Sales and Sales Management Blog

February 3, 2015

The Myth of Selling as a Highly Paid Profession

We in sales work in what we like to claim is one of the highest paid professions, yet statistics indicate we are, in fact, employed in one of the lowest paying professions.  In fact, we are engaged in a business that is unevenly divided between a relatively small group of highly skilled professionals, earning some of the highest wages in the world, and a huge group of unskilled and semi-skilled laborers, earning unskilled and semi-skilled wages.

One of the Lowest Paid Professions

Take a look at the following income statistics for some other professions (these are MEDIAN incomes gathered from various job and industry sites, meaning half those in the profession make less than the income listed, while the other half make more that the income listed):

Truck Driver:
Median income for those with less than 1-year experience:  $30,539
Median income for those with 10 years experience:                $48,654

Business Banker:
Less than one-year experience:   $42,000
10 years experience:                         82,539

Registered Nurse:
Less than one-year experience:    $44,969
10 years experience:                          58,988

Less than one-year experience:     $98,041
10 years experience:                         122,248

Family Physician:
Less than one-year experience    $101,423
10 years experience:                        130,593

Less than one-year experience:    $47,218
10 years experience:                         68,968

Less than one-year experience:    $57,494
10 years experience:                        102,709

Less than one-year experience:    $55,011
10 years experience:                          81,221

Less than one-year experience:    $35,697
10 years experience:                          50,107

Less than one-year experience:    $28,885
10 years experience:                          50,319

Now, here’s the median income for sales:
Less than one year’s experience:   $32,500
10 years experience:                           47,240

Notice something?  The only professions we start at a higher rate of pay are truck driver and carpenter-but by the 10th year we’re trailing them, as well as every other profession listed, in median income.

Can We Really Call This a Profession?

Why do so many of us make so little?  What do the other professions do that we don’t?

One glaring factor is education and training.  Seven of the ten non-sales professions above require a minimum of a college degree-along with additional specialized training.  Only two-banking and carpentry-don’t require a professional license of some sort (OK, some engineers don’t have to be licensed either, but a great many do). 

And sales?  With a few exceptions by product or company, no degree required.  Specialized training?  None required and little, if any, sales training provided by most companies.  Certainly, most companies provide product training; they want their salespeople to know the company’s products and services.  But most companies offer little sales training. 

Selling is one of the few professions where the ‘professional’ is often left to train him or herself because, after all, anyone can do it.  Give someone a phone and a list and they’re a salesperson, right?

Few professions or trades allow an untrained individual to “practice” their “craft,” because until trained, they don’t have a craft to practice.  That’s certainly not the way most companies and salespeople see selling.

No rational person would accept a doctor or lawyer who had not received extensive formal training in his or her profession and then proven a minimum level of competence by passing a professional licensing exam.  Likewise, we expect those engaged in skilled trades such as plumbing and truck driving to also have both formal training and certification in their profession.

The reward for their training?  For many, the rewards of their training are job satisfaction and enjoyment, but the primary reward is increased wages.  We naturally expect that the more time-and money invested in one’s professional training, the larger the income reward. 

A doctor will invest 8 to 10 years beyond college in learning the basics of his or her craft and is rewarded with one of the top wages in the country.  An attorney will invest 3 or more years beyond college and is likewise rewarded with top wages.  Plumbers go through an apprenticeship and extensive testing to acquire their license and are rewarded with a top hourly wage, and those plumbers who continue their studies beyond the Journeyman stage and proceed on to become Master Plumbers are rewarded with even more income.

Yet few salespeople have undergone extensive and comprehensive sales training.   We, as a group, are woefully under trained, yet we expect to make professional wages. 

The typical company gives their sales team members less than 50 hours a year in formal training-and the majority of that training isn’t sales training but is rather product training.  Studies have discovered that the typical salesperson invests less than 30 hours a year–two hours a month–in study and training outside of what they receive from their company.

As a group, we are among the least prepared and skilled of any profession or trade.  Is it any wonder we are also one of the poorest paid?

The Professionals Amongst Us

Nevertheless, there are a great many highly skilled professionals in the sales industry, men and women who through hard work and substantial personal investment of their time and money have developed the knowledge and skills to reach the top of their profession. 

Although many average and less than average salespeople rationalize these top performer’s success as nothing but luck, having been given a book of business by a favorable manager, or as simply being a ‘natural,’ that is seldom the reality of their success. 

Top producers for the most part entered the sales profession in the same way as most salespeople–by accident, without knowing anything about selling, without the contacts and skills needed to succeed.  Most struggled for months or even years before they discovered the ‘secret’ to success. 

Virtually all of these top producers were given the standard advice to always be prospecting, ask for referrals, spend time in building rapport, find and solve the prospect’s needs, ask for the order.  Like most salespeople, they were told what they should do but were never taught how to do it. 

It wasn’t until they began to acquire training on their own through reading, listening to tapes and CDs, attending seminars and workshops, and diligently applying what they learned that they began to move from unskilled laborer to true sales professional.  Many, if not most, in this group invest anywhere from 200 to 300 hours per year or more in personal training and skill development-that’s 7 to 10 times the investment in training as the average salesperson.  Is it then any wonder they are not only better prepared to sell, but make 2, 5, 10, 20 or 30 times what the average salesperson makes?

Professional or Semi-skilled Laborer-It’s Your Choice

You don’t become a sales professional or stay an unskilled or semi-skilled laborer by accident.  You either do those things that will make you a highly paid professional, or you do those things that will keep you in the unskilled or semi-skilled labor category. 

You get to choose whether you want to become a professional and enjoy professional wages-or whether you’re happy being an unskilled laborer.  There are thousands of quality books, CDs, seminars, workshops and other training opportunities available.  You can pinpoint your specific needs and find a multitude of training resources to address them.  All you need do is commit yourself to getting and applying the needed training, and then do a simple Google search to find thousands of learning opportunities.

If you’re waiting for your company to train you, you stand an excellent chance of never growing beyond a semi-skilled wage.  You control your destiny.  Yes, it takes a commitment of time, energy and money-but rewards are not only a far more enjoyable and satisfying job, but also one that will provide you with the income you dreamed of when you entered sales.




  1. Interesting. I think part of interpreting the data a bit better is understanding the types of positions that are defined as “sales”. I’ve always considered myself as a “professional” salesperson and in that time (fifteen years and three companies) I’ve never worked for an organization that didn’t require a college degree for a sales role. I do agree that training has generally been lacking throughout my career, but the income opportunities in the professional sales jobs I’ve had are substantial, surpassing the professional wages listed for doctors, dentists, etc. It would be interesting to see if there is a way to breakout retail or business to consumer sales jobs and see the data based on business to business.

    The moral of the story doesn’t change. Get a college degree, get good grades and find a good industry. I have many friends from college who spent several extra years in post-graduate and doctoral programs that haven’t enjoyed financial success that I’ve had with just a four-year degree.

    As far as the training part, the biggest thing that is missed and something that I constantly drive home as a point when mentoring young salespeople is the idea of being a “professional”. Too many people rely on corporate training as the beginning and end of their professional development. Doctors and Attorney’s don’t stop learning after they get their degree– it can be argued that their education is just starting. It should’t be any different for professional salespeople. Treat your sales role as a profession and a craft. If you carry yourself as a business professional you’re income will reach or surpass that of the more credentialed “professionals”.

    Comment by aberamsey — February 3, 2015 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

    • Certainly we can break selling down into lots of subcategories from retail to wholesale, from B2C to B2B, from small ticket or large ticket, from inside to outside, and, of course, there are lots of other ways to break it down. But the article is taking selling as a whole along with the promise held out to so many anxious new comers to sales by the hiring manager that incomes are unlimited. The claims of sky high incomes, whether from the most basic retail selling position to the high-end sophisticated sales, are made by the company through the hiring manager but are only realized through the seller making it happen. And so often it doesn’t happen.

      Many times it doesn’t happen because the particular situation is such that it can never happen (the churn and burn companies that promise the world and deliver nothing but promise the world to get bodies). Most of the time it never happens because the seller simply hasn’t done the things necessary to make them happen–they have chosen to stay semi-skilled labor instead of investing the time, energy and dollars necessary to become a true professional.

      Obviously the article isn’t geared toward the six and seven figure professionals out there but to those who are struggling, who don’t understand that for the most part the training they have received from their company isn’t sales training but is product training disguised as sales training, who haven’t come to the realization that they are responsible for their careers, not their company, who yet understand that selling is more than just picking up a phone and giving a static sales pitch.

      Selling presents a unique opportunity to make an incredible living, one rivaling any occupation. Yet in most cases that opportunity is missed and people leave selling believing the potential is nothing by a lie at worst, a myth at best. And for them it is nothing but a myth simply because they never understood that it takes more than a title and an opportunity to be a professional.

      Comment by Paul McCord — February 3, 2015 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

  2. Excellent blog and comments. I agree that most sales jobs regardless of industry represent a great opportunity for the “want to be” high income earner. Becoming a real professional by the doing “the right thing attitude” to get there, as indicated in your last comment, requires not only product training and a self-based sales training investment, but what most people think is the natural innate skill of common sense, integrity and morals in order to do the right thing. The latter part is where I see the most problems. Unfortunately, I see that not always being the case. The “do what is right for all three parties involved” (the salesperson, the customer and the employer) as well as what’s in everyone’s best interest for the long run, regardless of making the sale “now” to get paid “now” and experience that incredible living including self-enjoyment to some is seen only as making that commission. Please note I’m primarily talking about salaried employees that gets commission once they get over certain threshold verses the 100% sales commissioned sales person who has a bigger steak in the game. The intentions of the not-so professional sales person AND management generally comes from within the person and is not easily trainable in today’s environment. Those who engage in this profession without these qualities give those that take it seriously a bad name. These individuals sometimes fail due to the person’s own ruthless desire to be at the top without putting in the work you mention, regardless of training. Sadly, I don’t agree that this always makes them trail behind. It sometime gives them the advantage. That’s why there is so much controversy on the “commission based sale invites bad behaviors” comments. If management is not monitoring and enforcing the most simple “rules of the good-name-game focus” no training will stop the unfortunate successful but not righteous sales people of the world. I know I went off subject a bit but had to express that training, whether provided by the employer or self sought after does not always make the sales person successful. The commission structure and the “I just need to keep my job” attitude will sometimes get in the way. Overall, I certainly agree that more sales training for both the sales people and those that manage them is needed weather provided by company or outside sources. I say management because those who properly train, monitor and coach the sales intern is much needed, especially for the young folks who just enter the industry. I really enjoyed reading your blog, statistics and follow up comments. Thanks for posting.

    Comment by Lucy — February 4, 2015 @ 10:03 am | Reply

  3. Paul – your numbers look flawed. If you pulled these from BLS I think you pulled retail sales numbers which would skew the true income numbers for sales professionals greatly because statistically there are more people in retail. Personally my first year in sales I made $75k and that was in the early 90s and I never earned less than six figures after that. Most years I was close to $250k.

    Comment by Jeb Blount — February 9, 2015 @ 10:51 am | Reply

  4. Jeb, these numbers are based on overall sales positions and, thus, somewhat skewed to retail. Of course there are many who make six and seven figure incomes–but that isn’t the norm in the selling industry. These numbers are median and a few years old. That being said, the reality is that most sellers don’t experience the promised incomes, while others make huge incomes. I personally know sellers barely making 20k and others making way, way into the seven and even a couple into the 8 figures. Sales offers the greatest potential to make tremendous money–and the greatest potential to fail miserably.

    Comment by Paul McCord — February 9, 2015 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  5. Hello Paul. Regarding statistics about sales workers, the majority of the positions generally referenced in the B.L.S. statistics fall into the categories of clerks, cashiers, and retail salespersons. I do not imagine that newcomers to those positions are promised, or believe, that their potential income working in those positions is unlimited – regardless of their education or training.

    Comment by Donnie — March 3, 2015 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

    • The assumption is I gathered stats from limited sources. The stats are a combination of a number of sources including those containing income data for outside sales people. Again, there are a great many highly paid sellers–that doesn’t negate the fact that there are many times that who don’t make anywhere near the promised incomes and who drag down the average income number.

      Comment by Paul McCord — March 3, 2015 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

      • Allow me to put it this way. Records from the B.L.S. show the majority of sales workers occupy sales positions as clerks, cashiers, and retail salespersons.

        Regardless of education or training these positions do not generally offer unlimited income and I doubt if very many people promise or believe otherwise.

        Given that these sales positions account for the MAJORITY of sales workers in the selling industry, if you want to call it that, it stands to reason that the MAJORITY of those employed in the selling industry are not likely offered unlimited income opportunities.

        In addition, if we are to discuss the relationship of income promised compared to income earned in selling as a profession and the suspected causes of any discrepancies between the two then maybe we should move away from all encompassing terms such as “SELLING” and move closer to more sales position specific terms such as “Cashier” or “Retail Salesperson” or “Insurance Sales Agents” or “Sales Engineers” or “Advertising Sales Agents”, and so on.

        Comment by Donnie — March 3, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

      • To an extent I agree with you–and disagree at the same time. Commissioned salespeople no matter what you call them or industry anticipate being able to make an amount greater than if they were not commissioned and that is the promise. The stats I used weren’t for the clerk in the CVS or the cashier at Safeway. They are for primarily commissioned or salary plus commission sellers irrespective of industry and irrespective of inside or outside. And thee are still a tremendous number of outside commissioned sellers I speak with who aren’t make the dollars they were promised. And in reality they weren’t promised those dollars but were rather told the income was unlimited with examples of Joe Blow made 350000 last year and Nancy Drew made 625000 when in fact the average person in the company made 40000. The point of the article is that most sellers don’t reach the income level they desire because they don’t invest the time, money, and energy in becoming professionals. We cam argue whether the average income after 10 years is 10,000 or 50,000 or whatever, it doesn’t change the fact that most sellers aren’t where they want to be or where they expected to be.

        Comment by Paul McCord — March 3, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

  6. A good read. This should be a wake up call to all sales professionals and sales operation teams. I agree that success depends on the individual salesperson, the sales team and the company. For sales professionals looking for best companies to work with, check out InvisumeInvisume. It is a platform that connects salespeople with some of the best companies while keeping their data 100 percent private. Thanks for posting articles like this!

    Comment by Invisume — March 18, 2015 @ 6:46 am | Reply

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