- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

Sales is Not a 4-Letter Word
by Tom Wolfe, Career Coach and Contributing Editor

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Article Sponsored by: MBM Food Service

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Several years ago, a well-respected business magazine surveyed the leaders of the 500 largest U.S. industrial companies to see what, if any, common denominators of success they share. The survey showed that the most common one was sales experience. More than half spent the majority of their professional lives on sales and marketing career paths. Although that might surprise you, it is easy to understand why: No matter how good its products or services, a company will not succeed if no one buys them.


Starting a new career in a sales capacity might be an excellent choice for many separating military personnel, but most of them shy away from sales. During my career in the counseling and placement of military personnel, I found that only one out of 10 candidates walked in the door saying he or she wanted a sales job. Among the remaining nine, on average there were three who, given analysis of their attributes and motivators, should have started their civilian careers in a sales position. After thorough research and job-hunting, two of them did so. The third person started his or her career differently but transferred to a sales position within two years.


What’s the hesitation? There’s a simple explanation. For most of these people, “sales” is a four-letter word and something to be avoided. Where does that attitude come from? Here’s my theory: Blame it on your parents.


The people who raise us influence many of the values and opinions that we hold onto as adults. Just as they teach us to avoid four-letter words, they instill in us a negative attitude toward sales. From an early age, we are exposed to sales mostly from the perspective of the consumer. We are taught to distrust sales people. They sell us things we do not need. They charge us more than we should have to pay. When we get it home, it doesn’t work as well as it should. When we go back to complain, they are nowhere to be found. With that mindset, is it any wonder that we have difficulty picturing ourselves in that profession?


There is some truth in those scenarios, but the picture is incomplete. The consumer’s exposure to sales is only the tip of the iceberg, the visible part. To get the entire picture you must also consider the importance of sales in the free-market system and capitalism. Put aside for a minute your image of the door-to-door salesman or the telemarketer and consider the following:


- Businesses selling to other businesses

- One industrial company using the products of another

- Companies selling products or services that fill existing needs or help other companies solve problems or make them more efficient

- Hospitals purchasing medical equipment

- Computer manufacturers buying microprocessors

- Delivery companies purchasing trucks

- Oil refineries buying chemicals.


The list is virtually endless. Moreover, when it comes to the business world, exceptional service, quality products and competitive pricing are not enough. What matters is profit. Income must exceed expenses. Without sales, there is no income and hence, no profit. No profit means no company.


Independent of your current attitude toward the S-word, allow for the possibility that you might be among those who should go into sales. It is not my intent to sell you on sales, but rather to expose you to the option. Whether you choose to interview for sales positions or not, I strongly believe that this information is very important for all job seekers.


Sales opportunities come in many shapes and sizes. Consider these:


- Financial: Products include mutual funds, insurance, annuities, financial planning services, stocks and bonds; the customer base is either retail, commercial or institutional

- Business-to-Business (B2B): A business selling its products or services to another business, which then incorporates what has been purchased for resale to its customers

- Real Estate: This includes clients in the residential or commercial markets; the product could be raw land, office space, buildings or houses

- Consumer products: Products companies sell to wholesale or retail outlets, using techniques like shelf-space management, product promotion and advertising

- Technology/engineering: These sales reps have specific technical expertise or education; they call on a client base that is often highly educated and technically sophisticated; products are big-ticket items or capital equipment

- Pharmaceutical: Sales reps detail the capabilities of their products to medical professionals; this is indirect selling in that the client (the doctor) is not the end user (the patient)

- Medical: Products include hospital supplies, diagnostic equipment, test kits, surgical instruments and the like; some relevant education or experience might be required due to a very knowledgeable and sophisticated clientele

- Manufacturer’s reps: They represent the product lines of several different companies, usually within a specific industry; many companies use reps as an alternative to having an in-house sales force

- Recruiting: Recruiters are the salespeople who work for placement companies, headhunters and employment agencies; they sell candidates on using their services and employers on hiring those candidates

- Retail: Department store clerks and automobile sales personnel are typical examples; they sell directly to the consumer (this may be the “sales” category we are all most familiar with)


Even if a job in sales is not right for you, do not discount its importance as part of your job search. Interviewing is selling. Target the potential customer, get your foot in the door, identify the need and fill it with your product – YOU.


By the way, back to that survey I mentioned in the first paragraph: Care to guess what the second most common denominator was among America’s civilian business leaders? Prior military service! GOOD HUNTING!


Tom Wolfe is a Career Coach, Columnist, Author and Veteran and can be found at


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