Qualified customer service representatives (CSRs) and sales associates are integral to the success of any business, functioning as the intermediaries between a company and its customers. There are enormous job opportunities in sales and customer service; businesses employed 6.75 million workers in 2008.

Sales workers work with marketing teams to sell a given company's products or services. To do this, they must have a thorough knowledge of the strengths (and weaknesses) of their product, and posses the vocabulary necessary to demonstrate the product's value to consumers.

While customer service representatives aren't as sales-oriented, they often assist customers in their purchasing decisions by providing relevant information about a specific product or service and working point-of-sale POS computers like cash registers. Customer service representatives typically listen and respond to customer inquiries and complaints. They work proactively to ensure that the customer is satisfied by helping to address grievances, provide information or offering solutions to problems. Sales associates share a some of these duties but are also typically called upon to complete financial transactions, stock stores and organize merchandise, and work to increase sales of certain products.

While a formal postsecondary education is not required for most entry-level sales and customer service positions, high-level positions like customer service and sales managers generally have at least a bachelor's degree.

Other highly-specialized and relatively small sales fields like insurance or advertising sales agents or real estate brokers often require an associate's or bachelor's degree for entry-level positions.

Customer Service and Sales Career Opportunities

Leads to Customer Service and Sales Representatives, Customer Service and Sales Managers

Career opportunities are available almost everywhere for qualified customer service and sales associates. From telemarketing services to banks, from large department store to small boutique, customer service representatives and sales associates help a business sell their merchandise or services – creating the revenue that sustains them.

As retail establishments expand, new sales and customer service positions will become available to meet the increasing demands and inquiries of a growing population.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.25 million customer service representatives in 2008. The BLS predicts that customer service representatives will experience a faster-than-average growth rate of 18% from 2008 to 2018. That will mean the addition of almost 400,000 jobs for a 2018 total of 2.65 million jobs.

Customer service is a massive and quickly growing field.Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Real job openings will be even higher; the Occupational Information Network, a resource of the Department of Labor's Employment & Training Administration, reports that there will be a total of 1.1 million openings for customer service representatives from 2008-2018. That figure includes the 400,000 new jobs predicted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, AND existing positions vacated by retirement, promotion, or termination.

Sales associates may not see as high a growth rate as customer service representatives; however, employment opportunities are expected to grow about as fast as average. The BLS reports that there were almost 4.5 million sales workers in 2008. The field is expected to add 374,700 new positions – an 8% expansion – by 2018, for a new total of 4.86 million sales workers.

Retail sales workers will experience occupational growth that is on-pace with the predicted expansion of the civilian workforce from 2008 to 2018.Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Occupational Information Network predicts a total of 1.63 million job openings for sales workers from 2008-2018. That includes the 374,700 new jobs predicted by the BLS, and existing positions vacated by retirement, career change, promotion and early termination.

Finally, there were 346,900 sales managers in 2008, according to the BLS. The occupation is expected to add 51,800 new jobs over 10 years, for a 2018 total of 398,700. That's a 15% growth rate, higher than the average for all occupations.

Sales managers will experience a 15% occupational growth rate from 2008 to 2018, faster than the predicted expansion of the civilian workforce over the same time period.Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

According to the Occupational Information Network, there will be over 120,000 sales manager job opportunities available to qualified candidates. That figure includes predicted new jobs AND existing positions vacated by retirement, career change, termination, etc.

Customer Service and Sales Earnings

Earnings for customer service and sales positions vary by experience and industry. While advanced degrees are required for many customer service and sales management positions, education does not greatly affect entry-level earnings.

Earnings vary widely by industry, especially for sales workers that earn commission.

The BLS reports that the median annual wages of customer service representatives were $29,860 in 2008. The middle 50% of the field earned between $23,590 and $38,000 while the bottom 10% made less than $19,030 and the top 10% made more than $48,340.

Customer service and sales workers made median wages that were significantly less than the national median for all occupations in 2008.Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

In 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual wages for hourly and salary sales associates were $20,510. The middle 50% of the field earned between $17,180 and $27,760, while the bottom 10% made less than $15,340 and the top 10% made more than $39,810.

Customer service and sales managers made significantly more: according to the BLS, retail supervisors made annual median wages of $35,310 in 2008, while corporate sales managers made annual median wages of $97,260.

Sales managers made much more than CSR, sales worker, and first-line sales supervisors in 2008.Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Customer Service and Sales Educational Benefits

Most non-manager positions in sales or customer service don't require a post-secondary degree. Those sales positions that are complex enough to warrant specialized technical training (medical technology, for instance) often teach them on-the-job.

However, as the American workforce becomes more skilled and educated, more sales and customer service specialist jobs will require an associate's or bachelor's degree. Language education is becoming critical as more bilingual point-of-sale employees are needed to interact with non-English speakers.

Many sales manager positions require a master's degree, often an MBA.

According to the Occupational Information Network, 34% of customer service representatives have a high school diploma or less, 44% have some college education (a post-secondary diploma or associate's degree) while 22% have a college degree (a bachelor's degree) or higher.

66% of customer service representatives have some college.Source: Occupational Information Network

Similarly, according to the Occupational Information Network, 38% of sales representatives have a high-school diploma or less, 36% have some college education, while 25% have bachelor's degrees or higher.

61% of sales workers have some college education.Source: Occupational Information Network

Not surprisingly, sales managers were typically more highly trained than the agents they supervise. According to the Occupational Information Network, 69% have a bachelor's degree or higher, 22% have some college, including customer service and sales associate's degree programs, and the remaining 9% have a high school diploma or less.

69% of sales managers have a bachelor's degree or higher.Source: Occupational Information Network

Customer Service Representative and Sales Representative Programs Online

Degrees Possible Certificate, Associate's, Bachelor's and Master's Degrees

There are a variety of sales and customer service programs offered online, at all degree levels. Many undergraduate programs are general marketing and sales degrees. Graduate degrees and some bachelor's degrees are specialized, into areas like business management, professional sales, customer service, or call center management.

Again, a post-secondary degree is not typically required for a customer service or sales position, but may help the candidate to later advance to a managerial or supervisorial position.

As with any serious educational decision, do your research when picking an online customer service or sales program: is the school accredited? Will credits transfer? What is the school's job placement rate? What are people saying about this school in general and this program specifically? Is this degree a smart investment in my career? You can find answers to many of those questions on this family of Web sites, but don't be afraid to interrogate your admissions counselor.

Customer Service and Sales Skills and Abilities

Customer service and sales personnel are often the first contact customers have with the company with which they are doing business. It is important that they are friendly and informative, possessing excellent communication and active listening skills.

Because they often use the rudimentary math of cash and change, retail sales people and Customer service representatives should be comfortable with numbers and arithmetic. Because many sales workers and customer service representatives handle cash, they must be reliable and trustworthy.

As point-of-sale computers become more complex, Customer service and sales workers will increasingly benefit from technology skills. Customer service and sales workers deal with long queues of impatient customers; efficiency, patience, and attitude make a huge difference.

Many customer service and sales personnel work irregular hours, including nights, weekends, holidays and overtime. Others work part-time.

Customer Service and Sales Qualification and Advancement

Most Customer service and sales positions do not require formal postsecondary education. For most workers, a high school diploma and work experience will qualify them for positions as Customer Service and Sales Workers.

However, many employers prefer associate's degree graduates for entry-level managerial positions, like Retail Sales Supervisors. Some specialized sales positions like insurance or advertising sales workers may require experience and a bachelor's degree.

Finally, for high-level corporate manager positions like Sales Managers, a bachelor's degree or master's degree in customer service and sales or a related area is often required.

Additional Information

The International Customer Service Association maintains a Web site at http://www.iscatoday.org.

The National Retail Federation maintains a Web site at http://www.nrf.com.