Statistically, over 50% of all recent college graduates start their career somewhere in sales (Sales Education Annual). Tragically, selling skills and the profession as a whole goes almost entirely ignored on colleges campuses. This is slowly starting to change – thankfully – but the fact remains that most recent college graduates are ill-prepared to evaluate sales opportunities.

Hiring managers capitalize on this ignorance given the sheer volume of neophytes entering the market. What results, is many young professionals are making critically important decisions with very limited information.

The risk of making the wrong call is extensive. The first few years out of undergrad are your professional “formative years.” Every month I hear from a sales professional in their mid-twenties who has invested these years outworking and outperforming their peers, burying themselves in excellence, and successfully climbing the career ladder only to eventually realize that their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

How can you make sure you choose an opportunity that will take you down the path that you ultimately want to go down?

An important decision to make is deciding not only what you want to sell, but also what type of sales you want to get into.

In business-to-business sales, products and services are sold either using a transactional sales model or through a solution sales approach.

Transactional Sales vs. Solution Sales

Transactional Sales: This refers to the sale of products or services that every business needs: copiers, office furniture, payroll services, and the like. Every business, in every office building, is a prospective customer, fewer decision makers are involved in the sale, and you’re often viewed as a commodity and ultimately compete on price.

Typically you’re selling to office managers and purchasing agents because these types of decisions don’t really strategically impact the purchasing company and don’t justify involvement at the executive level.

The transactional sales approach is almost always a high activity model based on going door-to-door within office buildings. Many companies using a transactional sales model view it mostly as a numbers game. Since activity is valued over talent, these companies aren’t overly selective in who they hire. The most extreme of which extend offers to all candidates that pass the fog test – their breath can fog up a mirror – after an initial, usually brief, usually them selling you, interview.

Solution Sales: The goal of solution sales is to transform the way a company does business. Introducing a new technology or business process that will revolutionize the way an organization operates. Solution sales involve a lengthier sales process, a higher number of decision makers, and a bigger price tag. Rather than selling to office managers and purchasing people, you’ll be selling to senior executives because these types of decisions are strategically critical to the success of the business.

If you start out in solution sales, it’s unlikely you’ll start out by closing deals as an outside sales rep. You’ll almost certainly have to start out in inside sales, generating leads for someone else to close. Rookies don’t know how to effectively quarterback a complex, big dollar sales cycle that is loaded with risk both to the supplier and to the customer. Companies trust and rely on proven consultative sales professionals to meet with executives in the board room to discuss strategic, high-end, business-altering solutions. The senior executives from prospective customers view Solution Sales professionals as trusted advisors who provide strategic insight.

Here’s the rub.

Transactional Sales positions offer you the chance to jump right into the field and close your own deals starting on day 1. You’ll also enjoy all the freedom and lifestyle perks associated with outside sales.

The problem is figuring out what the view from your ladder will look like a few years down the road. In all likelihood, you’ll be doing the same thing – transactional sales – or managing transactional sales people.

In solution sales roles, you’ll have to exercise patience and earn your stripes starting in an inside sales position. The payoff is once you elevate into an outside sales role selling a solution, you’ll enjoy a far more sophisticated type of sales. Far fewer people can sell solutions much like there are far fewer surgeons than general practitioners.

Bottom Line

Groucho Marx once famously said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” By the same token, you should think carefully about whether you would want to work for a company that would hire you as an outside sales rep right out of college.

The Challenger Sale: Driving Growth by Taking Control of the Customer Conversation is in my opinion the best sales book written in the last decade. The book cites research indicating that: “Fully 75% of companies have aspirations to be solution providers rather than providers of transactional products.”

If companies don’t want to be transactional why would you?