Every one of us is a salesperson at heart – just with varying degrees of success. From the earliest age we’re manipulating the people around us to get what we want, whether it be a beaming smile to deepen our parents’ love or an ear-piercing screech to fast-track us back to the boob. This is no Machiavellian attempt to dupe our mums and dads, but a natural behaviour based on reciprocity and born out of necessity.
Yet despite this innate tendency for mutual exchange, here in the UK at least, people who sell for a living don’t always get the best press. This 2015 survey, for instance, ranked sales people as the UK’s third most hated professionals, who received 11.7% of the vote, behind call centre operators (11.9%) and – perhaps not surprisingly – traffic wardens, who were streets ahead with 47.9%.
This is such a shame. Sure, the sleazy, pushy, fast-talking, talk-the-hind-leg-off-a-donkey notion of a sales rep does the profession no favours, but these typecasts have become mercifully few and far between since the double-glazing boom of the ‘80s. Today, sales is much more about being mindful and deliberate than scattergun and aggressive. In the US, sales is seen as a legitimate profession with excellent career prospects, and I’m convinced the tide of public opinion is finally starting to turn here too.
So, why do I think sales is such a great way to begin your career? Put simply, working in sales draws out and nurtures skills and attributes that are key to pretty much every job, and will hold you in good stead for any future career path. And this is no more so than in startup sales jobs, where the added pressures and thrills of the unknown will tax and enthral you in equal measure.
This might sound like a pretty bold statement, so let’s break it down into some of the core benefits:
Fosters resilience – Until recently, talk of resilience and grit has been all too infrequent, but all that seems to be changing and the terms have even made their way onto the school agenda. Everyone “suffers” knockbacks and failure in life, but it’s how we deal with them that shapes our future paths and opportunities – or lack of them. In sales you get knockbacks on a daily basis, or even hourly in some startup sales jobs. “Your product’s shite”, “That’s way too expensive” or simply “Get lost” are a handful of many typical responses we regularly have to deal with in the trade.
When I was 19 studying at Edinburgh University I took a door-to-door sales job with British Gas. Nine in 10 people told me to “go away” or words to that effect, and I quickly realised just how hard selling was. But I developed a tough skin and stuck at it, all the while building an inner confidence that I could do this. Looking back now I can honestly say it was one of the hardest but most beneficial things I did as a young man, and am sure helps me in my work to this day.
Helps you understand the art of communication – Dull, negative and lacklustre salespeople may exist, but I’ve never met one – and certainly not a successful one. To succeed in sales you have to be positive and enthusiastic, and understand that the way you frame something and the energy you bring to those words has a direct outcome on sales. This may not be your natural inclination when you start out in startup sales jobs, but the more you practice your pitch – and start to see results – the more you will become aware of the power of good communication.
Nurtures empathy – Good sales guys know their companies’ products inside out, and understand the features that will appeal and make a difference to their clients. To accompany this product knowledge you as a sales person need to step into the shoes of the customer, so that you understand their needs and wants. This builds on the art of communicating and means asking perceptive questions and listening to the responses. Having empathy is not just valuable in any job role, but across all walks of life.
Improves your visibility – Sales are the lifeblood of pretty much any business, so if you outperform in startup sales jobs, or any other sales job, you become very visible to senior management and company founders. That in turn increases your chance of reward and recognition, and progress through the business. Adi Tatarko, founder and CEO of online interior design startup Houzz, famously checks the performance of every sales person around the world. If someone’s outdoing the rest, she gives them a call to let them know there’re on her watch list (in a good way!).
Sales is Part of Every Job
Whatever role you go onto after your first job in sales, regardless of the size, location or type of company you work for, I can pretty much guarantee that it will involve selling at some level. Whether you are a junior architect trying to persuade your boss why your design is the best, or a senior account manager trying to motivate your team to internalise a new client engagement strategy, everything boils down to understanding other people’s needs and persuading them that you hold the solution.
Your Efforts Rewarded
A career dedicated to sales may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but hopefully I have convinced you that the lessons learned in sales will serve you well in any future job. But if you’re still not convinced that an early stint or life-long career in sales is for you, then consider this: commission. Some companies cap commission but this seems crazy to me and is thankfully rare. In the main, the harder you work the more money you get back for your efforts. And that’s as good an incentive to put in the hours as anything I know.