Sales takes hunger. Nobody is in sales just because they need a job. The details may vary, but the bottom line is always the same: the bottom line. Still, it’s not restricted to fast-talking hucksters, because in the end, ongoing client relationships depend on listening and building empathy.

Sales jobs are about as varied as the business world. You can sell anything from complicated private banking solutions to multinational companies to a ticket for a boat ride to tourists. Since all companies need to sell their products, they turn to commissions and other performance-based compensation to motivate their salespeople. This makes sales a very attractive field for hard workers willing to take direct responsibility for their value to the company.

What you sell probably matters less than how you sell and to whom you sell. Successful salespeople do well because they connect with clients, put them at ease and assure them that it’s not just the product, but the company-client relationship too, is worth every penny. Repeat business requires satisfied customers – in fact, experience as a customer service representative is a good way to learn the client-facing skills you need to make sales.

While a degree usually isn’t required for entry-level sales positions, it can often determine whether you stay at the bottom of the ladder or climb it. Luckily, corporate sales jobs often include on-the-job training, so career advancement doesn’t usually require graduate school.

Consumer Paths Consumer-facing sales careers range from the classic used car salesman to just about any other consumer product. Companies need people to assess what consumers want and to match them with the right product – these are transferable skills.

Telemarketing

Yes, you’ve gotten the annoying phone calls, and yes, you’ve hung up on them. But it is an entry-level path into the industry. If you don’t have any experience, this is a reliable way to get started. In the end, many more “glamorous” sales jobs will require the same sort of skills you get from telemarketing. Cold calls – while intimidating at first – can really build your confidence. It takes serious dedication to continue making calls after being ignored, reaching answering machines, or being blown off by most of the people you reach. But when you do reach someone and find a way for your company to help them, you’ll be rewarded.

Experienced telemarketers say a sensitive phone manner plus understanding what clients need go a long way towards success. A thick skin doesn’t hurt, of course! It is a numbers game, and people wouldn’t be making telemarketing calls if it didn’t work enough of the time.

Retail

A traditional path into consumer sales is through retail. Working as a sales assistant on the shop floor of a clothing retailer can be a great way to sample the interpersonal skills, product knowledge, and organizational skills demanded of a salesperson. There’s also an administrative side – you may have to keep records of stock on hand and stock sold, monthly performance figures, or track customer satisfaction surveys.

Entry-level positions also have the security of a base salary. And unlike telemarketing, retail jobs also entail face time with the client. To move up, salespeople need to demonstrate initiative in asking customers what they need, reliability, and of course, improved sales.

In this sort of consumer-facing position, there are usually performance targets and the possibility of a small commission on some sales, but it’s rare that an entry-level sales person works entirely on commission. Look for a gradual transition and in-company training to help you reach those performance goals.

Business to Business

Any company that sells its products to other companies needs a sales team to handle the business-to-business interactions. Day-to-day work may involve a lot of time on the phone, but salespeople always emphasize the importance of face-to-face interaction. Just like in consumer sales, you’re selling the whole package, not just the product, so salespeople need to generate trust and a connection with their clients.

Advertising

Advertising sales is a pretty common way to get started. Media companies large and small hire recent graduates every year and funnel them through training programs, hoping to find the talented few who will go on to make the company’s big bucks. If that’s you, count on making big bucks, too.

Early on, expect to spend most of your time selling classifieds and learning from senior salespeople. Eventually, you might begin to handle the “display advertising” or the visual ads that dominate the glossy magazines and big-name print newspapers. This requires more face time and getting to know your client’s needs and positioning them well within the media product. Successful sales people can go on to become advertising directors within media companies or transition into other managerial roles, as they grow more familiar with the whole operation.

Investment

A growing area is selling investment products. Currently most investment firms use in-house investment experts to pitch clients, but the trend is towards hiring professional sales and marketing people to analyze the markets and best reach clients. This is a way to be involved in the competitive and remunerative world of finance without requiring the same quantitative background that investors need.

Sound competitive? The good news is that investment firms hire recent graduates directly as sales associates. Associates are responsible for answering queries from potential clients. They draft up proposals for investment portfolios, so they need to learn the industry, but they don’t have to be the ones ultimately making the investment decisions.

Most of these positions will involve growing responsibility for a geographic area or an increasingly technical product. Eventually, a good salesperson can also take responsibility for helping junior salespeople, so interpersonal skills are valuable.

Sales skills are highly transferable. Working closely with people, learning products, and taking the initiative will all be useful to mid-level managers at any company. Spend enough time in sales and you can expect to gain the skills and confidence to choose where you go next, whether that’s in sales or almost any aspect of business.