Sales Experience: What is Required and How To Gain It

Sujan Patel is the founder of Mailshake, a sales engagement software used by 38,000 sales and marketing professionals. He has over 15 years of marketing experience and has led the digital marketing strategy for companies like Salesforce, Mint, Intuit and many other Fortune 500 caliber companies.
  • March 5, 2024

Salespeople aren’t born — they’re made. Sure, some people have more of the soft skills necessary to succeed at sales, but few people are total naturals. To crush your sales goals and make them look easy, you’re going to need some in-depth training and plenty of practice.

Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about sales experience and, most importantly, how to get some and stand out from the crowd:

What is Sales Experience?

Before you can acquire sales experience, you should probably know what it really means. Sales experience is basically your history of selling both goods and services to others. It’s the end result of countless sales phone calls, emails, in-person meetings, and training sessions.

Sales experience is usually gained from prospecting, demoing, and closing your own deals, but you can also learn a lot from shadowing calls and listening to call recordings. Dissecting how the best in the business do it is also a great way to gather sales experience.

When it comes to getting a job in sales, most employers think of sales experience as your qualifications and background. Your track record in sales tells them how prepared you are for a potential role, what training you’ll need, and what compensation you should be able to earn.

Why is Sales Experience Important?

Sales experience is akin to being battle-tested. Hiring someone who’s been through the wringer and still asked for more is a special thing. It shows passion, perseverance, and spirit. It shows a potential employer that you’re not new to the game and, as such, might be better prepared to help them hit their business goals. It also shows you’ll need less hand-holding and will likely be able to ramp up quicker in your new role.

Sales experience teaches self-discipline, negotiation skills, and the ability to overcome obstacles, amongst many other desirable skills. In other words, sales experience makes you more attractive to potential employers and boosts your chances of getting an interview and getting hired.

How Do You Gain Sales Experience in 2024?

There’s no better way to gain experience than by getting a job in sales. But what if you don’t have experience?

Believe it or not, there are companies hiring entry-level reps with little to no experience. Often, they do that so that you don’t come into the role with bad habits from previous organizations. They can train you their way and mold you into their vision of a successful sales rep from the start. That said, they’ll also likely pay you less to start, since they have to spend the time and money to train you.

There’s nothing wrong with starting from scratch. In fact, it’s a great way to gain the experience necessary to either move up or to go to another company later on. Other ways to get sales experience include reading sales books, attending sales webinars, taking sales training programs, reading sales-related web content, and shadowing sales calls.

Another role that’s less desirable, but possibly more profitable is a commission-only sales role. Companies will bring you on to do sales and even train you, but you won’t get paid a set salary or hourly wage. You’ll only get paid when you close a deal successfully. It’s essentially a contractor role, but the upside is usually much higher than if you worked full-time.

If you’re still struggling to break into a sales role, you can always volunteer or work for a non-profit organization. Many organizations are looking for people to do cold outreach for fundraisers, political campaigns, or disaster relief. The skills you’d learn from volunteering absolutely translate over to the sales world and will help pad your resume and give you the real-world experience you need to get your foot in the door.

Sales Positions You Need Experience For

When you think of sales roles, you probably think they’re all the same. At some companies, that’s absolutely the truth. If it’s a small enough organization, they’ll likely only have one tier of sales reps, all of whom report directly to the owner or president of the company.

At larger companies, the list of sales roles is much longer. Here’s a short breakdown of the types of roles you’ll most likely need sales experience for:

  • Sales Director: The only role higher than Director is Vice President of Sales. Sales directors still have a pulse on the front lines and are responsible for creating and guiding the execution of the company’s sales strategy.
  • Sales Manager: Sales managers report directly to sales directors. They lead teams of sales representatives, own specific territories, and put together reports to pass up to the sales director to show progress.
  • Sales Operation Manager: Sales operations managers are constantly reviewing processes, identifying bottlenecks, and finding ways to bring in automation, AI, and tech to make the organization more effective.
  • Account Executive: The backbone of your organization, account executives are the ones demoing the product, overcoming objectives, and closing deals. Often, they’re senior sales reps that have proven themselves within the organization.
  • Sales Development Representative: SDRs are inbound salespeople who handle the influx of leads that stem from various areas of the business, including marketing efforts, inbound calls and emails, and webinars. They qualify leads and pass them up to account executives.
  • Business Development Representative: BDRs are outbound salespeople who are typically the ones sourcing and generating new potential leads through cold outreach efforts like cold calling, emailing, and LinkedIn messaging. They also pass leads up the chain.
  • Sales Apprentice or Intern: This is a sales trainee who’s fresh out of school and looking to absorb what’s going on around them to gain real-world experience. While they may contribute to cold outreach, they also do a lot of prospect research, shadowing, and admin work.

It’s possible to get those last three with little to no experience, but experience definitely helps.

Sales Skills Needed To Sell

Gaining the upper hand in sales really boils down to having a mix of soft skills and hard skills. Here are five skills you’ll want to work on regularly to improve your sales performance:

  1. Active listening: Waiting for your turn to speak isn’t really listening. Active listening is actually listening, repeating, or paraphrasing what people say back to them for confirmation (and withholding judgment or advice). Do that well enough, and you’ll find people open up more, which is critically important in a sales role.
  2. Time management: You’ll never make it as a sales rep if you’re late to client meetings or consistently squander your work hours by doing things other than selling or following up.
  3. Cold outreach: A big part of sales is overcoming the fear of rejection. It takes a lot of touch points to get someone interested enough to hear you out – and quite a few more to actually close the deal.
  4. Communication: The ability to clearly communicate with customers can’t be overstated. You want to come off direct, empathetic, and knowledgeable via phone and email. Ditch the industry jargon, slang talk, and technical speak for plain English.
  5. Product and market knowledge: Clear communication, showing up on time, and putting in the work are all for nothing if you can’t speak the same language as your prospect. You need to be able to demonstrate that you understand their problems, needs, and desires. Only through detailed research and training can you even begin to grasp your product, the market, your customers, and your company’s role in it.

For a more comprehensive list, check out 15 Sales Skills Anyone Can Learn to Be a Great Salesperson.

How To Make Your Sales Skills Stand Out

Don’t stop at developing your sales skills. Writing great cover letters, interviewing well, and pitching yourself are all important skills to practice as well – especially if you want to stand out amongst dozens of applicants. Here are a few tips to give you an edge:

  • Customize every cover letter: Literally, every application and cover letter should have a personal element to it. Talk about the company, use specific phrases from their job posting, read articles about the company, and reference them. Show you put in more effort than the average applicant.
  • Highlight relevant skills on your resume: Come up with a list of 3-5 skills that translate perfectly to the role you’re applying for (bonus points if they call them out in the posting) and highlight them on your resume. Make it a point to pick some that, when pressed, you can back up with real-world experience or examples.
  • Use keywords during interviews: They wrote an entire document on what they’re looking for in a candidate, so use that to your advantage. Read it several times over and pick out specific key phrases and keywords that you can pepper into your interview talk tracks.
  • Provide examples: People remember stories and, more importantly, how you make them feel. Having the gift of gab is one thing, but if you can back up your claims and sales experience with strong examples of your success, you’re sure to stand out.

At the end of the day, the sales world is full of go-getters and rich with opportunities for up-and-comers. If you’re willing to start at the bottom, study hard, and remain coachable, then you’re almost guaranteed a spot on the roster.

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