This blog is part of TechTarget’s “Becoming a Sales Professional” series that chronicles the different skills, attitudes and paths that top salespeople have applied to build successful careers in sales for those looking to break into the field.
Starting my journey from English Major to Sales (and why you can do it too)
The year is 2007. The “song of summer” is Umbrella by Jay Z and Rihanna. The most popular show in the US is American Idol (and the winner was Jordin Sparks in case you were curious). And my crowd were all obsessed with McLovin and Superbad. As a fresh college grad, bright eyed and eager, I started my job search with excitement and optimism, while the housing market had imploded, the economy was down the tubes, and the job market was… bad, bad, bad. Though as an English major from a small liberal arts college, I had not yet been steeped in the implications of such things on newly minted job seekers, it soon became clear that the real world had served up a strong dose of pragmatism.
Business + English = Marketing?
Coming off graduation, the other English majors in my class were looking at roles that neatly aligned to what we’d been learning: teaching jobs, intro editing, creative writing, and so on. Yet these jobs are hard to find even in good times and, I’d started to understand, remain low on the pay scale. As the economic storm clouds continued to gather, this English major started to recognize that she cared about making money. And soon I knew I was going to need to take a different path. So what kind of career was I cut out for? I knew business was a good source of money, so (like many) I thought: Business + English = Marketing. Done!
Finding my true path
After searching hard on LinkedIn (a very young service at the time) for work in the Boston area, I was lucky to find a field marketing job at a fast-growing Boston-based enterprise tech media company (and I’m still here!). The role seemed like it would leverage English skills, things like writing and one-to-many communication. But just months into the gig, while staffing a trade show booth, I discovered aspects of the job that woke up a whole new angle. There were additional things that really excited me: like the face-to-face interaction with prospects on the floor; the listening to needs and pitching helpful ideas – and these were motions that were actually being executed by our sales reps. Here was a set of tangible skills that I had some raw material for, and I could see myself perfecting. These people were building relationships in real time. Importantly, they were personally in control of directly making money for the firm and for themselves. I really liked this work and was energized to succeed in it.
Fast forward to my acceptance into the sales training program. Early on, I certainly felt out of my depth compared to the typical trainees with Econ, Finance and Business degrees. They seemed to have a lot of fundamental understanding of “business” that I was missing. But I had writing and communications skills. And as much as success in business requires understanding business, it’s still people doing the buying, so understanding them, listening and communicating with them effectively, is every bit as important. If I leaned into my strengths and worked hard on my gaps, I could see my way to success on this track.
Honing my craft
Now, after 15 years across a variety of selling roles in a firm known in its industry as a minter of excellent sales professionals, I’ve grown to understand why my English degree served as a uniquely valuable foundation. Whether as a hunter, a farmer and across the majority of my time focused in the enterprise account space, my English studies have definitely been an important part of the secrets to my success.
How to turn an English degree into a successful Sales career
Here are three specific ways that my academic path set me up to become a successful career sales professional:
- I’ve always had a deep curiosity about people, their stories, what motivates them, and empathy for their experiences and reality. Simply put, I care about my clients and the “stories” that are the business situations they find themselves in. My job becomes helping them write the subsequent chapters in better and better ways.
- I’m open to and aware of the diversity of perspectives on any given situation, so I listen and can adjust in very dynamic situations.
- I’m sensitive to the emotions in play during sales cycles and between them, how people’s emotional state influences their will to push through an innovative project for their company or their mental barriers to doing so.
- Both verbally and in writing, a seller’s ability to communicate complex ideas in a relatable way can be crucial in both kicking off a deal and seeing it through to a successful close.
- Communication initially creates an opening. Then it strengthens collaborative thinking. And over time, it builds the advantage of real connection.
- Despite the best possible enablement materials, it’s still up to the seller to customize her approach in tune with what she sees and hears from the customer.
- Ability to understand and appreciate “the details”, while seeing the connections and situating them into the context of the client’s bigger picture
- If you think about the best novels, they have rich detail, complex character development all within big themes or story arcs. The ability to discern and discuss both the precise details AND the big picture supports clients on both fronts as they work to assess their needs and communicate them to their constituencies up and down the organization.
- A seller also creates significant value inside her own organization by bringing back client intelligence and effectively communicating it to Product, Customer Success and even Sales Enablement and Marketing.
Obviously, for reasons like the above and many more, my opinion here is that English graduates have every reason to believe that we too can have wonderful careers in Sales (despite the fact that few in our chosen field seem to ever acknowledge or explain that to us!) The fact probably is that successful sellers can likely come from any field of undergraduate study as long as you’re willing to do the work. But I think the magic happens when you also make sure to access the things you’ve learned that aren’t part of a typical seller’s background. That you work to turn your differences into strengths that can make you stand out as different and perhaps even better. Knowing that there’s always someone out there who can say it even better, let me leave you with this quote that I think gets to the heart of what I’m feeling: Prof. W. Denham Sutcliffe at Kenyon College has said that “ Liberal learning is that which underlies, that which gives purpose and direction to practical skills. It tries to distinguish between more and less important, between the grand and the trivial, and to concern itself rather with the center than the periphery.” That’s certainly part of what I try to get to with my clients. And I’m living proof that it’s been resonating!
Interested in a Sales Career at TechTarget?
If you are interested in a Sales career at TechTarget, please reach out to Sue Doisneau.