I first experienced working for Danone after my second year at university, when I carried out a 12-month placement as an assistant category manager for the company, before completing my degree. I had decided that this organisation would be the best place for me to gain experience when I visited a careers fair at university. Many companies were represented and I couldn't see that anything differentiated one from another – until Danone. It stood out because of its strong health mission and the fact that it was communicating about giving back to society. In 2013, there weren't so many businesses motivated by making a positive social impact as there are today; I was sold by the fact that this organisation had greater motivations than just making money.
Preparing for the assessment centre
During my placement, I became even more convinced that I shared the company's values and I had the chance to see the commercial side of the business – which I could tell was the side that suited me. Applying for the commercial (marketing and sales) graduate scheme with Danone therefore felt like the natural thing to do.
For the placement, I completed verbal and reasoning ability tests and two interviews, but now graduates enter an assessment centre in place of the final interview. After performing well in my placement role for 12 months, I was fast tracked to the assessment centre for the graduate scheme. When preparing for the assessment centre, I worked on my knowledge of the market. This involved Googling and watching TED talks by people in the industry. I also found examples of where I'd demonstrated Danone's values and rehearsed them in front of a wall in my bedroom.
Polish production lines
The commercial (marketing and sales) programme lasted for two years: I spent one year in sales for Danone's water brands and the other in marketing for a brand of cereal bar for pregnant and breastfeeding women. What was particularly valuable about my experience on Danone's programme was that I really got to grips with the journey of a product – from manufacturing to shelf. When I was working with the pregnancy bar, I visited a production line in Poland. It was surreal to see the bar being produced and to be one of the first people to taste it. When I later walked into my local chemist and picked up a packet of the pregnancy bars, this was a career highlight. I thought: I was there when they were packaging this in Poland and now it's in a chemist on the high street!
Getting to grips with production has shown me the complexities inherent in the process of developing goods on an industrial scale, which has played a useful part in my job. When you're selling products you sometimes encounter delays and it's useful to understand the reasons for them, rather than to just feel frustrated.
Working in account management
As an account manager today, I sell millions of pounds' worth of products to a retail chain every year. I work cooperatively with the retail chain to produce a marketing plan for the product, which I then help to execute in the way that will produce the greatest mutual gain. As well as working with retailers to discover and capitalise on sales opportunities, I report back to my bosses about the state of performance and sales predictions. My job is very entrepreneurial: I pitch ideas to generate more sales back to Danone and tell them the costs and benefits, and the company decides whether they want to invest in my plans.
The rapid pace of change is what makes my job so interesting. Consumers' shopping habits are changing so much that the company is having to adapt quickly to meet their needs. People are becoming more health-conscious, which means we're having to work hard and think innovatively to improve the health credentials of our products. It's definitely a challenge – but an exciting one.
Being empathetic is really important when working in sales because a key way to be successful is to consider what will help the customer and to craft a proposition specifically for them. If you're interested in this industry, you should work on your 'active listening' technique. This means you really hear what someone is saying, understand them and respond in a meaningful way.
Letting yourself speak
Part of 'active listening' is knowing when to speak. I'm naturally quite an introverted person; during the assessment centre, I made an effort to speak up when I had something useful to say. Whether you're at an assessment centre or you're starting out in a graduate position, it's important to know when your contribution will be valuable and have the confidence to voice it.
I'd also urge you to express your ideas for improvements during a graduate scheme; this will help to get you noticed as a strong employee. During the first year of my graduate programme, I discovered that we had a separate online media plan for the waters, baby and dairy departments within one of our retailers. I suggested that these departments should come together to discuss ideas and, as a result, a monthly meeting to discuss opportunities was set up. This meant that better plans were created, and everyone involved learned a lot. The idea that I had initiated positive change made me feel like a valuable member of the company.
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