Career Opportunities

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Selling computers without selling your soul... (Parts 1-5)

© Douglas E. Welch 1997


If there is one career more maligned than that of car salesperson, it is computer salesperson. So many consumers have had bad experiences with people of both persuasions that there are more than enough horror stories.
This is not to say that sales is a poor career choice. Computer users must purchase their computers from somewhere and a knowledgeable salesperson can be a great asset. It can also be a lucrative career.
This month I will address some of the pros and cons of computer sales and ways that you can sell computers without selling your soul, as well.

Less than worthy?
Some readers may take issue with my inclusion of computer salespeople under the banner of technology careers. That would be unfair both to the profession and to those people who have a knack for selling technology products. Each of us has our unique talents and while my own temperament advises against computer sales, there are others who find it highly enjoyable. Personally, I am glad there are people out there to handle this work or I would be resigned to buying all my technology via mail order.
Like everything in the world, there are good salespeople and bad salespeople. We shouldn?t let the actions of a few cloud our opinion of everyone else.

Is this the career for me?
As with any computer career it is important to evaluate your own temperament and career goals to see if computer sales is truly the place for you. There are several questions to ask yourself to help make this decision. Do you like dealing with the public on a daily basis? Some people, most notably computer programmers, prefer not to deal with people during the day and have chosen a career that allows them sustained periods of concentration. However, you must be a ?people person? if you want to succeed in sales.
Next, do you have a desire to learn about a wide variety of computer products? Salespeople must be familiar with a huge variety of hardware and software products in order to provide the best solutions for their customers. Where consultants and trainers can focus on a few computer products, sales people need to have a wide overview of the entire market.
Finally, do you have the ability to say, ?I don?t know?? Nothing can be more helpful to a customer than admitting you don?t have an answer at your fingertips. The phrase should actually read, ?I don?t know, but I will find out for you.? Giving out bad information will quickly doom you to the reputation most people expect from salespeople. Protect yourself and you customers by understanding your own limitations.

What it takes?
In the coming weeks I will discuss what it takes to be a good computer salesperson if you decide to give it a try. This includes how to protect yourself from unscrupulous employers, developing relationships with customers, building your knowledge base and surviving on commission instead of salary. Even if you aren?t going into computer sales, there are some lessons to be learned by all of us.


If you have decided to enter the computer sales job market you will be well-advised to look out for some of the usual stumbling blocks that can arise. While there are many sales jobs available, working for someone who has less than good employee standards can put you under tremendous stress. First and foremost, you need to find out as much as possible about a business before you ever decide to sign on as an employee.
Doing your homework
Before you ever fill out that first job application you should make every effort to find out as much about the company as possible. Visit the store as a customer and pay close attention to how the sales people interact with the customers. Are they courteous or do they seem rushed? Do they take time with customers or do they push hard to make a sale and move on to the next customer? Do the salespeople provide good advice or are they merely telling customers what they want to hear? I often find myself correcting salespeople, out of their earshot, in many of the computer stores I frequent. This is a sure sign that all is not well with the sales staff. It is better to say, ?I don?t know? then give out erroneous information.
If you have a friend or acquaintance that works at the store, pump them, gently for their opinion of their job and company. I have been in several jobs where I would have been hard pressed to recommend that anyone else join the company. I was unhappy and I knew that my friends would probably feel the same.
At the interview
Once you get to the interview it is important to remember that this is your opportunity to ask questions as well as answer them. Be sure to ask about details on the compensation model the company uses for its salespeople. According to my friends who have been salespeople, you want to avoid companies that pay a straight commission. It can be very hard to survive on commission only, especially when you are just starting out.
A better model involves a salary guarantee where you are given a certain amount of salary each week with the remainder to be made up from your commissions on sales. Sometimes, this guarantee will slowly drop over time and more and more of your salary will be based on your commission, but this gives you a cushion when you need it most.

Another sure sign of company problems is that of high turnover among salespeople. If a store seems to have and entirely new staff each time you visit, it could mean the environment is not very good. Perhaps there are management problems or the compensation model doesn?t allow the salespeople to make a living wage. Whatever the reason, high turnover is a definite warning of hidden problems.

Nest week: Staying current ­ training and research.


This week we continue our discussion of developing a computer sales career. Previously I discussed how to come to the decision to work in sales. This week we look at what is required once you take that first sales job.

Continuing Education
Every technology career has some form of continuing education requirement and sales is no different. Technology moves so quickly that all of us must be responsible for staying on top of the latest innovations and any problems with existing systems. There are a few unique differences, though, between a salesperson and those who work in a corporate computer department or as a private consultant.
While a consultant or computer staffer is able to concentrate on a finite set of hardware, software and tools, a salesperson must be a generalist. They need to know a little about everything instead of a lot about a few things. They need to have a deep understanding of the computer industry as a whole as well as the specific products they sell. This overall knowledge allows them to listen to customers and suggest which tools might be available to provide the best solution.
Salespeople who are not informed about the products they sell are a danger to their customers and their own livelihood. They often recommend the wrong tool for a specific job or make promises that the hardware or software cannot keep. This isn?t always the complete fault of the salesperson, though. Often they are being pressured by management to ?make the sale? at all costs. Operations like this are the source of many bad sales stories.

How to be ?in the know??
Salespeople can use the same resources that any other technology worker has available for learning about computer hardware and software. This includes magazines, books, and even the Internet. They, however, also have a few unique methods of learning about the products they sell. Many manufacturers provide product introductions, printed materials and even hands-on training sessions specifically targeted at helping salespeople sell their product. Granted, the information will be skewed towards the manufacturer?s products but over time you will be able to tell just how one product compares to another. The information is important regardless of how it is presented.
As a salesperson, you should try to make use of as many of these opportunities as possible. Hopefully your management will understand the importance of these events and allow you some time ?on the clock? to attend them. Otherwise, though, it is up to you to take the initiative. It is in your own best interest to attend, even if you have to do it on your own time. The more information you have, the better you will be able to sell and the more money you will make.

As with any job, learning doesn?t stop when you get the job. The only way you will be able to sell well is to understand the products that you are selling. Your customers and your pocketbook demand it.

Next week: Ethics.


Despite what you might read in the newspapers or see on television, ethics are still something that all of us need to consider and foster. Every life contains many opportunities to compromise our ethics so we need to be on our guard and understand just how damaging a lapse of ethics might be to our lives and out livelihoods.

Sales Ethics and oxymorons
Some salespeople, and the retailers they work for, might have you believe that the term sales ethics is indeed an oxymoron. They concern themselves only with making the sales regardless of the customer?s needs or desires.
We all know companies like this and probably have dealt with more than our share. Unfortunately, the novice computer buyer often does not have the knowledge necessary to know when they should be shopping elsewhere. This is where you, as a salesperson, have to take some responsibility.
While some may tell you otherwise, personal integrity and ethics are two of the most important traits for every salesperson. Customers return to a salesperson they can trust and this improves your ability to make money. Compromising your ethics might make you money in the short term, but over time, you will develop a bad reputation that will follow you wherever you go.

Bad companies, not bad sales people
We all know people who act differently at their jobs. They might do ethically questionable sales but personally they are good people. This is usually caused by a bad work environment. Perhaps company policy makes it difficult to make sales quotas without bending ethical rules. Perhaps the company is merely interested in cleaning out closeout inventory instead of providing solutions for the customer. Whatever the cause, there are warning signs.
If you do the research described in earlier columns this month, chances are you won?t sign on with a company that has these problems. Talking with customers and acting as a customer yourself should point out any ethical problems a potential might have.
If you do find yourself at a company that has serious problems, it is better to leave than to try and adapt your own ethics, or change the company. A bad company reputation taints everyone who works for that company. There are plenty of good companies. Start your search again.
Chances are, a company that doesn?t respect its customers, won?t offer you much respect as an employee. It is a good bet that you will have trouble getting paid or experience other problems that will badly effect your finances, your emotions and even your health.

Next week: Sales as a springboard

While there are definite concerns associated with working in computer sales, there are several factors that make it a very good opportunity, especially for someone just starting a computer career. In some cases, a sales job can be held while you finish your college career, allowing you to get a head start on your classmates.

Computers 410
A job in computer sales could be considered post-graduate work for any college student. Due to the requirements mentioned in earlier columns you need to learn a lot about computers and you need to do it very quickly. This overview of the computer industry will help you no matter what technology job you might find after graduation.
You will become intimately acquainted with the pros and cons of a wide variety of hardware and software. You will have an understanding of the needs of various people and companies in a wide variety of businesses. Working in sales is like working for the computer department of many different companies all at once. You can get the equivalent of several years experience in a very short time.
Factor in the added resources for learning available to sales people (see earlier columns) and you can easily see the benefits of working in sales.

Up the ladder
In many businesses, every new employee starts off by working in sales. This introduces them to the company?s customers and gives them an understanding of the most important part of the company?s business. This is important for the employee as well as the company. It gives you the opportunity to gain an understanding of an entire company since the sales division often works with every other part of the company.
This information becomes very important when you decide to move up in the company structure. If you like sales you have a major grounding in the department already. If you decide to move to another department you will probably have developed relationships with people in those departments. You also have gained knowledge of these department?s functions and what skills you could bring to them.
Even if you are not interested in sales don?t consider time spent there as some form of purgatory. You just might make the important connections you need to move up in the company. Keep your eyes and ears open and you might learn more than you thought possible.

Though there are many pitfalls and profits to working in computer sales, it should be included as a legitimate technology career alongside programmers, network managers and technical support staff. Too many people dismiss sales without understanding how hard it is to be a good salesperson and the career possibilities it presents. If you go into a sales career with open eyes and an open mind it can open many doors for you.


Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at

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