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The sales sector is concerned with the selling of goods and services. Sales is a key function of any business: whether it produces a physical product or offers a service, a link between the producer and the customer is necessary so that the customer is aware of and has access to the product. A sales graduate career can be challenging, but extremely rewarding.

Sales can be conducted in a variety of different ways. The most traditional form is face-to-face selling. However, technology has allowed for additional ways for the salesperson to market their goods without having to meet with the customer directly. For example; telesales, mail order, 'sales engines', vending machines, online stores and so on.

A number of large organisations across a range of industries offer graduate schemes in sales, such as Microsoft, Softcat, Unilever, Nissan and Nestlé. Other companies offer sales, marketing or general schemes where you could opt for sales positions or rotate between departments.

If you're looking to experience life in the fast lane, a sales career can offer graduates high rewards, plenty of travel and exciting challenges. Graduate sales careers can also provide opportunities to gain professional training and recognised qualifications. Sales skills are highly transferable, and a successful sales career often open doors to management. According to High Fliers, 27% of the UKs top 100 graduate employers have vacancies within sales roles. Therefore, following a career path in sales could be very promising for Graduates.

Sales professionals use problem-solving skills to understand, anticipate and meet customers' needs. Their solutions involve selling one or more of their products or services to customer ranging from private individuals to governments and international businesses.

These days, sales focus on building long-term relationships with customers rather than hitting one-off targets. Sales are now recognised as a key strategic component of any company. Very few products are unique or measurably different from their competitors, so one of the key differences between various companies is the relationship between the sales people and the customer. Sales professionals work closely with their customers, acting as all-round business consultants, to identify how they can make their business more profitable. Their techniques may include recommending additional suppliers or offering after-sales training or troubleshooting.

The Sales function is the activity that defines all commercial organisations. Whatever product or service the organisation offers, its success or failure depends on the success of the sales effort. Sales people are important to any business and this is reflected in their high rates of pay.

Key account management has recently developed from relationship management in business-to-business markets, such as financial services and pharmaceutical sales. Sales professionals working in key accounts typically talk to buyers about long-term development and bring other team members (such as packaging experts) into the selling process. In this way, sales become a team process.

Average Sales Graduate Salary

Sales Graduate Career Path

A typical sales graduate career starts with a role such as sales executive or representative, which involves selling their products or services in a particular geographical area or business sector. They are responsible for developing existing customer relationships as well as finding new customers.

As a sales person, the more successful you are, the more you will earn and the greater your chances of promotion. Career development includes sales management and senior sales-specialists posts.

Consumer sales career opportunities for graduates can be found in most major companies, especially FMCG sector operations. In these posts, graduates start in field sales, selling products to wholesalers and retailers, or in head office, selling directly to large supermarkets for example.

Training takes place in-house. Many companies give their new entrants an induction course that covers knowledge of the products, goods or services, as well as selling techniques and the methods used for sales administration. The skills training element may be organised by the employer or by an outside specialist. Further development usually takes place in the form of shadowing an experienced representative and gradually taking over some calls under supervision.

Opportunities in technical sales are typically to be found in large petrochemical and engineering companies. Sales professionals in these roles often require relevant engineering or science based degrees for detailed technical understanding of products and their customers' requirements, as well as general selling ability. Their job is to find the best solutions to their customers' technical problems and to build long-term relationships. There are often international travel opportunities.

Increasingly, media owners are recruiting graduates to sell advertising space and airtime. Media sales professionals negotiate the sale of advertising space in the press and posters/hoardings, and airtime on TV, radio and cinema. They may sell space or time to advertising or media agencies, or directly to advertisers. Media sales professionals often have work to very tight deadlines.

Training for media sales executives also takes place in-house. You will normally attend a thorough induction course, designed to teach you, from scratch: how to sell; how to deal with potential objections; and how to close sales. It is likely that some role-play exercises will be involved. After the induction course you spend a period of time making sales calls but without any pressure to meet targets. You would then be expected to get up to speed quickly and to begin to bring in the number of sales required by your individual target.

Graduates in pharmaceutical or life sciences will find sales opportunities at drug and healthcare companies. Pharmaceutical or medical sales professionals advise GPs, hospital specialists and other healthcare professionals about the range of drugs available and their technical issues. Their role is more akin to marketing than sales, but it is likely that pharmaceutical sales roles may develop into key account management and team selling. Pharmaceutical sales professionals are required to pass exams in pharmacology and manufacture medicines set by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

Medical sales executives increase the awareness and usage of a company's range of pharmaceutical and medical products amongst health care professionals. They generate business and, with a team of four to eight people in a territory, try to ensure that formularies contain their product, that doctors use it as a front line treatment and that they, the representatives, add value to the doctor's working life. They may also make presentations and organise symposia for doctors as well as working through one-to-one contacts.

Financial sales staff may work as independent financial advisors (IFA) or as a representative of a bank, insurance company or building society. They may be self-employed (commission or fee only) or employed (generally a combination of salary and commission). They often sell a range of products including mortgages, pensions, life insurance and savings plans, and so they need a good understanding of their customers' needs, priorities and lifestyles. A number of organisations regulate financial services selling, such as the Personal Investment Authority (PIA), whose rules must be followed by financial sales professionals.

Employers provide training in-house. You would usually learn by shadowing experienced financial services advisers, doing some of the research and administration connected with client work for them, and gradually beginning to do some work with clients yourself, under supervision. As you become more experienced you will acquire your own list of clients.

On-the-job training is supplemented by theoretical training and it is necessary to pass examinations in order to become fully qualified. All entrants must pass the Financial Planning Certificate (FPC) parts 1, 2 and 3 within their first year of work in order to become licensed. An alternative qualification is the Certificate for Financial Advisers (CEFA). Both certificates are approved by The Financial Services Authority (FSA) and cover: products, regulatory aspects of financial services work and giving advice.

Some large employers run their own courses in-house to help trainees gain the required certificates. Most trainee advisers, however, study through external courses which are run at higher education institutions throughout the country and may be offered on a part-time/day-release or distance-learning basis.

Qualifications and Skills Needed

What proportion of candidates as a percent we place into Sales graduate careers and the typical qualities graduate employers look for.

GRB Placements for Sales by Degree

Typical Candidate Attributes

Entry is open to graduates of all subjects but the following may improve your chances: 

  • business/management;
  • advertising or media studies – for advertising and media sales; 
  • life science, dentistry, nursing, medicine or pharmacy - for pharmaceutical and medical sales
  • modern European languages;
  • computing, engineering or technology for work in technical sales.

Commercial awareness, strong communication skills and, in some cases, foreign language fluency, may be more important than academic qualifications. For some technical products, a relevant degree may be useful. For finanical sales evidence of commercial awareness acquired through a relevant vacation, longer term placement or related opportunity is an advantage. Some experience in sales or customer service work could also be useful. 

Individual employers set their own entry standards. Some require a higher education qualification while others welcome applications from people with all kinds of background. Personality is more important than qualifications. 

Sales professionals should be dynamic, confident, independent and flexible. In addition they need excellent communication and presentation skills and have creative potential for working with advertising and PR agencies. In the pharmaceutical sector, for example, sales professionals must be able to abide by high ethical standards.

Key skills are listening and analysing needs. You will need exceptional negotiating skills and be able to accommodate a wide range of personalities and expertise. The selling process is at the leading edge of any business and is much more valued then it used to be, especially when underpinned by professional qualifications.

For most sales posts, a full driving licence and an acceptance that a significant proportion of the job is spent away from base and home is essential. 

There is a fairly high number of vacancies in most fields and this leads to moderate competition for jobs from applicants with the right skills. Get some work experience involving customer service, for example in shops or catering outlets. Arrange to talk to a sales representative by contacting an appropriate company. 

Sales people can earn very high salaries in commerical organisations. Most sales people earn an element of commission in their salary, although some posts are commission only. The total earnings you will see advertised is usually 'on-target-earnings' (OTE), which is the total amount of money you will make with your basic salary plus the commission earned if you hit your sales targets.

The conditions of work can vary widely according to the field in which you operate. If working in export you may be based in the UK or overseas and may have to use your hotel as an office. Sales executives frequently work from home and transmit orders, reports and sales analyses to head office daily. The work offers responsibility, independence and autonomy. Consequently, much time is spent alone and the role is demanding. Self-employment is sometimes possible. 

After a basic sales training, typical starting salaries for graduate territory representatives are in the region of £18,000-£20,000. The package for field or territory sales executives normally includes a car. National account managers earn around £28,000, while senior sales executives can easily have OTEs of over £50,000. Normally, a typical working week for sales professionals is 40 hours, but they often exceed that by a considerable margin when travelling time is taken into account.

Sources for Further Information

Institute Sales Management
British Promotional Merchandise Association
Institute of Export