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
- How do you find the right sales job for you?
- What makes a good sales compensation plan?
- Building your sales skills on the job
- Improving your first outreach
- How to perfect the art of the follow-up email
- How to improve your presentation skills
- 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?
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.
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!).
Improving your first outreach
As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The first contact you have with a potential customer sets the tone for how they can expect all their future interactions with you to go. That’s why it’s important to take the time to learn how to perfect your first touch so that you can improve your success rate in the future. Here are some things to consider:
How well do you know your product?
It’s pretty easy to throw around marketing terms like “best” or “cutting-edge” to describe your company’s product. But those claims ring hollow if you’re unable to back them up with specifics about what your company offers, and how it’s uniquely positioned to help potential customers. Learning everything you can about what you’re selling will help you come across as more confident, trustworthy, and knowledgeable.
Do you know how you can solve a problem for this contact?
When you’re just reaching out for the first time, there will almost certainly be some gaps in what you know about your contacts’ pain points; as the conversation progresses, you’ll have a clearer picture of how you can provide value. But before you draft an email or pick up the phone, you should have at least some broad idea of how your company’s product might help this contact reach their goals.
What resources do you need to fill these gaps?
If you’re not seeing ideal results from your first contacts, it may well be that your knowledge in one (or both) of the above areas is lacking. This is a great time to enlist help from your sales manager. They should be able to point you toward any internal resources that will help you understand your company’s product more thoroughly, and can strategize with you about how you can make a strong first impression on contacts.
Should you reach out with an email or a call first?
The answer to this question depends on your industry, and there is no one definitive answer to this question that applies to every sales organization. However, many experts say when in doubt, email first. Calling can be time-consuming, and unless you’re certain that it’s what resonates best with your contacts, it might not be the best use of your limited time.
With email, it’s possible to reach out to more contacts more quickly, and you can easily prioritize your next point of contact based on who’s most interested. However, it’s generally not a good idea to just send off hundreds of emails at once and hope for the best. Here are some strategies to help you make the best first impression with an email:
How to do email outreach the right way
Don’t: send the same email 100 times. Do: personalize your message.
Prospects can tell when they’re on the receiving end of a form letter, and this can be a one-way ticket to the spam folder. Generic personalization tokens (such as first name, company name, etc.) are a decent first step toward making an email feel more targeted, and they don’t take a lot of time to put in place. However, for your first email to a particularly promising prospect, it’s worth your while to craft a truly customized message that shows your interest in solving some of their major frustrations.
Don’t: make it about you. Do: lead with their concerns.
We’ve all undoubtedly gotten countless emails that start with “Hi (first name), my name is (name) and I work for (company).” Not only is this approach trite and boring— meaning everything that comes after it is likely to be tuned out— it also puts the focus on the salesperson and not on how they can help.
If you want to capture a contact’s attention, start by mentioning some of their possible concerns or frustrations, and then follow that with how you think your company can be useful to them. This attention to detail allows you to show a genuine interest in them, and it is far more likely to result in a positive response than a cold virtual handshake.
Don’t: write a novel. Do: keep it brief.
Are you enthusiastic enough about your company to write a long, detailed email? That’s great! But it’s best to save that extensive product knowledge for prospects who are interested in learning more. Your first point of contact is meant to get your contacts’ attention and see if they have any desire to continue the conversation. Keep it short and sweet by providing just enough information for the recipient to get an idea of what you do and how you might be useful to them.
Don’t: leave them hanging. Do: provide clear next steps.
It’s highly likely that most of your emails will result in dead ends; that’s the nature of the beast. But one surefire way to ensure that the conversation stalls out is to leave out a clear call to action. If a prospect decides they’re interested in what you’re offering, they need to know how to move things forward. Should they reply to your email? Visit your website? Schedule a call? Make it abundantly clear how they can get more information and keep the process moving.
Once you’ve sent that first email over, it’s hardly time to kick up your feet and call it a day. Plan to follow up with your most promising leads with a phone call or a second email within a few days to gauge their interest in learning more about how your company can help.
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?
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 improve your presentation skills
Once you’ve gotten your prospects interested in what you’re selling, it’s time to wow them with a killer sales pitch or demo. As with other sales skills, improving your presentation and pitching abilities should be an ongoing endeavor; even most seasoned pros often have room for improvement. Here are some elements that make for a compelling presentation, and some pointers on how to develop them:
First: sharpen your product knowledge
Your whole presentation will be derailed if it’s clear you don’t know exactly what you’re talking about. That’s why it’s so important to brush up on your product knowledge regularly. Stay current on any changes to your company’s products so that your information is always up-to-date and relevant.
Learn how to become a good listener
Salespeople tend to be talkers and proactive problem-solvers. But to make a compelling case for why your prospect needs what you’re offering, you have to know what’s important to them first. Asking the right questions can help you get a better idea of what problems they’re looking to solve, and will reveal any objections you need to address in order to prove your value.
Once you’ve got your prospects talking about what matters to them, it’s important that you take the time to absorb what they’re saying, without interrupting to start your sales pitch. Ask follow-up questions to clarify when necessary. Before you rush to explain how your company can check all their boxes, repeat their concerns back to them (in your own words) to make sure you’ve fully understood what they said.
By taking the time to make your prospect feel heard, you’ll build trust with your prospect, gather valuable information to help you tailor your pitch, and set yourself apart from other salespeople who monopolize the conversation.
Use storytelling to bring it all together
Once you have all the information you need— about your company’s products as well as the prospects’ current frustrations— it’s time to pull all the pieces together to tell the story of how you can help. By creating a mental picture and an emotional connection, sales stories are effective in helping move the decision-making process along. In fact, great salespeople have known for a long time that a powerful story can be more useful in closing a sale than all the statistics and numbers at their disposal.
Developing your own storytelling style may take some time, but by listening to more seasoned sales reps on your team, you can pick up some useful strategies. Here’s a simple three-step framework to help you get started:
Step 1: Narrate their current situation
To start your sales story, cast your prospect as the hero of their own story, and lay out some of the current challenges or frustrations they’ve expressed.
Step 2: Demonstrate how you can help
At this point in the sales story, you can shift the narrative to demonstrating how your product (or service) can help them solve these problems. Paint a vivid picture for the prospect that allows them to see how much better or easier their jobs will be once their current challenges have been solved.
Step 3: Give them call to action
This part of the sales story may involve asking for a signed contract, or it may simply mean scheduling more time to continue the discussion. In your closing, however, restate the ideal future outcome your prospect can look forward to if they choose to purchase your company’s product.
This whole sales story should be pretty short and simple, but it should leave the prospect with a vivid mental image of how much better they’ll feel once their pain point has been addressed and solved.
Know when a deck is (and isn’t) helpful
Slide decks can be a useful visual tool to help illustrate selling points in a presentation. When they’re used properly, they can be a great way to add polish and professionalism, and can reinforce the messaging so that it’s more compelling.
However, decks can also serve as a crutch for a poorly-researched pitch. Without proper planning, a slide deck can become cluttered and disjointed, serving as a distraction rather than a focusing element.
When you’re deciding whether or not to incorporate a slide deck into a sales presentation, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are there visual assets that the customer needs to see?
- Is this professional and polished, or will it be a distraction?
- If I sent this to the prospect after this conversation, would it be a helpful resource for them?
If the answers to these questions aren’t all “yes,” then scrap the idea of a deck altogether; unless it will strengthen your position, it may actually detract from your overall goals in the conversation.
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.
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.
- Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play: Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship by Mahan Khalsa
- The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation by Matthew Dixon
- Sales Development Playbook: Build Repeatable Pipeline and Accelerate Growth with Inside Sales by Trish Bertuzzi
- The Lost Art of Closing: Winning the Ten Commitments that Drive Sales by Anthony Iannarino
- DotCom Secrets: The Underground Playbook for Growing Your Company Online by Russel Brunson
- Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss
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.
- Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott
- Sales Acceleration Formula: Using Data, Technology, and Inbound Selling to Go From $0 to $100 Million by Mark Roberge
- Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Expectations, and Bad Behavior by Kerry Patterson, et al.
- Coaching Salespeople Into Sales Champions by Keith Rosen
- Cracking the Sales Management Code: The Secrets to Measuring and Managing Sales Performance by Jason Jordan and Michelle Vazzana
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.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
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:
- How I Built This
- WorkLife with Adam Grant
- Hidden Brain
- Up First
- The Tim Ferriss Show
- The Knowledge Project
- TED Radio Hour
- Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman
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.