Sales executives sell a company's products and services. Customers include individuals, businesses and government organisations and sales may be domestic (within the UK) or international, or a combination of both.

As well as approaching potential customers with the aim of winning new business; sales executives work to maintain good relationships with existing clients, gaining repeat business wherever possible.

The sales industry is target driven and as a consequence the work can sometimes be demanding and pressurised.

Types of sales executive

The title may vary in different organisations and a sales executive may also be referred to as a:

  • sales representative;
  • sales consultant;
  • territory manager;
  • business development representative.

Responsibilities

Typical work activities depend on the market and the setting. A basic distinction can be made between two types of sales:

  • business to business (B2B);
  • business to customer or consumer (B2C).

B2B sales involve selling products or services from one business to another. This is a typical avenue for graduates. For example, a sales executive in a company that manufactures fast moving consumer goods (FMCG), e.g. soft drinks, will sell to the retailer and may be involved in making a strong argument so the products get shelf space. Activities important for success include:

  • relationship building;
  • researching the market and related products;
  • presenting the product or service favourably and in a structured professional way face-to-face.

B2C sales involve direct selling to the consumer or end user. Examples include selling credit cards via the telephone or selling new cars in a showroom.

Typical activities for sales executives generally include:

  • listening to customer requirements and presenting appropriately to make a sale;
  • maintaining and developing relationships with existing customers in person and via telephone calls and emails;
  • cold calling to arrange meetings with potential customers to prospect for new business;
  • responding to incoming email and phone enquiries;
  • acting as a contact between a company and its existing and potential markets;
  • negotiating the terms of an agreement and closing sales;
  • gathering market and customer information;
  • representing their company at trade exhibitions, events and demonstrations;
  • negotiating on price, costs, delivery and specifications with buyers and managers;
  • challenging any objections with a view to getting the customer to buy;
  • advising on forthcoming product developments and discussing special promotions;
  • creating detailed proposal documents, often as part of a formal bidding process which is largely dictated by the prospective customer;
  • liaising with suppliers to check the progress of existing orders;
  • checking the quantities of goods on display and in stock;
  • recording sales and order information and sending copies to the sales office, or entering figures into a computer system;
  • reviewing your own sales performance, aiming to meet or exceed targets;
  • gaining a clear understanding of customers' businesses and requirements;
  • making accurate, rapid cost calculations and providing customers with quotations;
  • feeding future buying trends back to employers;
  • attending team meetings and sharing best practice with colleagues.

Salary

  • Salaries and commission rates vary considerably in sales, but as a guide, basic salaries start in the range of £20,000 to £30,000.
  • Mid-range salaries with approximately three to five years' experience are usually around £28,000 to £40,000.
  • At senior level, you can earn a basic salary of £30,000 to £60,000.
  • Commission or bonuses can add £2,000 to over £100,000 to a basic salary, depending on the industry and product and the location and level of individual success.

Salaries are usually a combination of a basic salary (a guaranteed amount, regardless of sales made) and a bonus or commission (an amount based on the quantity sold). The combined amount is often referred to as on-target earnings (OTE). The salary shown in a job advert is often the OTE. Commission may be calculated as a percentage of or a flat rate for every sale. It can be capped or uncapped.

A bonus is usually a set cash amount paid only if a sales executive reaches a sales target within a defined period. As well as cash, a bonus may take the form of a prize, for example, cinema tickets or a holiday. Commissions and bonuses may be calculated and paid on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis. Rates may differ depending on whether the sale was from a new or existing customer.

As considerable travel is often required, many employers provide a company car, petrol allowance or subsidised mileage in your own car.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours vary according to sector but are generally quite long, with the pressure to meet targets making late finishes a regular part of the job, especially at the end of the employer's financial quarter or year.

Part-time work may be possible.

What to expect

  • Conditions of work vary widely according to the field in which you operate. For example, if you work in export, you could be based in the UK or overseas and may often have to use your hotel as an office or base.
  • Many sales executives work from home, transmitting orders, reports and sales analyses to the office on a regular basis.
  • Work on a commission-only basis is also available, which means working without a basic salary and having an income based entirely on sales.
  • Career breaks may be an option but can be difficult to arrange because of the need to maintain contacts.
  • Sales executives are generally expected to look professional and smart, particularly when liaising with clients.
  • Sales is a male-dominated industry.
  • Sales executives work in a range of markets, so jobs are quite widely available and there are employment opportunities in most areas of the country.
  • The requirement to meet and exceed targets makes this a demanding role and gives rise to frequent pressure.
  • Travel within a working day, overnight absence from home and overseas work are all common. The constant travel, sometimes with overnight stays or longer business trips, may affect your social and personal life.
  • The working culture created by management and colleagues can often be competitive.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates, the following subjects may improve your chances:

  • business, management or marketing;
  • computing, engineering or technology (for technical sales);
  • media studies (for advertising and media sales);
  • modern European or Asian languages (for organisations that operate in overseas markets).

Larger employers who operate graduate-training schemes usually look for a 2:1 or above, as well as evidence of involvement with university activities or some relevant work experience.

Academic qualifications are often less important than personality, attitude and abilities and a strong commercial awareness and excellent communication skills are particularly desirable attributes.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not needed.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • the ability and desire to sell;
  • excellent communication skills;
  • a positive, confident and determined approach;
  • resilience and the ability to cope with rejection;
  • a high degree of self-motivation and ambition;
  • the skills to work both independently and as part of a team;
  • the capability to flourish in a competitive environment;
  • a good level of numeracy.

Fluency in a foreign language can be helpful.

For most sales positions, a full driving licence is essential.

Work experience

A number of larger companies recruit for sales positions as part of their graduate training portfolio. The training is sometimes combined with marketing, as organisations seek graduates who will work towards becoming commercial leaders of the future.

It is useful to be able to point to some work experience in a customer-facing environment, such as retail or hospitality.

Employers

A variety of companies across all sectors employ sales executives to broaden the demand for their brand, product or service. It is important to choose an area that suits your interests and career aspirations. Typical sectors include:

  • fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs), such as food and drink, dry commodities, tobacco and alcohol;
  • technical, including automotive, aerospace, IT, electronics, construction and communications;
  • business, such as consulting and advice, training, software and cloud-based computing services;
  • advertising, including magazine publishers, radio, television, web and text message;
  • pharmaceuticals, such as medical supplies and services;
  • financial, including banks and financial services providers.

Look for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies commonly advertise sales executive vacancies.

Agencies include:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Many companies offer new entrants a short induction course that covers knowledge of their products, goods or services, as well as the methods used for sales administration. This may be organised by the employer or by an outside training company.

Training will also include selling techniques, such as:

  • how to close sales;
  • how to deal with potential objections;
  • negotiation.

It is likely that some role-play exercises will be involved in this type of training. It is possible that very small companies will offer little or no training beyond some basic instruction.

After induction, new sales executives generally spend a period of time on probation, without any pressure to meet targets. Further development often takes place in the form of shadowing an experienced representative and gradually taking over sales calls, under supervision.

New recruits are usually expected to get up to speed quickly and, after a relatively short period of time, start bringing in the number of sales required to meet individual targets.

Sales executives may undertake further training and development to progress their career. The opportunities available will vary from employer to employer so it's a good idea to find out, at the interview stage, what support is available for training and to scope out the employer's attitude to continuing professional development (CPD).

A range of sales and marketing courses designed to enhance the career and pay prospects of sales executives are provided by the Institute of Sales & Marketing Management (ISMM).

Alternative professional training in sales is provided by the Managing and Marketing Sales Association. Recognition of these qualifications is by no means universal. Individual employers and line managers may have differing opinions as to their value.

Additionally, the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) run some sales training courses that may be relevant such as Market and Sales Forecasting and Advanced Selling Techniques.

Training companies that place graduates in professional sales roles and then provide a period of training include:

Other companies that train graduates in sales include Celsius Graduate Recruitment.

Some senior and experienced sales professionals do postgraduate courses in areas such as sales management, or study for an MBA.

Career prospects

After a period as a successful sales executive, you can expect to be promoted to:

  • handling larger and more prestigious customer accounts;
  • taking responsibility for key products;
  • working on national accounts, for example selling to retail buyers and wholesalers;
  • a sales executive trainer role (usually as part of a current role);
  • a sales manager role with responsibility for a team of people.

Many larger companies have a promotion structure that typically involves moving up from sales executive to area sales manager, to national sales manager and ultimately to sales director.

Promotion is usually based on results and so rapid progress and early promotion is common for high performers.

A move out of sales into a training and education or recruitment function is another possibility. Sales executives have the option to move into related career areas, such as advertising, marketing, more general commercial management or public relations (PR).

It is quite common to move between different companies to achieve promotion or a higher salary.