Be a Business Athlete - Get Into Sales, Part 1

by JOHN FINNEY

I have spent more than 20 years selling in the streets of Chicago – everything from services for consumers to big-ticket capital equipment for Fortune 500 companies. It has been a great journey.

To share my experiences, I have written an e-book, The Athletes of Business . . . Exploring the Real-World Career Path of Professional Sales. In its pages, I demystify the job of the sales representative (rep) in the real world of business and offer advice for improving your odds for success.

Now, in the pages of Search & Employ®, I intend to help transitioning and veteran military evaluate this challenging and action-packed career path. In this first article, I will describe the sales process, set expectations, and describe common personal traits of successful reps.

This is not a motivational call to action. Rather, I mean to expand your current understanding, challenge you to consider your personal potential, and arm you with a competitive edge in the civilian world. Much of this content can apply to virtually any other career in the modern business world.

Why* Search & Employ®*? I have worked with many veterans as peers and associates, and I have friends and family members who served. So I have a decent understanding and keen appreciation of how the military experience can instill many core values and unique skills that prepare a person for a bright future, especially in the sales arena.

Without question, that powerful experience provides veterans with a strong competitive advantage over their civilian peers. I firmly believe that many men and women who have military backgrounds possess the right stuff to succeed in sales – including discipline, drive, leadership, time management, energy, and focus.


NO SALES, NO REVENUE, NO COMPANY

First, without sales transactions, there will be no company revenue, and soon there will be no company. Yes, there are many other vital functions within an organization such as manufacturing, service, finance, and engineering – but, as the saying goes, “nothing happens until a sale is made.” Simply put, every company must sell something that offers the buyer value, and it is the job of the sales force to make that happen.

In fact, one could argue that salespeople are the athletes of business, the players on the field of competition, with all other roles serving to support them. Short of owning your own company, I would submit that sales is the single most action-packed, exciting, and challenging job in the business world. It is a highly competitive game that requires a wide skill set and a heavy dose of tenacity and competitive spirit. There are winners and losers, thrills and disappointments, and to the victor goes the spoils. With the right employer, it can be a very rewarding game, especially as you climb the ladder.

Sales is like baseball, where a player establishes a personal record in college, is drafted into the minors, and then hopefully is called up to the very lucrative big leagues. Early in your career, part of the challenge is to secure your first few entry-level experiences and establish a record of results. You can then use that record as a platform for your resume and a foundation on which to build and advance – taking on more challenges and raising your earning potential with each advancement. I have seen several entry-level sales reps advance to become national vice presidents of their companies. They chose a growing industry and company early, then earned their way with superior performance.


A QUICK TIME-OUT

Now, let me digress to define three kinds of sales positions that I will mention later in this article.

  • In business-to-consumer (B2C) sales, a business sells a product or a service to a consumer. I engaged in B2C sales when I sold cable-TV subscriptions to consumers door-to-door. At that time, cable TV was new to Chicago.
  • In business-to-business (B2B) sales, a business sells a product or a service to another business. I engaged in B2B sales when I sold high-speed print and mailing equipment to large mailers.
  • An outside salesperson operates primarily outside the office. He or she sells mostly face-to-face, unlike an inside salesperson, who sells exclusively by phone, fax, and/or email.

THE SALES MISSION

What does a sales rep actually do? The mission is often three-fold:

  1. Find the opportunities, in a process commonly known as prospecting or hunting. When hunting, a salesperson does not fire blindly in the dark. Here is why: Every product delivers a unique value and set of benefits to the buyer. The product offers a solution to a specific need, so there is a defined user/customer profile of who buys it and why. Sometimes these prospects are easy to identify, sometimes they need to be discovered.
  2. Engage decision-makers to gain agreement that there is a valid need – a problem, sometimes called a “pain” – to be resolved, and that your solution will offer value by solving the problem. Without a validated need or problem, there simply is no basis for a deal, and you move to the next opportunity.
  3. After steps 1 and 2 are complete, you will need to persuade buyers that your solution offers a superior value over all competitors. Buyers have choices, and competition is everywhere.

Steps 2 and 3 often require a bit of assertive relationship and trust-building, but there are no magic tricks. The three-fold mission will be a fairly straightforward process if you sell a solid product that delivers value. You will not be alone in your mission. A good management team will offer support and a set of best practices – proven approaches for your product line and customer profiles.

That said, every deal is different, with unique players and unique requirements. An outstanding sales rep may use a template, but he does not use a cookie cutter. The sales game is highly situational – as in the military, you must be alert, creative, and resourceful.


THE CASE FOR OUTSIDE SALES

As in baseball, it is best to have many chances at the plate, especially early in your career. Outside sales offers the fastest way to learn the nuances of the sales game, polish your skills, and establish a record that will open the door to the next level of sales opportunity and earnings potential. This is why I would avoid any heavy telemarketing or inside sales jobs. They simply lack the richness of experience and the opportunity to learn the skills needed to advance rapidly with your proven results.

Another advantage of outside sales is that, in the course of performing your duties, you are constantly opening new doors, growing your network, and meeting new contacts and executives face-to-face. You expose yourself to a wide variety of opportunities and people – and every smart business owner is always on the lookout for the next talented sales rep to walk through the door. Remember, the sales rep is the business athlete, and there are always games to be won.

In outside sales, you are afforded a high level of independence and personal freedom in how you achieve your results and plan your day. In fact, many companies mandate that you operate from a virtual office at home, because you should be out making calls – though you many have a regional office for support.

However, just as with athletes, your results will be tracked, and you will be held accountable for your performance. Results are what matter in sales and sports; as they say in golf, it’s not how, it’s how many – and you will be compared and judged against the results of your peers. This is where the personal discipline, drive, and skills you acquired in the military can separate you from the pack. Effort and consistency will pay dividends, and winning new business is the surest way to gain recognition.

A personal note: My entire career has been in outside sales. Part of the allure and excitement of sales is being out on the streets practicing the craft. As an active youth and outdoorsman, I simply could not picture myself being confined to an office job every day, and so sales was a good fit for my temperament and energy level.


SPORT, TEAM, AND POSITION

As with most any career path, it is important to select the right sport, the right team, and the right position – a position that matches your personality and aptitudes. As anyone who has played competitive sport knows, it is more fun playing on a winning team with good players than on a dog with jerks.

Most entry-level sales jobs are fast-paced and action-packed, like hockey. But as you build your record and climb the ladder, you will likely slow down with bigger deals and work at a slower, more methodical pace, like that of golf. In general, the more tactical or transactional the sales cycle of a product line, the faster-paced the action will be. These jobs often require a high energy level, but they also offer an excellent training ground on which to practice and refine your trade – consider this experience the boot camp of business. I am reminded of my office-products (copiers/fax) days, with essentially a deal being written every day, but later in my heavy-equipment job there may be one big deal per month.

The B2B sales process is often more advanced and complex than that of B2C. However, the experience of selling cars or replacement windows to consumers is better than no experience at all, as long as you are making money, learning, and polishing your skills. The goal is to establish your track record for a year or two and then move up the ladder to the next level in sales – which is almost always in the B2B world.

Finding good entry level-training grounds may require some trial and error, and it is not uncommon to have two or three short tenures before you find a really great company, product line, and culture for the long term. One clear indicator of the health of a sales force is to simply look at how your peers are doing, their tenure, and their earnings. You should never stay too long in a limited company, a business with a poor management culture, or a weak industry – in fact, if you find yourself with a bad fit, it is best to fail quickly and keep moving.

Sales is a dynamic game where growing businesses are constantly seeking fresh talent, but do your research and try not to be a job-hopper. Early in your career, the goal is to build your resume with achievements, and you will earn attention as you move up the ladder. As you rise through the ranks, the importance of choosing a growing, dynamic industry will rise as well. You will want to set up the second half of your career for sustainable, long-term success.

Proficiency at the big-league level of professional sales is a highly valuable and portable skill set, not unlike that of a proven quarterback in the NFL. While it is nice to gain specific valuable expertise in a given marketplace, you can always learn a new technology or change industries. In strategic sales, your job is to open doors, manage relationships, and steer deals to conclusion. You will have highly trained product experts on your team to explain the details of complex solutions. At the strategic level, engineers and technicians work together, with the sales rep calling the plays.

I sold complex production machines that processed mail at 10 envelopes per second. I knew what the machines did, but not exactly how. With that experience, I could easily transition to sell any complex production system. The stadium may have changed, but the game and rules remain the same.


TRAITS OF SALESMANSHIP

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a sharp, articulate young person say “I could never sell” after I suggested that he or she had the potential to be good at sales. It is only natural to have some self-doubt, especially if you do not clearly understand the sales game. Many people do not try the game because of a lack of understanding, a fear of the unknown, or a lack of confidence.

I have had the good fortune to work with scores of great sales reps and more than a dozen very good managers. Some were natural sales types, and others like me were pretty rough and had to go through a polishing process. I will be the first to say that, like an athlete, to be truly good at sales, you need to practice and play and learn. Not everyone can excel in sales, but those who have the talent and drive – and choose wisely – can succeed if they try.

I have seen individuals with all manner of personality and personal appearance rise to the top of the sales profession. Many successful sales reps seem to share certain traits. I will describe some of these, and I encourage you to engage in some honest self-assessment to determine whether you possess them.

In doing this, I would caution you not to sell yourself short. I have seen many young folks blossom over time and with experience. As you may have learned in the service, many of us do not realize our true capabilities or potential until we are tested – and, let’s face it, if you find that professional selling is not for you, you can always pursue the more conventional support positions in a company.

Regardless of any negative stereotype you may hold of the sales job, I can assure you that the days of the flamboyant, loud-mouthed, back-slapping jackass are long over. Today’s buyers are much more advanced and knowledgeable than ever before, thanks to the Internet. These days, logic and reason will always trump fast talkers with smoke and mirrors.

It certainly helps to be personable and have excellent listening and conversational skills. An upbeat attitude and a take-charge ability to drive a deal forward is not optional, and a sense of humor really helps (as in life in general). Keep in mind that every company and industry and customer base has its own cultural norms. Some are formal and intellectual, while others are more casual and loose. In either case, you do not need to be a life-of-the-party type to succeed. Just try to match your style and approach to your peers and customers. Above all, be honest and sincere. Your job is to be part of a solution and easy to work with, a trustworthy problem solver.

Having a capacity for empathy, the ability to put yourself in the customer’s shoes, is a powerful trait in sales and life. Almost all good salespeople have trouble accepting the word “no” when we are convinced that we can add value with our great product. As an old saying goes, “The real job of selling begins when we hear the word ‘no.’” It helps to be somewhat evangelical and have a passion to share your belief that your product delivers great value to your customers. So obviously you must believe in what you are selling.

Finally, people tend to do business with those they like and trust; and if they believe you are sincerely trying to help them solve a problem with your product or service, you will have a competitive advantage. In today’s fast-paced world, professional sales is about problem-solving, working with people, understanding needs, and finding solutions. You will need to use both sides of your brain and every bit of your formal education skills (math, writing, critical thinking, and problem solving) and people/social skills (relationship building, team leading, persuasion, and negotiation). Good companies will train, mentor, and assist you to maximize your success – which will translate to their success.

Whether your goal is to run your own company one day or be in management, doing battle in the arena of outside sales will sharpen your overall business acumen and prepare you for future success. Like an athlete, to advance you will need to differentiate yourself with results to win a coveted position in the big leagues of business. The good news is that you can control the time frame of this process if you are smart about your journey, work hard, learn the craft, and make your own luck.


UP NEXT

In Part 2 of this series of articles, I will describe several types of B2B sales positions and the skills essential for success in those positions. Thank you for your attention, and thank you for serving in the armed forces of the United States.

John Finney has worked in sales for well over 20 years. He began his career selling door-to-door, advanced to selling office equipment, and finally became a senior account executive for big-ticket capital equipment sold to Fortune 500 companies. He now heads the sales-force and business-improvement firm John Finney Consulting; http://johnfinneyconsulting.com.

By John Finney on Tuesday July 5, 2016

This article appeared in the July-August 2016 issue of Search & Employ Magazine

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July-August 2016