Yesterday I was invited to an “entrepreneurs meeting” by someone I met at an event earlier in the week. Based on the name, it sounded like a good opportunity to network with other like-minded business owners. And, it was virtual, meaning I could participate from the comfort of my home office!
When I hopped on the Zoom call, that’s not what happened. I and other new folks were funneled into a breakout session that turned out to be a sales pitch to join their organization as associates. I will give them credit; the pitch was not slimy or “salesy”. That said, I listened for almost an hour and heard only the benefits of joining. I heard next to nothing about how the business actually operated and what we would be selling.
I learned enough to fill in the gaps: life insurance as an investment vehicle for retirement. A lady on the periphery of my network had pitched me on this very same thing. I was suspicious of the effectiveness or honesty of this kind of investment. I had never heard of it and the lady did not provide me any details that assuaged my doubts. Hearing the “same song, second verse” kind of pitch—not to buy a policy, but to sell them to others—also did nothing to ease my concerns. If anything, it only increased them.
My point in writing this is not to excoriate those businesses. It’s also not to demean retirement savings through life insurance. But it is to vent something that’s been on my mind recently: that sales pitches like these only reinforce the idea that sales as a profession is a game of smoke and mirrors. And that’s a darn shame.
A Salesman Knocks on Your Door…
My real introduction to sales began in college. My high-school Bible study leader hired me to manage his online sales training course. I also assisted with developing and editing various training materials. And, I helped set up and take down his sales Training Camps at the local country club.
One of the first things my boss would do at Training Camp was bring out an old vacuum cleaner, hike up his pants above his waist, and put on a big, fake smile. “Hi, would you like to buy a vacuum?!” he’d asked in a silly accent.
Of course, everyone in the room would chuckle, because they could all relate to the stereotype. A salesman—emphasis on the term “salesman”—was someone who wore an ill-fitting suit and went door-to-door selling products that families didn’t need. And you’d better believe that if you let him into your house to demonstrate a product, he wouldn’t leave until he got a “yes” to buy.
My boss used this little skit to set the theme for the rest of his sales training: True sales is not about making people buy stuff they don’t need. It’s about becoming a trusted advisor and providing solutions to peoples’ problems. It’s moving from salesman to sales professional.
Going back to the pitch from yesterday, a few things rubbed me the wrong way. The pitch was all about the “great opportunity” of working with this business—not about me as an entrepreneur. It seemed short-sighted to pitch an MLM-type arrangement to busy business owners like myself. We’re already in business. We’re tied up as it is trying to grow our own businesses. We don’t need something else to distract us from our goals.
There was also no explanation of the “how”. How does the system work? Where does the money I make come from? What are your agents actually selling to clients?
Finally, it was not clear that what was being sold would actually make clients’ lives better. People buy into timeshares because they get sold on the idea of a place they partly own and where they can vacation at leisure. Then, they find out that they can vacation there only one or two weeks out of the year. They are sold on the dream, but the salesperson fails to mention the fine print. I am a truthful and empathetic person above all else—I feel terrible in my heart if I am dishonest—so there is no way I would get involved selling something that I don’t know for certain helps the people I serve.
Long story short, all of these things convinced me that this was an “opportunity” not worth exploring. Typical “sales,” sadly.
My Sales Journey
Until college, my impression of sales was consistent with my boss’s caricature. Salespeople were pushy, dishonest, and uncaring. Actually, let me clarify that—they cared about dollars, but not about people.
When I started working for my boss, this is what I believed he taught and how he sold as well. After all, that’s sales, isn’t it?
That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
My boss, whom I now consider a mentor, has a lot of great little sayings about sales and business. The one that stands above the rest is this: “Don’t be desperate to sell; be hungry to serve.”
Let me repeat that: “Don’t be desperate to sell; be hungry to serve.”
It took me at least a year to wrap my head around this statement. I thought it was a cliché that made his sales training seem more authentic. But as I continued working for him and dove deeper into his curriculum, I realized that this philosophy permeated everything he said and did.
His sales training didn’t contain any “secret sales tactics” or social engineering. At a high level, it was pretty simple: Find prospects who could benefit from what you have to offer, qualify them, and then provide them a solution to make their lives better.
It was selling through service. Or, put another way, it was selling as a result of service.
Everyone’s In Sales
I realized that this method of selling was not only honest and authentic, but also relevant in every aspect of life. To receive, we must first give. People love to work with a helpful salesperson who takes the time to understand what they want or need. That seems to be a rarity in this world, but it is sorely needed.
Not every person is a salesperson, but every person sells. We have to be in sales to be a part of society. Whether we believe it or not, we’re always selling ourselves to others. We pitch ourselves to a recruiter as the best person for a job. We pitch ourselves to a potential spouse as the best person to spend life with.
But to do that, we must first put out some effort. We must obtain the skills and experience that make us the best candidate for a job. We must prove to a potential spouse, through our actions and words, that we are marriage material. We are putting out, serving, before we are asking for something in return.
The other part of my boss’s saying is the word “desperate”. So many people are indeed desperate to sell something. It could be a car, a dishwasher, a home—even selling yourself for a job. This is rooted in fear and lack of confidence—and other people know it.
One of my boss’s other sayings I love is that “CEOs can smell ‘no confidence’ a mile away.” Those you are selling to can tell when you’re operating from a position of fear and scarcity rather than service and abundance.
There’s a funny antidote or contrast to this. When you believe you will succeed, and know that you’re providing value through what you’re offering, you will close more sales. When you adopt a growth mindset, you realize that your livelihood does not depend on this immediate opportunity working out. You not only appear more successful, but you are more successful. People sense it. It’s one of those oxymorons of life, but it’s true. I’ve seen it in action, and I’ve experienced it myself.
If more salespeople took a vested interest in their clients’ concerns, serving as trusted advisors to help them succeed, the world would be a much better place. And if more everyday people determined to serve with value instead of being self-centered—imagine what the world would be like.
Birth of a Salesman
Seven years ago, I told myself that sales was the absolute last career path I wanted to take. I was a geek who just wanted to get a well-paying job and not be concerned with other people. Today, I believe that true sales is one of the most honorable career paths one can take. I want to provide value to the world by building true relationships with people and providing solutions to their problems that I can solve.
I am far from an expert on sales. In fact, I am just starting my journey as an entrepreneur. But I can tell you that there’s no more satisfying feeling in business than providing someone a solution to their problem and then hearing them rave about your service. Do that often enough for enough people, and there’s no stopping you from achieving whatever goals or dreams you have. I truly believe that.
“Don’t be desperate to sell; be hungry to serve.”
If you’d like to read more about sales philosophy, I highly recommend The Secret of Selling Anything by Harry Browne. This book reinforced what I learned from my mentor about sales. As the title implies, it applies to any kind of sales.