This list was prompted by a conversation I had with my husband as he was contemplating the possibility of embarking on a new career in sales. It was something he has never done before but he didn’t think it would be that hard. After all, he had been on the other end and had been sold to thousands of times. He has been in finance his whole life and starting at an early age was put in the position of being the decision-maker for purchasing and hiring consultants for financial products and services. He said he knew what every sales person had done wrong in trying to sell to him, so he knew what to do right. He was right on in some of his observations, but as a Sales Director myself, it made me reflect on how hard sales actually is but how easy other people think it must be. It is not as easy as it looks, and it’s not for everyone in the long run, but I do think it teaches valuable things that can make everyone a better person.
10. It teaches you to listen
My husband told me how he has been sold to so many times and he would get frustrated when a salesperson would walk in and give their schpeal before even knowing his needs. One of the best things you can do as a salesperson is shut up. There are few givens about human nature but one is that most people like to talk about themselves. If you get them talking and just listen you can uncover a lot of information. Another great thing about listening is that silence is golden from a sales standpoint. Silence is uncomfortable and people feel the need to fill it with noise and the most common noise is with their own talking. The first thing to overcome is your own desire to talk about yourself and instead show interest in what the other person is saying. When the other person is talking about their needs as it pertains to what you’re selling you’ve hit the jackpot. This is your best asset and your best chance at making a sale. Take note of what they say, remember it, and tie it back to what you offer. This is also beneficial in your personal life. It always pays to listen but it can help you and those around you. For example, if you’re having a conversation with your partner and you’re trying to decide on your next vacation spot. Let’s say she wants to go to the beach and you want to go to a city. Listen to her. What is it about the beach that she wants? Is it to relax? Is it the hot weather? Is it to swim? Uncovering what she wants will help you both be happy and get what you both need out of your next vacation. This takes me to my next point.
9. It teaches you how to ask good questions
The best way to get people talking is to ask good questions. Clearly, a good question is not a yes or no question. It’s open-ended and gets the person talking. This is good in life because questions uncover answers and eliminate ambiguity. Good questions prevent you from jumping to conclusions because you don’t have all of the information. My husband gave the example of a company that came in telling him about all the amazing strides they were making in China and did their entire presentation on China. My husband had absolutely no business and 100% no interest in China. He cut the meeting short and never called them back. If only they had taken the time to ask questions to find out what he needs (and do #1 and listen) they could have made a bigger impression. It’s not an interrogation, it’s simply asking questions that give you the tools you need to show how you have the power to solve their problems and meet their needs. Questions mean you’re listening and understanding what someone else is talking about and it shows that you care. In general, it’s also a good rule for your personal life and personal relationships.
8. Sales teaches you how to care about people and to build relationships
The really great salespeople I know are great at building relationships. I can’t think of a single industry where what you sell is a one and done. If you know of one, tell me so I can avoid it. It has to be a tough industry to have to constantly find new customers. If someone trusts you, likes you, and has good rapport with you they will continue to buy from you. I once worked in a place where someone boasted about a great salesman named Richard. He was so great he could sell a steak to a vegetarian. Wow, must be some salesman… But then it hit me, what is a vegetarian going to do with a steak? They will realize they can do absolutely nothing with a steak and it was a waste of money. Yes, you sold a steak. Yes, you got the sale and it probably wasn’t easy to convince them to buy. But will they buy from you again? Will they feel good about the transaction or will they feel cheated? Did you just do all that work for a one-time sale and does that make you feel good about yourself? I don’t want to sell a steak to a vegetarian. I want to sell the best steak to a steak-lover. Better yet, I want to sell to a steak-lover’s family and entire steak-loving community and introduce them to new cuts of meat and how they can prepare the different steaks and fill their need for meat. If you care about them and what they need it will spill over into your personal life. Remembering a friend’s birthday and remembering something they said they liked that one time because you care about their needs and wants. It leaves an impression. Everyone wants to be cared about and in turn they like you and care about you more. It’s a lovely cycle.
7. It teaches you humility
There is nothing better for your ego than to get rejected time and time and time and time again. For every 10 calls you make, you might get one person to talk to you. In trying to find that steak-lover, you’re going to have vegetarians, vegans, and what have yous slam the door in your face. It stinks to be told no and be treated rudely over and over again. Doesn’t really make you feel good about yourself. Sales teaches you to brush off the dust and pick up the phone and try, try, try again. How does this make you a better person? How can it not? You learn that the world is not about you. Not everybody loves you and no you’re not mommy’s special little pumpkin. If someone tells you no, it’s not personal. Also, in order to be a good listener and ask good questions, it can’t always be about you. People don’t like to deal with ego-maniacs who think their $#!* doesn’t stink. It may very well stink so you’ll need to look in the mirror, find it and clean it off. No one likes to buy steak from someone who smells like $#!*. It takes constant reflection and self-improvement and the ability to put yourself aside.
6. You learn when to let go
Everyone likes to be right and “win”. In sales the customer is always right even when they’re wrong. There is nothing that kills a sale more than trying to prove someone wrong. Sometimes you have to let go, let the other person be right and in the end if you get the sale, you’ve won anyway. When it comes to negotiations, I always follow up in writing to confirm what was said and what was agreed upon. There is nothing worse than the person coming back to you days later saying you said you would throw in two-dozen hamburger buns when they bought 12 hamburgers. It may not even make sense that you would say two dozen buns when clearly they only have one dozen burgers but nonetheless that’s what they’re saying and you can either lose the sale altogether or pay a couple bucks for some buns. Now, it doesn’t always pay to give in so you also have to know when you’re willing to lose the sale. You have to know your walk away point and what you’re willing to give. People also will take what you are willing to give. There are plenty of times when I know my lowest point is $99 and the customer is pushing me to go lower and I have to be willing to lose the sale to make a good business decision. In your personal life, you also have to know your limits and know when you can give and when you have to let go. It’s tempting to always say yes, but if that yes is going to be at a great cost you have to be willing to say no. And learning to say no graciously is especially hard.
5. It teaches you to come up with creative solutions
It’s not always as easy as yes or no. Sometimes it’s “I can’t do that but I can do this instead”. It’s finding ways to meet the customer’s needs but still make a sound business decision. I work in Hotel Sales (an altogether tough industry, there is also a list in the works about what you learn working in hospitality). In uncovering a customer’s need you may find that it’s very important for them to be close to their office. Well, damn. I can’t change my location. I can’t very well pick up my hotel and move it to another part of the city, it is where it is and I know it is not the closest hotel to their office. The solution I came up with was we would give them a $10 per day cab credit. We may not be the closest hotel but bring your cab receipt in and we will give you up to $10 per person per day back on your bill. Voila, they booked my hotel. Now will this work every time? No, but it worked this time and maybe they will book me again knowing that we’re willing to find ways to truly meet their needs. Ask questions, uncover what they want and find a creative way to solve problems and meet needs. One of the best qualities in any job is problem-solving skills. It is the rare boss who wants you to come to them with every teeny tiny little problem. Believe me, they have better things to do with their time. You will become very valuable if you can solve the piddley problems and tell them about how you solved it. They will trust you and know you can handle situations and Todd who runs to the boss for help every time a screw comes loose will be seen as incompetent. Here’s a screwdriver. Twist.
4. You learn to deal with different kinds of people
In asking questions and coming up with creative solutions you will find that there are many different kinds of people. In sales training, they teach that there are four types of people and everyone is a combination of these four. The types are amiable, expressive, analytical and driver. It is difficult to put a person into box but the idea does help you become more understanding in regards to people’s behavior. If someone is amiable, they want to tell you their life’s story. If you take the time to ask about their personal life, it will go a long way. If you yourself are a driver, you will have to put yourself aside and deal with the small talk before they get down to business. An expressive uses a lot of descriptive words and looks at the big picture. These are people you will have to remind of deadlines and make them be realistic. They are big dreamers. Analyticals need to understand everything and they ask a lot of questions. Analyticals drive expressives crazy. If you are an expressive salesperson, this is where your ability to ask questions will come in handy. Analyticals will appreciate your detail and that you can map out everything from A to Z. Drivers are no nonsense. They rarely have pleasantries at the beginning of a conversation, they want to know, “Can you do it?”, “What does it cost?” and then cut straight to negotiation. They don’t care about your dog and don’t want to talk about theirs. Amiables drive them nuts with senseless chatter so if you are an amiable salesperson, stop the chatter and get down to business. Of course not everyone fits into a box but usually people are one of these most dominantly and understanding that people process decisions differently will help you be more patient in this world and understand people better. You will also learn about yourself and why it is that some people annoy the heck out of you by just being who they are. You will become a more understanding person and better able to get along with all different types of people.
3. You learn incredible work ethic
Your job is never done. In my experience, usually the hardest working salesperson is the most successful. People appreciate follow up and when people do what they say they will do when they say they’re going to do it. Not only this but often, it means stopping what you’re doing and responding immediately to a customer’s question. Every phone call is an interruption. But also, every phone call is an opportunity. In the world of sales, people are trying to compare you against your competition and make a decision. This means responding quickly to give answers, this means taking the time to understand their needs and respond thoughtfully. In the conversation I had with my husband he told me what he wanted to do if he took this job in sales. He said he wants to take every company he goes to and present an analysis of their specific company and show what his services could do to impact their balance sheet. He said that if a salesperson had ever come to him with that, he would have been blown away. That is great, but it’s also a lot of work. It’s also why salespeople become lazy and end up giving the same presentation on China to every customer. Not everyone buys and if you spend your time making a personal presentation to everyone it will be a lot of work you won’t get a return every time. But I bet you’ll get a higher rate of return. So this goes back to asking good questions and evaluating if a company has a realistic need for your service. If they do, it is worth it to put the work in. Stay late, do the research. Learn their personality type and find creative ways to make your product not only useful but essential to their business. If not, suck up your ego that you’re not going to win and move on (#5 and #6).
2. It teaches you how to be proactive and create your own luck
The best salespeople also don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. They make their own luck. They know that they need a constant funnel of business and even if it’s busy now, there will become a point where it won’t be busy and they will appreciate that they took the time to seek out business. The person they called six months ago may remember them or dig out a business card or email because now they might have a need for your service or product. And you need their business. Luck or planning? There is nothing worse than that person who sits around and whines about their luck and about how the world hates them. We all know this person. We may have even been this person. We listen to them and have either said it or wanted to say “Why don’t you do something about it???” A good salesperson is never the victim. A good salesperson makes their luck. Now that is not to say that things don’t happen that are beyond our control. They do. But you can either roll over and feel sorry for yourself or do something about it. For example, in my business, being in Washington, DC I deal a lot with the Government so the Government shut down in October 2013 put a huge damper on my business and there was nothing I could do about it. It happened and it sucked. Even the best salesperson in the world would not have been able to find business to replace the loss in such short amount of time. But it did cause me to reevaluate our business and think of what we could do in the future if there was another Government shutdown. I asked questions, I tried to think of strategies so if it does happen again there is a plan in place. Was I a victim of circumstance? Perhaps, but you can only be a victim if you refuse to take responsibility and ownership of a situation. If it happens again will I come out on top. Who knows, but I am damn sure going to try.
1. It teaches you that sales people are PEOPLE
When I first started in sales I never thought I would make a career out of it. I did an internship in San Francisco in college and worked for a sales team for an investment research team. One of the sales guys I worked with was your stereotypical, slimy guy who didn’t care about anything except making the sale and what you could do for him. I was completely turned off to sales. The other guy actually took the time to get to know me (at the end of my internship so a little late but he did at least leave me with a good impression of him). After this experience I had a bad taste in my mouth about sales. It was for self-centered, uncaring, greedy, egotistical assholes. That was not who I wanted to be. And it’s not who I am in doing sales. I don’t see sales as selling a steak to a vegetarian. I see sales as I have a product, you have a need; let’s work together and I will show you how my product is the best solution to meet that need. I am not a robot for you to yell at. I am not trying to take away your first-born child. I am trying to help you accomplish something. Whenever a salesperson calls me, I am polite and honest because that’s what I would want. There is no need to be rude or treat someone like they are less of a human being. Yes, people knocking on your door or calling you is annoying but just tell them you don’t need what they are selling. I simply say I am not going to buy your product, it’s not in my budget. Or I have no need for your product please do not call me. If someone tells me this, I will do just that. Honestly, I have no time to waste on someone who has no use for me. If you are a small law firm that does absolutely no travel, I want to know so I never call you again. Simple. Done. Salespeople are hardworking and often in a job where they don’t hear “thank you” a lot. It’s also a job that helps everyone else in your company keep their job because they bring in the money that contributes to you being able to make the product for the customer. So before you are mean to someone who says they are in sales, just remember they are a person, they help the economy and one day you may need something they are trying to sell.
Amelia Zimmerman is a Sales Director at a Marriott Property in Washington, DC under the management of Crestline Hotels & Resorts. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Capitol Riverfront Building Improvement District. She currently lives in Arlington, VA with her husband. CLAS ’04, BA Economics.
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