- Frederic Kerrest is the executive vice chairman, COO, and cofounder of Okta, an identity authentication and access management company.
- Kerrest says he spent the majority of his early career working in sales, which might seem surprising to those who know him now as an executive at a software company.
- Experience in sales and business development can be your most valuable asset as a growing professional, regardless of the industry you're in.
- To develop better sales skills, Kerrest recommends communicating by listening rather than talking, practicing empathy, and becoming an expert on your business' product.
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Although I'm currently the executive vice chairman, COO, and cofounder of a public company, I spent a good portion of my early career in sales and business development. To this day, I still visit with prospects and customers often. But these days (and until further notice), everything is conducted entirely over Zoom, of course.
Over the years — in my current role and with myriad team members — I've realized and then evangelized that no matter what your career path is, a background in sales is invaluable.
Millennials appear to be on the same page as me. According to a LinkedIn report, sales is among the top 10 jobs the class of 2019 pursued after graduating. The sales landscape has changed considerably due to COVID-19, but every company needs good salespeople, and the core skills learned from a role in sales are transferable and will help drive value no matter what career path you eventually take.
Working in sales, whether deals are closing remotely or in-person, puts people about as close to generating the business' revenue as they can be, and teaches them what keeps revenue coming in. Salespeople talk to customers every day, understand how they use the product, why they chose it, and what does or doesn't work for them.
This experience provides a crash course in how the business works, which will benefit them down the line with everything from product development and customer success to operations and hiring. Here are some of the things you'll learn how to do in sales that will come in handy later in your career, regardless of your path:
1. Communicate by listening rather than talking
Communication is fundamental to human relationships. And to communicate well, you have to be a pro at active listening, particularly in a remote or virtual environment.
You've likely already learned how to adjust your body language to show you're listening to someone in person, but it takes even more skill to do so from just the shoulders up on a computer screen.
Here's what I've learned from my experience in sales: If you want to be a good listener, you need to be like a fennec fox instead of an alligator. Why? Because fennec foxes have giant ears and small mouths, while alligators have big mouths and tiny ears.
People new to the sales world are often surprised to learn effective communication requires a lot more listening than speaking. To sell a product well, you need to understand your prospects, their challenges, and what they're looking for. There's nothing truer than the expression, "It's not about what you're trying to sell, it's about what people want to buy."
This lesson is important to people at all stages of life — in fact, it's something I try to impress upon my children. Earlier this year, before people around the world started to shelter-in-place, my wife and I went out to dinner and my 6-year-old son asked me, "Can we tell the babysitter that we can watch TV?"
I asked him why he thought the babysitter would say yes, and he replied, "So that I can watch TV." Of course, that was his goal. But what was in it for the sitter? We discussed why she would want to "buy" his proposal, and he told me, "I can tell her that if I watch TV, I will be easier to manage and will go to sleep without a fuss while she focuses on my younger siblings." Bingo!
In sales, the way you learn what people want to buy is by actively listening to them. What problems do they face? How can you help them be successful? Who else is influencing their decision?
You can bring these active listening and communication skills to any career. Whether you're recruiting candidates, managing a team of engineers, or marketing a new product, communication is critical. And nothing prepares you better for that than sales.
2. Develop a stronger sense of empathy for your peers
Let's face it: Sales gets a bad rap. Consumers frequently hang up on sales calls or respond rudely to unsolicited emails — often forgetting salespeople are humans, too, and are simply doing their job. As frustrating as this can be, dealing with tough prospects makes you more empathetic to the people you work and interact with every day. And empathy is especially critical right now.
A few years ago, I worked closely with our account team to close an important pharmaceutical prospect. The senior executive we were engaging with was challenging to work with, both for us and for the folks on their internal team.
But as our partnership evolved, I developed a better understanding of the situation. I realized this senior leader had recently been hired to reinvigorate an underperforming technology group, so they were trying to reset the culture.
And as we worked with more members of their team, we learned what they needed to do to excel under this new boss. By empathizing with the unique situation, we built a strong partnership that has expanded tremendously over the past few years.
3. Understand a product's real value
Unless you're selling pencils, you'll need to put in a lot of work to understand your company's product (and even pencils can get complicated — do you want 2H or 6B graphite hardness, but I digress). You won't succeed in sales if you aren't deeply familiar with what you're selling, and real familiarity goes beyond just how the product works.
You need to understand the value a prospect gets out of what you are selling, instead of just the price point.
Learning how to understand a complex product, business model, or sales motion is essential for countless positions later in your career. It's painfully obvious when someone only understands a concept at a high-level and doesn't have the depth of knowledge to support them.
People often share abstract ideas with me, and my first question is always, "When is the last time you talked to a customer?" If you don't make time getting to know the people using the product, you won't understand the product, and your proposals won't be practical.
If you go on to work in operations, for example, the more you know about what you're supporting, the better. In marketing, a close understanding of your product means you'll know your target market better and figure out what message resonates with your customer base.
4. Bring a salesperson's perspective to your everyday work
Of course, not everyone isn't going to have the opportunity to spend time in a sales role. So if you're happy in a different career, but want to pick up some of these same skills, what can you still do? Here's my most important tip for you: Get closer to customers, even virtually.
Learn what motivates them and what keeps them up at night. From there, figure out how your product aligns with their pain points or needs. You can also talk to the salespeople at your organization. Ask them what they're working on, how they've been successful, and where they've struggled. Then make it your goal to bring solutions to the table.
Regardless of whether you're working in sales now or planning to stay in the industry for the long term (or not), developing these skills will help you grow your career. And if you're in another industry and thinking about pivoting your career, consider sales — you'll learn essential and transferable skills.
Frederic Kerrest is the executive vice chairman, COO, and cofounder of Okta.