just a simple Google search), there’s no reason to make a call without taking at least a minute or two to do some research. Before you pick up the phone, try to arm yourself with a little basic knowledge: what are some common pain points in this industry? Who are the big players? Who are this company’s competitors? This knowledge will allow you to tailor your talking points and position your company as a solution to the prospect’s problems.

Don’t: let a cold call be your first and only point of contact. Do: follow up (or send an email first).

If your plan was just to call a prospect and hope for the best, you may not get the best results. A cold call works best as part of a multi-touch effort to get in front of a decision maker. That may mean sending an email over first and following up with a call a day or two later. It may look like calling and leaving a voicemail, following up with an email, and attempting to call again a few days later. It might take some experimentation to find the best combination of outreach activities, but no matter what, remember that one call is probably insufficient.

How to get better at cold calling

Cold calling can be awkward if you’re not used to it, but like any other common work task, it’s a skill that you can improve. For your own benefit, consider recording your calls and listening to them as a training exercise. Are you monopolizing the conversation, or allowing engagement from the prospect? Did you sound reasonably well-versed in their goals and pain points? Did you do a little research before calling to make sure your company can help them? Does your voice sound warm, engaging, and enthusiastic about what you’re selling?

By listening to your own work, you can arm yourself with the knowledge to continually improve this valuable sales skill.


How to perfect the art of the follow-up email.


Since one phone call is almost never enough to make a sale, strong follow-up emails are some of the most valuable tools at a sales rep’s disposal. While the purpose of a follow-up email (and the content therein) might vary based on what contact you’ve already had, there are some basic guidelines that you should follow for all your correspondence with a prospect:

Give them time

Even the most interested contacts have a lot on their plates, and will likely need a little time before they take action. Show your contacts that you respect their time constraints by waiting a few days after a call or an email before your next attempt to reach them.

Get their attention (the right way)

An email with a vague or boring subject line is far less likely to get opened. If you want to avoid that fate, take some time to craft a compelling and concise subject line. However, don’t flag your email as high priority; your follow-up message is not a life-threatening emergency, and flagging it as such is more likely to annoy your contact than spur them to action.

Provide value, but keep it short

If you’re reaching out after a cold call or a voicemail, remind them briefly who you are and what you discussed on the phone. Ask them if there’s a convenient time for them to talk to you to learn more about your product or service. If you’re following up after a demo or initial sales call, recap the benefits you discussed on the phone.

If you want to include case studies, white papers, or any other applicable content that might answer some questions, go for it. But whatever information you share, try to keep it short, and use bullet points where appropriate to keep the content scannable.

Make the next steps clear

Even if your prospect is interested in what you’re offering, they won’t move forward if it’s unclear what they should do next. In the body of the email, let them know what to expect; if there’s an action required on their end, spell that out as clearly as possible so there’s no confusion.

Don’t quit after one email

One or two unanswered emails may feel like a clear sign that your contact has lost interest, but don’t give up so easily. Many contacts need time and multiple touchpoints before they’re ready to move forward in the sales process. As long as you’re being helpful and considerate (read: not annoying), persistence increases the likelihood that you’ll make a successful sale.


How to keep learning and developing your skills.

Gregarious, persuasive, tenacious people often seem like natural-born salespeople. While these traits can certainly help, they are by no means necessary— nor are they the best indicators of long-term professional success. In fact, in our experience, the best sales reps share two unexpected traits: agility and curiosity.

Paradoxically, these two traits are best developed by just practicing them whenever you can. To become curious, ask questions; to become agile, put yourself in situations where agility is needed. But in case you need some resources to help you strengthen these character traits— or if you’re just looking for some practical tips from experienced sales thought leaders to help you succeed on the job— good news! We’ve talked to several sales reps and gotten their recommendations for some books and podcasts that have helped them develop their careers.

Books

Sales-specific books:

These books are all about the nitty-gritty of succeeding in a sales job, with advice about building a pipeline, starting customer conversations on the right foot, and most important of all, closing more deals.

Sales management books:

If your goal is to move into a management role, it can’t hurt to do a little reading about how to be the best in that future job. These books have a lot to do with the business of being a manager, from hiring and training great salespeople to fostering a productive workplace for a sales team.

Personal development:

As cheesy or old as they may seem, these classics of personal development are consistently named as great resources to help salespeople (and anyone else) to become more effective, both professionally and personally.

Podcasts

Many of the podcasts your fellow sales reps mentioned aren’t explicitly on the topic of selling; instead, they’re great at helping develop intellectual curiosity, exposing listeners to new ideas, or sharing insightful and inspiring advice. Here are some podcasts you may want to listen to on your commute or at the gym:

Ready to take control of your sales career?

Using these tips and resources, plus plenty of advice from mentors you admire, you should be able to land in a great sales role and improve your performance. But how can you track your progress toward your sales goals without constant spreadsheet maintenance? With QuotaPath’s sales performance management tool, you’ll have access to accurate, simple-to-use dashboards that’ll show you exactly where you stand in real time. Get early access here.