Sales doesn’t have a glowing reputation in popular culture. Salespeople are presented as either sad sack Willy Lomans or hard-hearted sharks like the character played by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross (“ABC—Always Be Closing!”).
But the reality is that sales is a respected profession and an excellent training ground for recent college grads, regardless of their career ambitions. Corporate leaders such as Oracle CEO Mark Hurd, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and IBM CEO Ginny Rometty all started out in sales.
In addition to being a solid stepping stone, sales teaches business fundamentals and hones interpersonal, time management, organizational, and other key skills.
“If you help a client, if your underpinning is helping to solve problems, that’s what life is,” explains Joanne Olsen, Oracle senior vice president of sales and consulting for North America. “And that’s what business is about. It’s about solving problems.”
Sales also helps people develop tactics they can apply beyond selling, because it requires them to listen and understand problems. “It infuses a discipline and a rigor around understanding a business problem, mapping it to how do I solve it, justifying it with a financial return, and then stewarding its success,” Olsen says. “So you end up developing all the survival capabilities that executives need.”
Sales also offers opportunities in a difficult job market for recent college graduates. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the employment rate for young adults in 2014 (69.4%) was lower than the rate in 2008 or 2000.
According to a survey conducted on behalf of job posting site CareerBuilder, “Information technology (30 percent) and customer service jobs (28 percent) top the list of position types hiring managers are primarily looking to fill. Opportunities also abound in finance/accounting (22 percent), sales (21 percent), and business development (19 percent).”
The Oracle Sales Universe
Oracle’s North American sales organization has recently hired more than 900 entry-level people, each of whom learn the ropes during a rigorous five-week training course.
Oracle also has established a mentoring program so that new people can benefit from the wisdom of more experienced salespeople, and it encourages new employees to build on the relationships they established during their initial training sessions.
Olsen says Oracle has developed a startup culture that rewards risk-taking, but unlike most startups, has a proven track record, is financially secure, and is led by a technology visionary. And the company, she notes, is willing to either acquire or develop leading-edge technologies that allow it to compete across the board.
“We like being number one. And we have unbounded energy to go after being number one in every market that we are in,” Olsen says. “That’s what brought me here.”
Olsen asks only one thing of new recruits—that they “go deep.” That is, learn everything there is to know about the Oracle products and technologies they sell, about competitors’ products and technologies, and about the business and economic environment in which they operate.
“I’m going to start the ball rolling,” she says. “I’m going to invest in you. I’m going to make information available to you. Then, you are going to pick up that ball. You are going to embrace it passionately. You are going to commit energy to it every day. And when you do that and you do that successfully with clients, you are then going to have the financial return that you seek, and your success will then lead and fuel Oracle’s success.”
Traits of a Great Salesperson
In that vein, Olsen says that great salespeople have to be compelling people—articulate, convincing, adaptable, and authoritative. The authority comes from knowing everything there is to know about the business and technology landscape.
Not everyone is naturally articulate, but Olsen says Oracle provides access to seminars and other resources to help people learn to speak confidently and with authority.
Great salespeople also need to be adaptable, to present themselves differently to different people. “You have to be a chameleon,” she says. “You have to have the instinct to look across or listen to a client and say, ‘My style is too strong. I’m going to back it down,’ because the ultimate goal is to open up a channel of connection, of communication.”
Not everyone who joins Oracle’s sales force will stay in sales for their entire careers. But the foundation that experience provides can’t help but enrich their lives in one way or another.
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