“The company bends over backwards for these MBA type people, but what does it do for us? Nothing! They think running contests & awards is all we need… but what about our career?”, grumbled one of my fellow tea-drinkers to his mates. We were all clustered around the tapri (tea stand) near a distributor’s office trying to warm up with a hot cup of tea on a chilly winter evening. I figured they were Sales Officers of FMCG companies, so I decided to interrupt the conversation, “Why do you think your career is the company’s responsibility?”. They turned towards me, aghast!
In the colourful, heated debate that followed, I managed to uncover and shatter some deeply ingrained myths that these SOs were holding on to, about how they saw their professional life evolving. Myths that they accepted as truth, because “aisa hi chalta aaya hai” (it’s always been like this).
So today I am going to be busting myths for everyone who’s part of the frontline FMCG/FMCD sales community to help them realize there is so much they can do to uplift themselves and command as much respect as those ‘MBA type people”.
Busting Myth#1: Your Company is responsible for your career progression
No, it’s NOT. Neither should you assume that you will get promoted every 3-5 years because you’ve put in the years. There are people smarter than you, with higher numbers than you, and more ambitious than you. If you don’t take control of your career and work at bettering yourself, you’ll get left behind.
I’ve seen a lot of FMCG salesmen in their late 30s languishing at an SO’s role or a TSI’s role for years, only because they were too scared to ask for something else. Walk up to your boss and have an open conversation with him. Ask for a change of role, like maybe in Modern Trade. And then you can take a couple of years building expertise on it.
Fearing the unknown is only going to reduce your chances of being something more. What’s the most your boss can do if you ask for a change of role? Refuse? At least you asked. Now you can choose to stay or start searching for a job which gives you what you want. If you don’t like your job, explore other opportunities.
Busting Myth#2: Focus on your job, because soft skills are unimportant
One common mistake that many SOs or Sales Representatives make is to think they are indispensable to their company. No one is. Not even the Head of Sales. So spend the initial years learning the trade and nuances of your business. Find out if your company sponsors or subsidizes certifications you’re interested in. A lot of times frontline salespeople don’t even know the resources available to them because the company doesn’t think they’ll use any of them.
Keep building your repertoire of diverse skills and vertical knowledge. Polish up your communication. Dress better. Be visible to the senior team but make sure to have your performance back you up. One thing that will definitely give you a leg-up is to become more tech-savvy. Understand what kind of technology solutions the other FMCG companies are using. Find out which sales force automation software or which retailer app or which DMS is more popular. Ask your company to adopt a technology that gives them detailed retail intelligence, so you can become more effective on the field.
The more varied skills you have, the more valuable you will be to your employer- as well as to the external market. Here’s what I think a career journey of a Sales Officer or Territory Sales In-charge should look like:
Between 20-30 years of age, keep a closer track of how your peers are performing as compared to you. Are you moving as fast as them? What are they doing right that you aren’t? Then figure that out and start doing it yourself. Don’t let your ego come in the way of acknowledging the areas you need to improve upon.
Busting Myth #3: Staying at one location won’t affect your career
Let’s compare 2 Sales Officers of a CPG company – The first one has 4 years of experience in Delhi, therefore, understands the complexity of high volume business and has dealt with high-value retailers. The second one has worked 2 years in Lucknow, 1 year in Ludhiana and 1 year in Delhi. Who do you think has a better resume?
In your 20’s and 30’s, you’re young and without dependencies. Don’t grow roots at this stage. Grow wings!! This is the best time to consider opportunities that can broaden your horizons, even if they mean being based away from your hometown. Believe me, the experience you gain working in a semi-urban or rural city will give you a giant boost in your career. Considering multi-city experience at an SO or a TSI level is practically unheard of, you will have tremendous respect as well as visibility in the Sales organization.
When you’re away from your home, you get to learn so much more about things other than your work- the language of that area, their unique way of working, the food, the culture etc. It helps you grow as a person and understand consumer behaviour at a granular level, a skill that comes in handy when you’re climbing the ladder or changing industries.
Busting Myth #4: Being a small fish in a big pond is safe
30-40 years ago, salesmen would join a big FMCG company as a fresher and retire as a Branch Head, or in some cases, as an RSM. Getting a job in a ‘good’ company meant that they wouldn’t need to prepare for a job interview for at least 10-15 years, unless absolutely necessary. This kind of approach will definitely not work in today’s day and age. In the dog-eat-dog world of FMCG, SOs and TSIs need to fight harder to be heard and to be noticed.
How many examples can you give me where a ranker reached the level of an NSM or a VP Sales?
Don’t you want to be someone who shatters that glass ceiling? Once you’re in your early to late 40s, your life dynamics change. Your children are in school, and you’ve achieved a certain status and a standard of living. By now you should be near a Trade Marketing or a GTM role. If you aren’t, maybe you should explore a ZSM/RSM/Branch Head role in a smaller FMCG/FMCD company. Better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond than a small fish in a big pond. You’ll be able to make your presence felt more easily, especially if it’s an emerging company with lots of learning opportunities.
Busting Myth #5: Networking is a waste of time
A typical Indian FMCG sales structure replenishes itself every 4-6 years due to attrition and movements. In that case, how are you securing your career, your growth? In tough times like these, everyone is busy saving their own jobs. Therefore, creating a personal brand becomes even more critical. But how do you build a reputation for yourself? How can you shout about your work without sounding pompous?
One subtle way to do this is to join Facebook, LinkedIn, and similar business forums where you can start building networks with industry leaders. Engage with people who work for your ‘dream companies’. Keep yourself updated with what people are talking about. Regularly post content that is authentic and adds value to the reader.
Creating an online presence is something that you should ideally do when you begin your career so that over the years, your profile keeps building as you grow. But if you haven’t started already, any day is a good day to start.
I hope the 5 myths I have put to rest have given you a perspective on how well you can control your own career’s trajectory. It’s high time someone talked about coaching and mentoring the people who make up possibly the largest fleet of sales representatives across the world. I say it with pride that Sales is my bread and butter as well as my passion, and I want to help as many people understand and love this function as much I do. Let me know if this helped you in any way or if there is anything else you’d like to know.
Wishing you all the best!