Are you “born a salesperson” or do you need a degree to work in sales?

Are you “born a salesperson” or do you need a degree to work in sales?

A university degree will not guarantee you a successful sales career. There are loads of famous CEOs who did not graduate – just look at Bill Gates and Richard Branson. However, a fair few of our clients will tell us that they need, or would like, a strong sales candidate who has a degree – a minority even ask for a masters. Sometimes this is because there is an element of specialist knowledge required to do the job; for example if they need an account executive to sell to the engineering sector an engineering degree can be beneficial. Often, though, clients are asking for a degree because it demonstrates qualities – like discipline and motivation – which are desirable in any candidate. So, how much does it matter?

A good starting point?

When you are straight out of university trying to find you’re first ‘real’ job you will often apply for graduate schemes. Talking to clients about what they look for in people with not a lot of experience, they like a degree because:

  1. The person has shown determination to go out and work hard to further their education
  2. It shows they are independent and can manage their own cost of living
  3. It shows they are able to work under pressure and meet deadlines

Having said this…

Some companies are not all about education. Of course you need intelligence but you don’t always acquire that from sitting in lecture theatres. Far more important, arguably, are the following:

  1. Tenacity, drive and determination
  2. The ability to map new prospects and follow hot leads and qualify them
  3. A good understanding of the sales process and how to pipeline business
  4. The ability to close
  5. The ability to maintain strong relationships and cross/upsell

When we asked you, you said…

Actually, 81% of sales professionals say you don’t need a degree to work in sales according to a recent Finlay James survey.  The survey asked over 100 sales professionals and generated a fair few opinions. Here are some of my favourites:

No – “Because I have managed 15 years without one, successfully beating targets year on year.”

Yes – “Not to sell, but for the skills and discipline needed in business life. Most of the successful sales people where I work have a degree. Essential if you have sales management aspirations.”

Yes – “Sales, like marketing, is a lynchpin when a business grows, starts or develops. There is a clear science and methodology in business and sales should be an art that is learnt rather than improvised.”

No – “For the hiring manager, insisting on a degree is a form of quality control. However, apply this method too rigidly could mean you miss out, especially in a climate whereby not everyone can afford course fees.”

No – “I have been in sales and business development my whole career and I have no degree. You are born a sales person!”

It depends – “It depends what stage of your career you are at. If you are just starting your career now, then a degree is additional ammunition to differentiate yourself from all those out their also looking to start their careers. If you already have experience in sales, then 9 times out of 10 the experience out shines the need for a degree.”

When we asked a client, they said…

Fieldaware is a software vendor we work with and Alasdair McKenzie is the VP of sales for EMEA and is a key decision maker when it comes to hiring new sales professionals. He told us that he’s not that fussed about degrees because:

  • People buy from people, not certificates
  • You need interpersonal skills which a university won’t necessarily give you
  • You need to be able to handle rejection and ask questions you’re not always comfortable with – experience, not a degree, will teach you this
  • For Alasdair sales about working hard, relating to people, not taking yourself too seriously, doing well and having a laugh

Two sales professionals we recently placed into Alasdair’s team are Tim McCarthy and Finn Radford – neither of them have degrees. After 8 months Tim was promoted from a lead generator to an account executive. Finn has been very successful and is planning on heading up the business development team as Fieldaware expand. Here’s what they told us:

  • "A degree is a commitment for higher education not for sales"
  • "There is no better place to learn sales than on the job"
  • "The most important thing is having a mentor, not a degree. If you are lucky to work for such a good company and have a mentor like Alasdair you land on your feet."

So there you have it – a degree cannot teach you to sell well but it can give you the motivation to persevere.