History shows us that sales is one of the oldest professions on Earth and has provided gainful employment for thousands of years. From agriculture to literature to modern day eCommerce, sales has played an integral role in meeting societal needs while helping reshape society itself. And although I am a steadfast believer that anyone can be great at sales, I am also a realist who recognizes that not everyone should try to make a career of it. A similar version of this belief was recently popularized in the movie Ratatouille. Here is an excerpt from the film:
“In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.” – Anton Ego
Essentially, greatness will not be achieved by everyone but can be achieved by anyone. The same concept proves itself to be unquestionably true in the field of sales. Some salespeople come from generations of wealth while others claim far more humble beginnings. Some have acquired their skills through extensive education while others have found “the street” to be a worthy instructor. Some have made a deliberate choice to pursue a career in sales while others have found their entrance into the industry through happenstance or hardship.
Regardless of the path taken, there are successful salespeople throughout the world who specialize in different products, industries, and methodologies. And due to the myriad options present in this ever evolving discipline, a question often asked is, “Would I be good at sales?” The purpose here is not to answer this question outright, but for you to consider the following so that you may arrive at your own conclusion.
Are you likeable?
Unless there is a substantial discovery in the field of genetics in the near future that proves otherwise, we are going to work under the assumption that there is no such thing as a “Sales Gene.” However, there is significant evidence that successful salespeople tend to be pretty likable.
Take a second to think back to an instance in which you've bought something from someone (and no, grocery shopping doesn't count). Did you enjoy talking to the salesperson? Did they make you feel comfortable? Did they make you feel confident in your purchase? Did they discuss topics beyond the product/service such as your family, hobbies, or occupation? If you dig deep enough, it’s likely that you will be able to recall at least one positive and negative experience which are of equal importance here. Because selling is both transactional and experiential, good salespeople tend to place an emphasis on relationship building while poor salespeople do not. This truth has led many in the industry to refer to the following as a formula for success.
make a friend + make sense = make money
Sounds simple right? It really is. But let’s dive deeper into the impact likability has on both short-term and long-term results.
Fact: it is entirely possible to dislike a salesperson yet still purchase from him or her. Perhaps, the seller simply had the best deal in town. Perhaps, the lack of supply made the seller the only viable option. Perhaps, you were in such immediate need that you were otherwise forced to purchase from the seller. But would you refer friends and family to someone who made you feel uncomfortable, unimportant, or unsafe? Would you return to the seller a second time without searching for a more favorable alternative?
These points help us better grasp the role likability has on success over an extended period of time. Even the most unlikable human will be able to sell from time to time due to some of the situations listed above. But unless those conditions exist permanently, customers will eventually find somewhere else to spend their money. Likable salespeople (or companies) can be benefited by positive circumstances whereas unlikable salespeople are dependent on them. Let’s take a look at a few modern examples to illustrate this point more effectively.
Many believe Richard Branson is the preeminent businessman of our time as he has been able to build eight separate billion-dollar companies in eight separate industries over the course of his career. His variety of professional achievements has set him apart from any of his contemporaries.
And while there are many secrets to his incredible success, there is one basic strategy that has fueled many of his ventures: find dissatisfied customers and create a profitable way to make them happy.
Virgin Airlines was born from this approach. Branson noticed that many travelers were unhappy with air travel due to long lines, unfriendly service, lack of leg room, etc. Many businessmen would consider this a potential barrier to entry; he saw it as an opportunity. He set out to create an airline that simply made the experience better for employees and passengers alike. He didn't invent air travel. His planes don’t go any faster than his competitors. His tickets aren't the cheapest. Yet people continue to choose Virgin Airlines because they like the experience. This philosophy is so fundamental to their DNA that it is reflected in their mission statement: to embrace the human spirit and let it fly.
Yelp gives us another example of just how powerful likability is. If you are one of the few who are unfamiliar with the site, it is an online rating tool in which users can rate companies based on price, quality, and personal experience among other factors. The platform exists so that experienced consumers can share their encounters with the inexperienced. This helps drive spending dollars to companies who are liked by their patrons.
As a result, companies are putting more effort and dollars into creating a positive experience for their customers as they know these experiences will be shared online. The more popular they are with their current customers, the more likely they are to attract new ones. Both examples help us understand the long-term importance of being liked by those with which you transact. And the more competitive your industry is, the more vital this becomes.
The difficulty though lies in how flawed one’s self-perception can be of his or her own likability. If you were to ask a random group of people to rate their communication skills, how many do you think would give themselves a rating of average, below-average, or poor? There seems to be an unusual constant shared by nearly all human beings: most people think they are better communicators than most people. Not everyone can be right, right?
Because an honest self-evaluation is likely impossible, many people have found value in performing anonymous 360-degree reviews. Just beware, people might not find you as likable as you thought they would. But isn't that important to know? Nathaniel Branden once said “[t]he first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” If the people close to you don’t find you entirely likable, what hope do you have with strangers?
Sales can be as simple as making friends, making sense, and making money. So, are you likable?
Are you ready to work hard?
Those who have spent more than a few years in sales can attest to the fact that there is a cyclical nature to sales in most industries. There are times when every transaction is completed with ease and money just continues to pour in. We like these times. However, there are also times when every transaction takes ages to complete but we tolerate them because the money is just so hard to come by. As the saying goes, for every bull market there is a bear. Doesn't that sound a bit like the real estate market from 2000 to 2010?
My mom has been a real estate agent since before I was born. With over 30 years of industry experience in multiple states, she thought that she had seen nearly everything imaginable. And then the mid-2000’s happened. Housing prices were climbing steadily. Mortgage loans were easier to qualify for than ever before. Properties were changing hands faster than the ink could dry. And since everyone knew someone who wanted to buy or sell, people began getting their real estate licenses in record numbers in order to take advantage of a hot market. This was the 21st century version of the California Gold Rush.
But even a bull market can have a negative impact on experienced sellers. Clients who had used my mom for years were now listing with neighbors, nieces, and grandparents who had just received or activated their licenses. The result was an influx of inexperienced agents chasing easy money and a corresponding exodus of seasoned veterans who were no longer willing or able to compete. My mom was one of those veterans who thought about leaving the business she had worked for so long to build. But just as she was preparing to make an exit of her own, something interesting happened: the market collapsed. Homeowners stopped listing their properties as values plummeted. Prospective buyers were no longer able to obtain loans they couldn't repay. One by one, newly licensed agents began returning to their former fields of employment. They fled from the industry just as quickly as they had come. The reason? They now had to work for their commissions.
She told me about a day in 2007 when one of the younger agents at her office said he was leaving real estate because “the money wasn't there anymore.” Mom smiled. She knew the money was still out there; it was just a little harder to earn.
My mom began her career in a day and age when a real estate agent would pound the pavement in an entirely unglamorous attempt to build their reputation within the local community so that when someone finally needed to buy or sell, they would remember the kind woman who offered a smile and handshake yet asked for nothing more than consideration in return. This was a time before call centers, before the internet, before cell phones. This was how real estate used to be done. This was work.
Many people see the glitz, glamour, and commissions offered by sales positions and therefore don’t understand that sales, like any other profession, is work. Before diving headfirst into a sales career you must understand that you, more than most people, will feel the ebbs and flows of your respective industry and the economy as a whole. And you, more than most people, will have to rely on consistent effort in order to obtain consistent results. That means you must work hard when times are good and work even harder when times are tough.
Good salespeople are proactive in nature and can create their own opportunities through little more than a strong work ethic. Poor salespeople are reactive in nature and patiently wait for the next great opportunity to present itself. Effort is a key to success in many industries but is especially critical for success in sales. So, are you ready to work hard?
Can you handle rejection?
Did you know that there are over 500 generally accepted phobias? For instance, the fear of flowers is called anthophobia. The fear of beards is called pogonophobia. Do you know what the fear of rejection is called? Human nature. That’s right, the fear of rejection is so common that it isn't even given a cool name like “rejectophobia.”
I've met many people who have turned down opportunities in sales because they didn't like the idea of being rejected. That officially means they’re normal. Salespeople are not some sort of calloused, next-generation mutants who have become impervious to feeling the negative impacts of rejection. Remember, there is no such thing as a “Sales Gene.” So how then are salespeople okay with getting rejected?
I would suggest that salespeople aren't necessarily okay with being rejected, they just absorb it differently. Since rejection is inevitable in sales and is usually far more common than success, it is essential that you learn the following truths:
Rejection is not a sign that you’re bad at sales, it’s a sign that you’re in sales. There is no product or service on Earth that everyone is immediately willing and able to purchase. Furthermore, many customers make buying decisions based on uncontrollable factors such as mood, individual preference, and immediacy of need. As a result, many interactions will end in success while many will end in failure. These opposing outcomes are two sides of the same coin and cannot exist without each other. If you are in a business in which you've never been rejected, you are not in sales. If you are in a business in which every person has said “no,” you are either not in sales or shouldn't be. Expect rejection and expect it often.
Rejection is a great coach. Each and every rejection provides insight into the purchasing decisions of your target market and, more importantly, insight into how they view your offering. Thus, rejection will teach you how you can improve your product, service, or pitch in order to gain additional market share. While a thorough self-evaluation may be able to provide this valuable information, I prefer a much more direct approach. If I have the courage to ask for someone’s business and they have the courage to say no, why not also have the courage to ask why not? Their feedback will either uncover a resolvable miscommunication or help you avoid a similar obstacle with your next potential customer.
Rejection, like many fears, becomes less threatening through experience. Have you ever seen that guy at a bar who shamelessly tries to pick up woman after woman yet never seems to get discouraged no matter how many times he gets laughed at or slapped? That, my friends, is a man who has seen enough rejection over his life to no longer fear it. By no means am I suggesting ever becoming that guy, but he shows us that facing a typical fear enough times can remove the fear completely. An anthophobe ought to become less afraid of flowers through a positive experience in a meadow. A pogonophobe ought to become less afraid of beards through a positive experience with a bearded man. Similarly, a rejectophobe ought to become less afraid of rejection by hearing “no” and living to tell the story.
Good salespeople are those who have learned that rejection is normal, potentially beneficial, and have conquered their fear through experience. Poor salespeople are either those who avoid it altogether or are unable to learn from it. So, can you handle rejection?
So, can you sell?
While my wife and I were still dating, I confessed to her that I couldn't cook. She just smiled and said “Sure you can. You just haven’t learned how to yet.” Sales works the same way. It is a skill that can be learned and developed over time. It is not a trait passed down from one generation to the next but an ability that improves through practice.
At its core, sales is simply the ability to explain the logic and/or benefits of a specific decision. I believe that anyone can do that. Therefore, I believe that anyone can sell. The better question is whether or not you should pursue it as a career for which I would ask three questions in return…
Are you likeable?
Are you ready to work hard?
Can you deal with rejection?
If you can answer each of these with an honest “yes,” then you can sell. After all, if a rat can become great, you can too.