Did you know that folding TV dinner tables make excellent storefronts? I can personally attest to the fact that they do. By nine years old I was setting them up two by two at the base of our driveway and covering them with everything from old books to friendship bracelets to homemade drinks mixed from Kool-Aid, orange soda, ginger ale, and any other light colored carbonated beverage I could get my hands on.
Day after day I would sit at my “store” calling out to anyone who walked down my quiet suburban street, “Do you wanna buy a book/bracelet/fruity drink/baby brother?” With the exception of child trafficking, I was always able to find a few buyers for my wares. True, my skills with embroidery thread were off the chain (thank you Colonie youth camp), but what got the neighborhood kids to part with their allowances was my ability to sell.
Sales is simply defined as the activity or business of selling products and services. Everyday we exchange something we value for something else we value just as much, if not more. The summer after fourth grade every kid I knew was into stacking multicolored thread on their wrists as a symbol of forever friendships. All I did was provide them with what they wanted in exchange for what I needed even more: money for the ice cream truck.
I simply had to be willing to seek them out and ask for the transaction. That willingness has served me well. I was the top cookie seller in Girl Scout troop 369 year after year (shout out to dad for bringing a second order form to your office. Your co-workers were gluttons). My craft making skills evolved to lanyard keychains and in junior high I took custom orders from my classmates and taught the younger kids in the neighborhood how to make them for a small cut of the revenue. In college I worked for a telephone survey company and always ranked amongst the highest converters. And since graduating with my Bachelor’s I have spent the overwhelming majority of my career in sales.
Just When I Thought I Was Out…
For a long time I fought against my natural gifts. I spent a large part of the decade I worked at my first employer actively trying to get out of sales (while also trying to get out of the Midwest). I even applied to MFA in Writing programs (thank you God for rejection).
I went to business school in order to leave sales. However, within one year of graduation I finally stopped fighting what everyone around me already knew. I’m a salesperson. While I may not always want to have that job title, that part of me will come through no matter what I’m doing. The truth that I ran from for years, I now wholeheartedly embrace.
I have not only accepted that I do in fact love to sell, I think it is a skill that everyone should cultivate.
A Million Reasons Why Not
If you surveyed a hundred people, I’d wager that 95 would rather drive their keys through their left temple than take a sales job. I can think of several friends in corporate rotation programs who are actively trying to avoid the sales roles. Out of all the business functions sales provides the most value to a company yet has the worst reputation.
Maybe sales’ bad reputation is unfair but it’s not wholly unearned. Since the days of the snake oil salesman there have always been people willing to prey on the needs, fears, and hopes of others to make money. Who hasn’t felt manipulated by a pushy salesperson pressuring you to buy something you either didn’t want or couldn’t afford? Sales is also perceived as low skill work that relies on cold calling or knocking on doors.
While all of this can be true, it does not mean that it always is. With the exception of my college work study job as a telephone surveyor, none of the sales jobs I’ve had entailed cold calling or knocking on doors. Heck, most of them didn’t even require me to directly sell to a customer.
I was chatting on Twitter today with Marcus and Rich from Paychecks and Balances. What started as commentary on the book The Millionaire Next Door turned into a conversation on salary stagnation which led to me sharing that I’d spent most of my career in sales. Another tweeter (is that what they’re called?) said that sales is a profession that requires talking to and interacting with people regularly and suggested that it’s not really for more introverted people (I’m paraphrasing).
So many people think like this and assume that sales is not for them because they don’t like talking to people or can’t imagine themselves “pressuring” people to buy anything. Of them I would only ask one thing.
I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Does
Remember Bridget from the movie Pretty Woman? You probably don’t (admittedly I had to look up her name just now), but she was the saleswoman at the department store who helped Vivian find a dress for dinner after the stores on Rodeo Drive wouldn’t help her (big mistake, HUGE).
Bridget helped Vivian find a solution to a problem, and that is exactly what salespeople are meant to do. When I worked in the tech industry there were even jobs called solution sellers. Sure we were all selling software, but that product was tied to solving a business issue whether that be information storage, employee collaboration, customer engagement, or drawing insights from data. When you look at sales from the perspective of exchanging value for money it starts to look much less shady.
And not so quietly kept sales is a part of everything in life. A resume, cover letter, and interview are tools for selling yourself to a potential employer. An online dating profile is a way to sell yourself to potential dates. Everyday we have to sell our ideas to coworkers, subordinates, and managers to effectively do our jobs. Plus, the higher you go in any profession, the job eventually becomes sales. Make it to managing partner at any investment or consulting firm and almost 100% of your job is to bring in new business and grow revenue from existing clients. This is why I say sales is a skill that everyone should hone. Its uses are infinite.
I’m Everything I Am Because Sales Loved Me
Besides my beloved family and friends, I credit sales for almost all of the good things in my life. My career in sales not only gave me a killer resume (if I do say so myself) it also gave me the ability to craft a compelling business school application that got me into three of the top five MBA programs in the world (according to US News and World Report, The Economist, Business Week, etc.) with significant scholarship offers. Selling helped me achieve my dream of being an adult flower girl not once
And beating out toddlers for the chance to throw flowers down an aisle is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the financial benefits I’ve gained. My sales job gave me my dear sweet Silver Betty, who was my company car for two years before I bought her at wholesale price. Not to mention my last sales gig was quite lucrative so there’s that. Admittedly, there is a certain level of pressure involved in meeting the goals that generate higher incomes but I have been blessed to work for organizations and teams that offered fantastic support and collaboration to get to the targets.
More than stuff, being a salesperson has shaped who I am in ways that will forever benefit my life. Here are the top five.
- I am a better listener. I like to talk. A lot. I also always think I’m right. In sales I learned that no matter how much I have to say and how right what I’m saying is, the transaction really is not about me. It’s about the customer. My job is to know and meet their need. In order to do that I actually have to listen, and not listen to respond but listen to understand.
This does not come easy to me and it is something that I’ve had to develop over years of trial and many errors. Working in sales gave me the opportunity to exercise my listening muscles day in and day out. It hasn’t changed my natural tendency to talk first and keep talking, but it’s made me more aware and given me the tools I need to shut my damn mouth once in a while and stop focusing on being right.
- I am more creative and resourceful. When my line sisters (for those who don’t know those are my sorority sisters who pledged with me) started getting married I asked each one if I could be there flower girl and each one laughed in my face and told me hell no. Then one day I was dress shopping with one of them before her wedding and mentioned that the flower girl dresses in the bridal magazine would look great on me. Of course my LS laughed at me, but the bridal shop owner said that the idea wasn’t so far fetched and she’d heard of adult flower girls. In that moment I’d found an ally.
Sometimes when it comes to selling an idea you need a co-signer. Sometimes you need a different angle. Sometimes you need a better story. Whatever it is, oftentimes there is more behind a no than “I don’t want it.” Often people just need to be shown an alternative value for what you’re selling.
It’s kind of like a prescription drug for high blood pressure that also just so happens to control hormone imbalances caused by PCOS. If you’re trying to sell me a high blood pressure medication I’m going to turn you down flat. But if you dig a little deeper and learn that I’d rather not have to constantly attack chin hairs (not that I know anything about that) then all of a sudden you have a loyal customer.
- I am more resilient. Sometimes there is no amount resourcefulness or creativity to close a sale. Sometimes your competition is a better fit. Sometimes you get the right customer at the wrong time. Sales has taught me how to hear and accept the word no. I have heard it a lot and lo and behold it didn’t kill me. In fact, getting told no usually rolls right off my back nowadays. Heck, sometimes it even helps me learn and improve. A lot of people have a fear of being told no. Sales gets you over that fear quickly by process of immersion.
- I am not afraid to negotiate. Before going to business school I never negotiated a job offer. I was so happy to be wanted that I did not dare look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. I figured that salary and benefits packages were standard and I had to take what was given.
Oh how wrong I was. In grad school I learned that so many women depress their salaries because they do not negotiate their offers. I realized that even though I was comfortable asking a customer for a lower price or better merchandising, I was still uncomfortable advocating for myself.
That came to an end when my first post MBA job offer was for less money than I made in my first job out of undergrad. Although I knew that non-profit work wasn’t the highest paying profession, it was a punch in the gut to see just how low it could go. After talking with a friend from b-school about it I went back to the organization with what it would take to get me on board. I got them to go up $30K over the initial offer.
I put these skills to use again less than a year later when I decided to return to sales. This time the company claimed the salary was non-negotiable. Once again I reached into my rolodex for advice from a peer and instead of negotiating on price, I moved the conversation to job level. With that, I found the right lever to push to get what I wanted, which was more money.
- I’m not afraid to put myself out there. Actually, this is a lie. I’m still afraid, I just do it anyways. Every time I post on this blog I always debate whether I should share it with my Facebook friends. It’s one thing to write for anonymous internet strangers but it’s another ballgame exposing my thoughts and life to those who actually know me. It took me a month of blogging before I shared a post on my wall. I realized that if I wanted my audience to grow I had to start letting people know that this blog even existed and it was foolish not to start with a network of hundreds of people who have some interest in me as a person.
Every time I make a cold call to ask a stranger to help me in some aspect of starting my grocery store my heart beats faster. My best friend often says that I was born without the embarrassment gene. She’s wrong. I get embarrassed all the time, but I simply push through it. Because sales has taught me that hearing no isn’t the end of the world, I’m able to gird my loins, make the call, spit my game, and see what happens. More often than not I get most of what I’m asking for.
My perspective on sales is 100% bias. However, it’s also tested by over a decade of experience. Sales doesn’t have to be scary and there are many ways to be part of the profession. As I said earlier, less than half my career was actually spent selling directly to a customer. Most of my jobs consisted of either managing and developing strategies for others to use or using data to create the stories the field teams used to sell. I still got paid the same whether I was the customer manager or the planning manager. What did I say about resourcefulness and creativity? There is more than one way to skin a cat (Open Mouths Get Fed does not endorse animal cruelty).
Have you ever considered a job in sales? Do you have a strong area of expertise? Maybe the next step in your career is a selling position. Have you ever been a salesperson? Did you find the skills valuable beyond that job? If you’re interested in knowing what makes for successful selling I highly recommend reading the book The Challenger Sale.
As usual, hit the comments and let me know your thoughts. Also if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask.
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