19 Jan Pity the Midwest Technology Sales Guy
CHICAGO – Watching the Midwest technology job market these days is an exercise in faith. Every day, more and more job openings show up, giving hope that things are truly turning around.
At the same time, lots of people we know are still out of work. More and more often, when we tell them about jobs we’ve spotted, they say to us: “Yes, I saw that job (on Craig’s List or ChicWIT or Monster.com) you wrote to me about but I’m not pursuing it. It looks like a no-win situation.”
Isn’t that fascinating? I can’t remember a time before this when technology professionals were in the position of not pursuing advertised job openings because they’re jaded and world-weary enough to know that even the sexiest-sounding jobs might be professional deathtraps.
Why is this? Companies that are fortunate enough to be hiring now haven’t made the decision to add staff lightly. Any new job that is advertised somewhere is heavily laden. In the old days, it might have been two or three jobs.
Companies are throwing nickels around like manhole covers and the position described as “marketing manager with background in sales” might carry with it the expectation that you’ll develop the marketing strategy, execute it (with no budget) and sell the product at the same time.
You’ll be there at the interview and you’ll ask: “What does your sales organization look like?” They’ll hem and haw and finally disclose that the sales force was laid off or that there’s one guy in Indiana doing straight-commission sales prospecting from his home. “But if you come on board as marketing manager, you can help out with that.” Lovely!
I used to think that the worst career to be in (from the standpoint of everyone else in the company thinking they could do your job with one eye shut) was HR. Huge numbers of people have no idea what HR people do and certainly don’t value any of it.
Over time, though, I’ve come to feel even more sympathy for high-tech salespeople. Even though they made piles of money during the boom times, let’s face it: most of that money is long gone and lots of the sales experience gained during those years isn’t especially applicable elsewhere.
I’ve seen plenty of job openings for software companies that specified: “No Internet-company sales applicants need apply.” Now isn’t that something? Imagine disqualifying a whole crop of potentially bright and able applicants because they had the bad luck to work for the wrong sort of company. Talk about picking the wrong horse with long-lasting consequences.
Why do companies ask marketing folks (or client-service folks or engineers) to sell? You wouldn’t ask a sales guy (that’s a unisex term) to create your marketing materials if you have any sense. Selling is hard. There is a lot more to it than schmoozing the customer and taking the order.
Sales veterans have volumes of knowledge about countering objections, using a consultative approach to learn the customer’s needs, using internal contacts to move throughout the client org chart and other strategies.
Because a competent sales force can be the difference between success and failure for a company, why are companies lowballing sales pros, expecting people to work for a low base or no base at all and generally abusing the sales function? Luckily, the smarter tech companies are doing great by their sales teams.
You will see it in their end-of-quarter results. Talk to a tech sales job hunter these days, though, and you’ll hear stories that will curl your hair – stories of jobs misrepresented, lofty sales (and commission) projections right out of the CEO’s most delirious fever dreams and products put out for sales that don’t actually work (or worse, that work but no one actually wants).
The old stereotype of the big-spending, glad-handing tech sales guy is pretty much lost to the dustbin of history. These days, companies with hardly any product or no product at all are attracting sales veterans with 20 years of experience to essentially conduct market research for them.
One sales pro I spoke to last week told me that it took her four months to figure out that her business development job (for an IT security firm) targeted for $100,000 annual compensation was actually a low-end market research job. “I’m never going to make more than my $30,000 base salary in this job,” she told me, “because the product isn’t what the market needs. Every time I pass back client feedback, they’re so grateful, but that doesn’t help me!”
Another part of the tech-sales stereotype is that salespeople never pay for anything out of their own pockets. They get everything expensed to the company. This surely was true at one time, but today, to be a tech salesperson often means that you’re justifying every expense from meals on the road to the two times you rented ” Matrix Reloaded” at the Hyatt in Minneapolis.
And then there’s the product. The sales support. The marketing. The quality function.
As companies downsize their back-office staffs, salespeople out in the field have less and less good stuff to say to unhappy clients (or even happy ones). Meanwhile, the steady chorus of “what did you sell today?” is unchanged despite reports of obsolete sales materials, quality problems and customer service woes.
One CEO told me: “I expect salespeople to complain. The thing to do is tune it out and focus on the revenue goal.” Hmmm. If you’re a technology sales job seeker, here are some things to inquire about on your next job interview:
1) Who was in this job before me? What were the circumstances around his or her departure from the job? Ask whether you can talk to this person. If the person was let go, you won’t be able to talk to him or her, but you can politely push for at least the rough context for the departure. Who was in the job before that person?
2) Ask to speak to other salespeople and to at least one customer that you’d be dealing with. At a point in the hiring process where the company is truly interested in you, they should be willing to let you contact a current customer even if it’s on a visit with the sales manager or another rep.
3) Ask to see the commission plan in writing. Go over it with a fine-toothed comb.
Ask about their credit policies, their satisfaction guarantees and their quality assurance processes. Ask about their quality standards and the percentage of products returned or projects not satisfactorily completed. Ask to see the last month’s or last quarter’s customer satisfaction reports. Find out how often commissions are paid and whether accelerators or decelerators are used and how they are applied.
4) Learn in detail how the company’s sales process works. Ask about sales training (not necessarily for you, but ask what level of training other salespeople have or have had). Find out about their marketing, sales materials and media and trade show presence.
5) Understand the expense reimbursement and travel policies. Find out about company credit cards or other shared accounts, use of company cars or car allowance and other aspects of money management.
6) Finally, at a point in the interview process where there is interest on both sides, ask to speak with the CEO. If it’s a huge company, scale this request appropriately. Maybe you’ll ask to meet the branch GM or the regional sales vice president. If this person isn’t on the interview roster, ask whether you can just meet him or her for five minutes.
This will show your seriousness and give you a chance to eyeball your boss’ boss. At first glance, do you trust this person? That’s a critical question to answer. If you don’t feel good about the person at the top, chances are excellent that you’ll eventually be dissatisfied with the company.
If the opportunity passes all these tests, you’re in great shape. Go knock ’em dead!
Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.