Expert advice: Where should you start your sales career?

Don’t be discouraged if you’re not a “born salesperson.”

Anyone can learn the skills they need to be successful in sales, provided you start with the right foundation.

But picking the right place to start your career can be difficult. There are commission-based and salary-based positions, inside sales and outside sales jobs, and innumerable B2B and B2C industries to specialize in. Which environment will teach you what you need to know—and fast?

We spoke with a variety of sales professionals to see what they had to say about each of these options. As it turns out, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The right place for you will depend upon what skills you already have and what you’re ready to improve on.

Commission-based positions

In a commission-based sales position, all or part of your income depends upon your ability to make a successful sale. On the one hand, this means that there’s theoretically no limit to how much you can earn. But if you’re in a 100% commission-based position, meaning you have no base salary, there’s no guaranteed minimum you can earn, either.

Interestingly, the sales professionals that recommended commission-based positions were passionate about owning their own businesses. They preferred commission-based positions for their flexibility, limitless opportunities, and because these positions quickly teach newbies how to swim—or sink.

Vacay Visionary Founder Veronica Hanson’s first job was an hourly sales position in retail, which made her feel like her efforts weren’t fairly compensated. She moved on to a 100% commission-based job to learn more and increase her income.

“A full commission structure will teach you how your efforts are directly correlated to your income,” Veronica says. “Above all else, these sales positions help people level up their lifestyles and skills.”

Veronica’s experience with commission-based positions gave her the know-how and confidence to launch her own business, which now generates passive income and allows her to be location independent.

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Positions with base pay or salary

Before you jump on the commission-based bandwagon, you should know that most sales professionals we spoke to favored positions with a salary or at least some base pay for rookies. Without a strong understanding of fundamental sales techniques, commission-based positions can stress out inexperienced salespeople and make them feel desperate.

“High-pressure sales…although a motivator for some, can create situations of desperation that ruin your sales technique,” says Dwayne Vera, a sales trainer and consultant who has managed sales teams for Fortune 500 companies. “Much like desperation to reach a certain number of reps in weight-lifting can cause you to have improper form and lead to injuries, the desperation to make a sale can cause you to have an improper technique and injure your credibility or your ability to sell properly.”

In the end, your decision to start in a position with commissions or with guaranteed pay will depend upon your existing strengths and weaknesses. If you thrive in a high-pressure environment and have some natural selling ability, you might grow more quickly in a commission-based position.

If you’re unsure or want to refine your techniques before adding a challenging variable in an already challenging field, start in a position that has a financial safety net.

By now you hopefully have an idea of what pay structure you’re best suited to start in, but what about the actual sales environment? Again, whether you want to work in a retail location, in the field, in a call center, or on a small team depends upon your learning style and existing strengths.

Outside sales

Outside sales include retail, working in the field, or any other situation that primarily involves face-to-face conversations. These kinds of positions are a good place to start for people who like dynamic interactions and want some training before leveling up to more high-pressure situations.

Corey McCarthy, an Account Executive with BizLibrary, felt that his time in retail helped him learn the basics of communicating with strangers. It gave him a solid foundation before moving on to a more fast-paced environment like a call center.

“Retail and outside sales really make you think on your feet and react quickly to the customer’s needs,” says McCarthy. “There were always curveballs coming your way with difficult situations, but I feel that really helped me understand a lot about sales and uncover some great soft skills.”

Outside sales also give you more opportunities to become an expert about what you’re selling, especially if you’re handling a physical product. You can watch how customers interact with it, see what they like best, then leverage that information to sell to future customers.

Related: 19 Ways to Nail Your Next Sales Presentation

“I have found that speaking with customers face-to-face is the single best way to learn and grow,” said Albert Ho, who got his start selling CPAP machines to people with sleep apnea, and now educates other healthcare sales professionals through his consulting business Healthcare Heroes. “One can observe how customers need your product, and the features and benefits that customers want.”

Those observations served him well: Within one year he had over 400 customers, and within two years he’d made $1 million in sales.

Inside sales

Inside sales is the most common sales model for B2B, SaaS, tech, and B2C companies that have higher ticket products. These kinds of sales are typically handled remotely via phone or email. Inside sales reps may find themselves working in a call center, with a sales team, or even from their own home.

Mack Dudayev, Co-Founder of Chance Realty, LLC, thinks that call centers can be good places to start for people who are already comfortable with talking to strangers and want to desensitize themselves to rejection.

“This environment will facilitate your development of a thicker skin considering your rejection rate is much higher at a call center versus those who hold in-person positions,” Mack says.

He also believes that working in a call center will equip a new salesperson with more skills and faster than an outside sales position. It makes sense given that you’ll always be in the company of more experienced peers.

“The fact that you’re constantly surrounded by other sales representatives provides you with valuable hands-on experience, mentorship, and the ability to witness various styles of sale.”

However, there are pitfalls to working in a call center, too. It’s important not to rely too heavily on a script and become complacent.

Patrick Rafferty is the Director of Business Development for Online Optimism, a digital marketing company based out of New Orleans. He believes that performing the same cold call speech without any modifications is a recipe for disaster.

Instead, truly successful inside sales reps require a level of authenticity that can only be honed, not rehearsed. He says:

“If you work in an environment that provides you with real, honest conversations with a potential client, you’ll learn how to create a sound strategy for them instead of pushing a product and becoming the stereotypical salesperson.”

You have to train for sales like you would train for a marathon, it’s a muscle that needs to be worked, every day, without fail. The more calls you make, the more no’s you get, the more emails you send, the stronger that muscle gets. And for training purposes, there are few industries more grueling and competitive than financial services. If you want to work your sales muscle, sell mortgages or insurance. And if you get good it at, your paycheck can grow pretty fast.

Michael Carroll, Head of Growth at Nutshell

In an industry you care about

Another way to avoid the trap of becoming a stereotypical salesperson is to join an industry you care about from the very start.

Albert Ho, the CPAP salesman who went on to train other healthcare sales professionals, firmly believes that you should follow your interests when choosing a field to specialize in.

“If you’re not passionate about cars, don’t work at an auto dealership,” he says. “I’m passionate about healthcare, so I went into nursing and then into medical device sales.”

When you genuinely believe in the value of what you’re selling, it’s easier to have authentic conversations with potential customers. You also won’t get sick of thinking about the product all the time, and the occasional workplace doldrums will be easier to push through.

Somewhere with training or access to mentorship

Whether you decide to start in a call center or in retail, in a commission-based position or a position with base pay, almost all of the sales professionals we spoke to stressed the importance of starting your career with a company that values your growth.

“If you are going to invest your time in an organization, make sure they invest some time and training in you,” says Corey McCarthy, the Account Executive with BizLibrary.

Ideally, this means going through a structured, immersive training program, as well as having access to experienced mentors.

“For a beginner to be good in sales, it is crucial to be guided and trained by another great salesman,” says Shawn Lim, a Sales Manager with M&P International Freights. “Having a mentor around lets you discover your weaknesses and strengths so you can improve your sales skills at a fast rate.”

Related: Who was your sales mentor, and what was their greatest lesson?

Where’s the best place to start a sales career?

The answer ultimately depends on your existing strengths, weaknesses, goals, and interests.

Be honest about what your needs are before you choose. If you know that making sales face-to-face would be easy for you, but you have a fear of rejection, then maybe it’s time to take the plunge at a call center. If a 100% commission-based position would leave you feeling frazzled and unproductive, seek out a role with some base pay.

To all the seasoned sellers out there: Where did you get your start in sales? Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @nutshell!

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