My first (post-college) career was in industrial finance. After four years I concluded industrial finance was not for me. But, what was I going to do?
I spent some time observing friends and acquaintances and their various career choices. Based upon my observations I reached several conclusions:
- The people in sales seemed to make the most money.
- The people in sales seemed to have the most fun.
- Some of the people in sales did not necessarily strike me as “the sharpest tools in the shed.”
I knew I didn’t know how to sell, but figured I could probably learn. I also figured that I would probably starve while I was learning. It turned out I was right on all three counts.
My first sales job was selling typesetting accessories and supplies for a company called Compugraphic. I chose to work for them because they had a three-week sales training program. I was excited because they were going to teach me how to sell!
Not All Sales Training Programs Are Created Equal
What I didn’t know back then was companies refer to numerous different kinds of training as “sales training.” Here are several examples:
- Product/Service Training: This is where a company teaches you about specific products and services. Often the training focuses on features and benefits, speeds and feeds, bits and bytes and other technical details. Far too often they never get around to telling you WHY people buy the product or service (What business problems does it solve? What are the impacts of these business problems?) or the characteristics of a valid prospect. As a result, salespeople leave the training with no idea of how to find or qualify opportunities.
- Systems Training: This is where a company teaches you how to use their proprietary computer systems, phone systems, etc. This is necessary information, but it has nothing to do with sales skills.
- Sales Skills Training: Ahhh, now we’re getting somewhere! Unfortunately, many sales skills training curriculums only EXPOSE attendees to new skills and concepts. The curriculums do not include enough REPETITIVE PRACTICE to help training attendees become so comfortable with the new skills and concepts that they become second nature. As a result, when salespeople leave the training, they are uncomfortable attempting to use the new techniques with real, live prospects and customers.
If I remember correctly, the sales training I received from Compugraphic covered all three of these areas. Unfortunately, the sales skills portion of the training (and the related practice) was not sufficient to give me any sense of confidence when I started working with prospects and customers. As a result, I felt like a fish out of water…and my performance reflected how I felt.
After I had been with Compugraphic for six months, they decided to move my division from California to Boston. Despite my poor performance they actually offered me the opportunity to move to Boston. However, since I had just moved to California (by choice) six months previously, I had no interest in moving back East. So, they generously gave me a month’s severance and turned me loose to find another job.
My next sales position was with Dictaphone. That job consisted primarily of in-person cold calling in a relatively small territory, trying to drum up business for expensive dictation equipment. If I remember correctly, Dictaphone provided sales training, too, but again it was light on sales skills training and practice sessions. I was no more comfortable or effective with Dictaphone than I had been with Compugraphic.
But, fortune shone on me. During a cold call I met a gentleman who taught consultative selling skills to computer resellers. We hit it off and he expressed an interest in hiring me. He invited me to attend a weekend training session to see what I thought of the skills he taught.
After attending the two-day training session, I felt like I had been crawling through the desert on my hands and knees for days and had finally found an oasis! The selling skills he taught made so much sense. I wondered why my previous employers hadn’t taught selling skills that way.
The following Monday I submitted my resignation to my manager at Dictaphone. If I was in any way uncertain about how my performance to date had been perceived by management, it was resolved by the fact that my manager didn’t make any effort to talk me out of resigning. In fact, he let me leave that very day. So, the next day I started working with the sales trainer. In 30 days I became ten times more effective as a salesperson. In 60 days I was teaching consultative selling skills!
Key Lessons Learned
As I look back on my early sales experience and the training that was provided by my employers, several lessons come to mind that I would like to share with you:
1. Research Selling Methodologies
While I invested a lot of time (and money I didn’t have) in reading sales books and listening to tapes, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. One of the most important things I didn’t know was there are numerous different methods of selling. It is important to gain some understanding of these different selling methodologies and try to identify one that is a good fit with your own talents. Given the internet and the availability of online search tools, this should be relatively easy to accomplish in this day and age.
2. Practice, Practice, Practice
If the sales training you attend includes practice sessions (the best of which involve role playing), you may gain a sense of comfort with the skills being taught. However, unless the practice is repeated multiple times over a number of days, I can assure you it will be a false sense of comfort. When you start working with real, live prospects and customers, you will likely feel insecure and uncomfortable. Please recognize that this has absolutely nothing to do with you — it’s simply human nature to feel this way.
The only way I know of to really become proficient with new skills and concepts is to practice them repetitively. Find someone in your training class who wants to succeed just as badly as you do and commit do doing extra practice. Role play with each other until you feel comfortable with the new skills. Then wait a couple days and try the role play again.
When you try the role play after a couple of days, I can almost guarantee that you will fumble and stumble the first role play or two. After you have regained your comfort level, wait another couple of days and try again.
You’ll know you have mastered a new skill or technique when your training partner can challenge you with spontaneous role plays at random times and you can deliver the new skill/technique smoothly and confidently every time.
3. Become a True Sales Professional
Most top salespeople are lifelong students of selling. They constantly consume information in an effort to “sharpen their swords.” This includes reading books and articles, listening to audio programs and attending live training sessions.
This makes perfect sense when you think about it. How much training is required to become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant? How much time and money are these professionals required to invest in continuing education?
Top salespeople in many industries can earn as much or more money as these other types of professionals. Doesn’t it make sense that you have to treat sales as a profession if you want to earn the level of income enjoyed by other types of professionals? Doesn’t it make sense that you will need to invest in continuing education?
Now that you have a better idea of what is required to succeed in sales, do you still want to pursue it as a career? Good! Leverage the lessons provided in this article and create a strong foundation for sales success!
©2011 Alan Rigg