Why Sales Careers Aren’t Attractive To Recent College Grads

Author: Phil Harrell, VP and group director, Forrester Research

An article in The Wall Street Journal last week proclaims that, though the pay is high and the jobs are plentiful, few people want to go into sales. There are 700,000 open positions in the US, the piece notes, and woefully few takers.

Why is this? It boils down to stubborn stereotypes. Think of a sales job, and many still picture a deceptive used-car salesman or scenes from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross — hardly something to aspire to. Those who are in the profession know that sales has moved on from hard closing tactics, but perceptions are slow to catch up. Part of the fault lies with sales leaders, who haven’t done enough to explain what a modern sales rep’s job entails. We simply haven’t done enough to sell the value of our own profession.

More Helping Than Selling

Good salespeople are supremely adept at understanding buyers’ problems and collaborating on solutions to resolve those problems. They have to be: Today’s buyers come to the purchasing process with more information than ever before, so strong-arm tactics that were used when there was asymmetry of information between seller and buyer simply don’t work now. Buyers turn to sellers to get questions answered or to have information put into context for their specific situation. Sellers provide value by being perceptive, empathetic, and consultative.

How to Attract Sales Talent

How can sales leaders reverse the misperceptions and attract talented people who may not think sales is for them? For starters:

  • Revisit your recruitment process. Yes, tenacity and drive are still important. But in your job listings and in the interview process, include terms such as empathy, listening skills, and critical thinking abilities. If you’re looking for experienced salespeople, ask how candidates have helped customers solve problems in the past or how they’ve worked with their colleagues in marketing and customer success to deliver exceptional end-to-end experiences. The best salespeople are driven by a desire to help; they also recognize that to build lasting customer relationships, they can’t go it alone but need to work with colleagues across functions.
  • Emphasize the purpose — of the company and the sales organization. Much of today’s workforce wants to work for a company that has a purpose beyond making money. When the culture of the company and the sales organization embodies values such as community involvement, environmental impact, and diversity and inclusion, hires will likely feel more connected and engaged. Meanwhile, buyers, of course, bring their values and expectations to their purchasing decisions. When sales reps can connect their products and services to company values, everyone benefits.
  • Ensure that compensation plans are outcome-focused. At a time when so many purchases are subscription-based, sales reps need to focus on the lasting benefit clients get from a service or product — not just on closing the deal. Compensation plans should reward reps for maximizing every touchpoint and achieving the outcomes intended. They should also reward team participation — in other words, all the key players involved in delivering a superior outcome. Having genuine customer benefit at the center of a compensation plan helps to counter the idea that sales is all about the seller.
  • Lean into the role of data and insights. Sales is more scientific than it’s ever been. Sales tools can now leverage insights from sellers’ and buyers’ activity to help reps prioritize activities and work with those buyers who are truly in market for a solution. At the same time, automation tools offload the administrative burden on reps, freeing them up for more collaboration and problem-solving. The fact that successful modern selling blends data, insights, and soft skills should make it a more compelling choice among college students — if only they knew this was the case. As the WSJ article notes, few colleges offer sales-specific degree programs, another key reason the old stereotypes persist. Sales leaders should get engaged with local colleges that have marketing courses and find ways to encourage development of sales-oriented courses.

Some people who are thriving in sales roles now not only didn’t study sales but never even saw it as an option for them, yet they love it because of the collaboration, the problem-solving, and the opportunity to be of value in high-stakes decisions. To recruit talented reps and show how rewarding a career path in sales can be, sales leaders need to do more to dismantle outdated and tired perceptions.


Author Phil Harrell is VP, group director at Forrester Research. Read more from Forrester here.

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