Applying for a sales job can feel like staring into the abyss – sending out dozens of applications and trying to tailor your pitch so it matches whatever the hiring manager thinks they’re looking for. But just what are the requirements for a sales job in today’s day and age?
Researchers at the Harvard Business Review asked this same question, and in order to answer it, they gathered web data from more than 20,000 sales job postings from 2019 to 2022. The core competencies still ring true - sales experience, communication skills, curiosity, and motivation. But they also discovered five qualities that companies are starting to look for in potential salespeople.
Anticipating changes and trends in the customer’s industry
Companies want their sales team to demonstrate an understanding of market data and new developments in their customers’ industries. Microsoft in particular wants AEs who sell digital tools to startups to “understand how startup businesses grow and mature their commercial models,” according to HBR’s research. Companies want salespeople who are curious, and take the time to learn.
Collaborating within and across teams
Teamwork seems like it should be a given in any work environment, but many sales organizations are structured to prioritize one-on-one interactions between the sales rep and the customer. This, however, changes as sales processes get more complex and customer service, engineering, and post-sales support teams get pulled into transactions. The sales rep of the future (and present) can no longer exist in a vacuum.
Mastering digital and virtual tools
Organizations want employees who not only utilize digital tools effectively but quickly adapt to new/beta tools in order to best serve customers. Software is eating the world, and sooner or later, even the best sales reps who avoid using new technology will get left behind.
Those who can adapt to changes in work dynamics and protocols are desirable employees. Open LinkedIn for just a few minutes and you’ll see that the sales world is undergoing a transformation as new processes, trends, and (unfortunately) acronyms are introduced daily. Instead of trying to fight it, the best thing to do is adapt accordingly (while continuing to close deals).
Nature versus nurture
What about the nature versus nurture debate? How many of these skills are in the “hire for” category and how many can be learned on the job?
According to HBR, collaborative ability and capacity to adapt are inborn qualities that can take a lot of time and attention to develop on the job. As for using digital tools, it can go either way – some companies have more capacity for robust on-the-job training for their digital tools than others..
“A third of my people just don’t get it; they don’t have the digital skills and interest,” a sales manager told HBR. But for those who do “get it,” the right support programs are usually enough to bring employees up to speed. It certainly helps that digital natives (those born since 1980) will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025, though the pandemic forced even the most curmudgeonly analogs to join the digital fray (for at least a while).
As for anticipating trends, this can fall on the shoulders of employees or on the shoulders of a Center of Excellence (COE). Some companies use COE’s (or similar internal teams) to support salespeople who need RFPs, industry research, or detailed customer histories. This helps sales teams stay focused on their customers and takes some of the pressure off.
Unfortunately, some roles will require a combination of experience and knowledge that can only be gained from years on the job. For example, the AEs at Microsoft need to understand how startups function and how the market is shaping the forces that govern them – not something you can learn on the job.
Ultimately, if you want to grow in your sales career and keep leveling up, you have to take the initiative. Know someone who’s got a skill you want? Ask them to help you out. Come across a professional development seminar that looks intriguing? Sign up! Just make sure you leave some adaptive ability for your current sales job – because as we all know, you’ll definitely need it.