In this corner, political uncertainty, the “fiscal cliff,” Europe on an economic precipice and the rising fixed costs of keeping sales representatives on the payroll. And in the opposite corner, a gradually improving economy, incrementally increased business confidence and sales automation tools that make sales hires a better investment.
Yes, sales hiring in 2013 is shaping up as a fistfight between the forces of positive thinking and the pall of pessimism in turbulent times.
“We're cautiously optimistic," says Peter Polachi, founding partner at Framingham, Massachusetts-based Polachi Access Executive Search, which finds top-level sales executives for technology, venture-capital and private-equity firms. "Business is expanding, but how quickly will it grow [in 2013]?”
Even as the housing market rises from a historic bottom, the trauma of the financial crisis has transformed consumer attitudes for the long run. "With the recession, customers are a lot more careful about spending their money," says Lenny Kharitonov, president of Unlimited Furniture Group, a New York City retailer.
Against this background, who will be hiring sales reps in 2013, and what knowledge and aptitudes will employers be seeking in sales job candidates? Let's take a look around.
Many Firms Expect to Grow Sales Staff
Sales job opportunities won't be concentrated in a small number of industries in 2013; they'll be found wherever in the economy businesses are finding ways to sustain growth.
Take health information technology, a busy intersection of two high tech industries in the 2010s.
"We have about two dozen inside and outside salespeople, account managers and sales engineers, who are more technical," says Kevin Cook, vice president of business development at Curaspan, a Newton, Massachusetts-based provider of patient-management software. "We expect to grow our salesforce by at least 20 percent in 2013."
Or take something as fundamental as furniture. "Our business is growing, and we expect sales and staff to double," says Kharitonov, whose business employs seven full-time sales reps.
In the meantime, more and more businesses -- even midsize and smaller ones -- are using ever-more sophisticated tools to boost the productivity of their sales reps.
"We crunch your data to show -- out of your 100 accounts -- which 10 make up your sweet spot," says AJ Gandhi, vice president of customer solutions at Lattice Engines, a San Mateo, California-based provider of "big data" sales analytics software. "Reps are able to sell about 10 percent more, which will enable them to earn more incentive pay," Gandhi says.
Such innovations can create sales jobs -- by increasing the value of investments in sales staff. Conversely, automation can also reduce the need for sales reps -- because fewer salespeople will be needed to hit a given target. Economic trends will determine which dynamic dominates.
Technical and Product Knowledge Matter -- Sometimes
How important will it be to know the industry that you sell into in 2013? It depends, often on the availability of specific knowledge in available sales candidates.
"In technology, domain knowledge is a key driver," Polachi says. "It's somewhat looser with social media, cloud computing and big data, because you often can’t find a guy who has five or 10 years of experience."
Indeed, even in technology sales, core skills are often transferable, at least to a degree.
"For outside sales, we're looking for healthcare experience, so they can build relationships with senior executives," Cook says. For inside sales, the successful candidate's experience could be lighter in healthcare or in an industry such as financial services, he adds.
Soft Skills Still Paramount
One fundamental of sales won't change in 2013: “The most important thing is being able to identify with the customer," says Kharitonov. "With buyers using different channels, salespeople have to be sensitive to different ethnicities, backgrounds and cultures."
Even in technology, there are intangible personal qualities that can't be taught, says Cook. "I'm looking for drive, motivation, intellect -- people who are articulate and willing to learn." Persistence is another perennial requirement. "Can they hang in for a six- to eight-month sales cycle?"
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