[getting ahead in sales] SOMETIMES IT SEEMS like the vocabulary used by sales professionals and sports stars has become virtually interchangeable. In both fields, much talk is about competition, tactics, goals and playing to win. And you will hear all that even before the person has warmed up. For anyone planning a career in sales, the analogy can be stretched even further. As with athletes, it takes a combination of natural ability, luck, hard work and dedication for a salesperson to have a real chance of reaching the top. It is also important to have good timing. According to Richard Broadhurst, sales and marketing recruitment manager for Ambition Hong Kong, now is an excellent time to break into the sector or make a career move. He expected companies to be recruiting sales and marketing staff for at least the next year. 'Sales executives need a constant sense of challenge,' Mr Broadhurst said. 'During the economic downturn, these instincts were suppressed as employees clung for dear life to their jobs. Now that the market is buoyant again, we are seeing the boredom factor come quickly to the surface. 'Sales staff are more likely than those in many other professions to be looking for change.' Kensy Sy, a team leader specialising in corporate and consumer banking at recruitment firm Hudson Hong Kong, said the turnover in sales jobs was usually higher because of the nature of the work. 'People are under constant pressure to meet targets and tend to look for openings with less pressure or [those] offering better commission,' Mr Sy said. He said selling insurance was one of the hardest areas because income was mainly commission based. In most other financial sales jobs, including all sectors of banking, salespeople tended to have a combination of commission and salary. 'The current high levels of staff turnover are causing difficulties for employers,' Mr Broadhurst said. 'They are losing key personnel who sat tight through the economic downturn and have now decided to seek out new creative challenges.' This is forcing some companies to 'buy back' staff, by increasing their salaries to match or beat rival offers. Talented salespeople are particularly mobile, provided they have the personality, confidence, enthusiasm, and in-depth product and industry knowledge needed to excel. According to Christine Pace, Adecco's sales and marketing director for Hong Kong and China, a level of technical expertise may also be necessary in order to speak the customer's language. For this reason, large companies such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM provide specialist training, and Cisco even has its own 'university'. 'In sales, you need to be people-orientated, have good listening skills and be able to deal with questions and objections,' Ms Pace said. 'You also have to be good at negotiating and hungry to make money.' She said perseverance was important to win new business for follow-up orders. 'Salespeople also have to be disciplined, since they spend a lot of time on the road working alone,' she said. For anyone considering a sales role in the recruitment industry, the key requirements are the ability to interact well and to close deals. 'In our business, age does not matter, and an outgoing personality is more important than academic qualifications because we are meeting new people every day,' Ms Pace said. Considering what it takes to succeed in sales, Mr Broadhurst said he did not believe in following the formulas advocated by sales and management 'gurus' in the many books now on sale. 'It all comes down to style and everybody has their own,' he said. 'What works for one person may not work for someone else. I know people who never meet their clients, but sell successfully by e-mail and telephone.' Chris Anderson, author and editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, believes that technology is once again about to revolutionise selling. In his recent book The Long Tail, his analysis of sales data and trends shows that, if the 20th-century entertainment industry was about 'hits', the 21st century will be about 'misses'. He says in the past, selling has been guided by the 80:20 rule, which is also known as Pareto's principle after the Italian economist who devised the concept in 1906. Applied to sales, it holds that 20 per cent of clients provide 80 per cent of sales volume, and that 20 per cent of products provide 80 per cent of a firm's revenue. Anderson refers to the 20 per cent of products which provide 80 per cent of a firm's revenue as 'hits'. Nowadays, though, technology is changing the rule by allowing enough 'misses' (the products which traditionally provided the remaining 20 per cent of a firm's revenue) to generate significant sales. For example, while a typical American bookstore carries about 130,000 titles, half of Amazon's total online book sales are of titles which are outside its best sellers. Applying these observations to a career in sales, companies will in future be looking for ways to give affordable access to niche markets, realising that these as a whole have the potential to provide more revenue than the mass market.