Help desk and support staff wanting to make a lucrative career move might want to check out jobs in technology sales. No, we’re not talking Best Buy.

Ken Steinmetz, a sales manager with Minnetonka, MN-based World Data Products, says that many techies have ill feelings about technology salespeople. But he, along with other IT pros who’ve made the job transition, say that those willing to take the plunge into sales can earn two, three, or even seven times their current income.

Steinmetz and two other techies-turned-salespeople at World Data Products say that their technical skills give them the edge they needed to succeed in sales, and they’re well poised for future career growth.

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Breaking in
Ten years ago, Foster Ashton started building AS400s, Risc 6000s, and the like for customer orders at World Data Products, a company specialized in reselling and leasing new, refurbished, and used server, network, and telecom equipment.

Then, two years into Ashton’s tenure with the company, management at World Data Products pinged him for an opportunity in sales. Ashton, previously trained in marketing and sales at a Minneapolis-area vocational college, jumped at the chance.

He said his marketing savvy, coupled with his knowledge of technology concepts and principles, proved crucial in his new sales position. “You have to be trained in all the tech aspects of what you sell,” Ashton said. “If I’m selling HP 9000s, I have to know every single thing; otherwise, the people you’re talking to aren’t going to give you the time of day. I won’t even be able to bid to get the business.”

Steinmetz became a salesperson for World Data Products’ repairs department after a company reorganization. “When I moved into sales, I was the only contact for the repair sales,” Steinmetz said. “I didn’t go to college for business or anything. I just evolved from being a technician to a supervisor to a salesperson.” Since his promotion to parts and repairs sales manager, direct selling is a lesser part of Steinmetz’s job.

Mark Rieber, another technician who became a sales representative, made the leap from tech to sales in June 1998 and later joined World Data Products. “I started out reconfiguring cash registers for a small computer company,” Rieber said.

When the company expanded into a midrange line of IBM computers, Rieber took over the tech area, shipping and receiving, and inventory control. He had held that position for five years when a sales position opened. He decided to give it a try and has been in sales ever since. He said product knowledge and customer relationship skills helped him double his income over previous support positions.

Why move to sales?
All three tech salespeople cite one big reason for making their career move: better earning potential. For those who really shine in sales, there’s the potential to significantly increase earnings.

In his support position, Ashton had a $35,000 salary. But in sales, he now earns $200,000 a year. “You can really have the potential to make seven to eight times what you’re making now,” Ashton said. “Sometimes you make half of your salary in one sale.”

Steinmetz said his annual income, which he declined to state, has increased significantly. “One of the things [the extra earning potential] allowed me to do was to be able to send my two kids to a private school,” he said.

Rieber also found his move to sales gratifying in terms of his ability to earn big bucks. But he cautions that there is constant pressure to make sales targets, and without a steady salary as a safety net in lean times, being paid solely on commission can be a big challenge.

Rieber offered some advice to those who might be tempted to become tech salespeople. “Make sure you are up to the challenge,” he said. “There is no salary to fall back on. You have to make sure you can keep the numbers where they need to be to make it.”

Likes and dislikes
Short of the pressure to perform, these three tech salespeople said they are largely satisfied in sales, though starting out can be a little rough. Many salespeople have to develop their own client list through a process of cold calling, networking, and marketing. In Ashton’s case, it took him about a year to build up a client base. He said this is the biggest challenge for salespeople no matter their career path, and that you must have the patience to build your client base.

“It takes that long because it’s big money, and you’re dealing with really big companies,” Ashton said. “You’re not selling copier paper.”

Yet new friendships can be the byproduct of building customer relationships, which is one of the most pleasing aspects of the job for Steinmetz. He said what makes sales a rewarding career is the bond you create with customers. “You talk to these guys for years, and you never see them, but they turn out to be your buddy.”

Moving from tech support to tech sales offers the additional benefit of establishing trust between departments. Within his company, Steinmetz has been able to use his position to build respect for salespeople among members of his technical department. Steinmetz said the misunderstandings and ill will that exists between sales and technology staffs at many companies is virtually nonexistent at World Data Products.

Ashton said that helping customers solve their problems makes the sales position fulfilling. Support people who troubleshoot customer problems enjoy being able to solve the customer issue in a short time, but selling high-end $700,000 systems after three to six months of effort is a real power trip, he said.

Marketable skills
In terms of career potential, these salespeople all feel confident that if they wanted to change jobs in the future, their skills would be in high demand. Talking to many people each day tends to foster a strong personal network. Even the competition learns about a good salesperson over time.

“They know that I’m honest in this industry, and I know they would hire me in a second,” Ashton said.

One reason these salespeople are confident that their skills are marketable is the variety of offerings they sell. The company’s product and service roster are servers and networking products from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Compaq, Cisco, AVAYA, and Nortel, as well as networking management, consulting, and training services. Knowing so many platforms makes a person easier to train, Steinmetz said.

Ashton offered some guidance for techs who are considering a sales position. “The best advice I could give is to study the product really, really well, because you will have to be very patient to get started.”

Have you moved from tech to sales?

If you’ve moved from a technical position to a sales role, does your experience in the tech sales sector match that of Ashton, Steinmetz, and Rieber? What advice would you give to techies who have the urge to sell? Send us an e-mail or post your thoughts below.