Having anything to do with sales was the furthest thing from my mind when I was thinking about a job following college. I’d had a few selling experiences as a kid. In Boy Scouts, there was always an event of some sort that we had to sell tickets for. My Mom usually bought the allocation I was assigned to sell. Sometimes a neighbor would buy them (but I think my Mom had called saying she would pay for them).
In high school, I worked afternoons and weekends at a local sports shop. While I had to help some customers, the most fun was working in the shop in back. In the summer, I’d string tennis rackets, in the winter, I’d mount bindings on ski’s and snowboards. And the selling I did do was mostly answering questions about the products on display.
In college, I was headed to my PhD and had planned to be a researcher/professor. But I met an inventor (classic Silicon Valley story). He asked me to be VP of Product Design and Engineering. As a 20 year old, I thought it was the coolest job I could get. But we failed miserably. I realized there is more to business success than hot products. I went on to get my MBA.
As I was graduating with my MBA, I wasn’t looking for a sales job. A number of technology companies offered me roles in product marketing/management and marketing. A few consulting companies offered entry level consulting roles. A major bank gave me a couple of offers in strategic planning and operations planning. An investment banking organization offered me a role in analyzing companies. I was lucky, I had about 20 job offers in a range of roles and industries. But none in selling.
The Dean of the business school had been a mentor. He said, “Dave, before you accept any of those roles, there’s an opportunity in sales that I think you might enjoy.” I really didn’t want to go into selling, but took the interviews because the Dean had been so helpful.
It turned out to be a job selling computers for IBM. I went through interviews at a number of offices in Southern California (I was graduating from UCLA). The managers were skeptical about me. They said, “We don’t think you have ‘the stuff’ to be a good salesperson.” I was pissed, thinking, “Who are you to tell me I can’t do this job!” Needless to say, I thought, “I have my MBA, I can do anything I want! Who are you to tell me I can’t sell!” To be honest, I didn’t know if I could sell or if I would like it. But I didn’t like other telling me I couldn’t be successful at something.
I had to go to Manhattan for final interviews with the bank and one of the consulting companies. While there, I called one of the IBM offices and they agreed to interview me. I told them about my previous experience. In the interview, one of the people said, “We checked you out. The people in LA don’t think you are cut out to sell. Why do you think you can do this?” We went back and forth, I talked to about 6 people. As I left the top manager in the office said, “We’ll take a chance on you, we’ll offer you a job as a salesperson.”
Some of the other offers were for higher initial salaries. Some of the jobs just didn’t seem that interesting or challenging. There was something about selling that I was drawn to. Perhaps it was that I wasn’t sure I could do it, but wanted to prove to myself and others that I could.
The training program was intensive and competitive. Again, I was a little doubtful about my ability to sell, though there were a lot of people supporting me and coaching me. I loved the competitiveness in the training program. Then I joined a team selling to the 3rd largest bank in the country. My team mates had the major data centers, I was responsible for prospecting in the operating divisions. My first year, I had a quota of $27M.
I fell in love with the prospecting role. I got to wander all over the bank, talking to executives in the international banking ops, trust, treasury, check processing, retail, corporate, credit card and other areas. I was challenged to find applications that could be automated. Most of the people didn’t think much about computers and IT as part of the business. They knew about the giant data processing systems. Most got reports from those systems. Some had online applications using the systems.
What they were concerned with was their own parts of the business. How could they grow the business, how could they keep costs under control, how could they get more work done? It was really challenging. It took me back to my science/engineering days of solving tough problems. I discovered the huge challenge of helping customers think about what they did differently. I worked with the international bank looking at early foreign trade and funds transfer solutions. I worked with the credit card processing group, figuring out how they could handle skyrocketing volumes of credit card approval requests. I worked with the retail bank about putting terminals and cash machines in the branches. The very first system I sold was $10M, the second was $60M.
But it was the problem solving piece, helping my customers think about their businesses differently that really challenged me. I found myself solving business problems and shipping computers.
I did very well in that first year. At the 100% club, I made sure to look up those managers in LA that didn’t think I could sell. I had the arrogance to say, “Imagine seeing you here at an event celebrating outstanding sellers! Will I also see you at the Golden Circle?” Yeah, I was a jerk.
Since then, the basic themes that drove me have remained the same–though the challenges grew. I found myself challenged by trying to accomplish things that seemed virtually impossible. Sometimes, it was the BHAGs we had established as goals. We had no ideal how we would achieve them, but it was our job to figure it out. But figuring out what to do when we had never done it before was energizing.
Sometimes, we’d fail–whether on a deal or hitting some of our goals. Figuring out how we fixed the situation, what we would have to change to improve in the future provided Adrenalin rushes. Whether it was making our huge numbers, opening new markets, helping customers rethink their businesses.
And though all of this it was meeting and working with some fascinating people. Sure some were jerks, but most were fascinating. Some had different approaches, there were lots of disagreements, and occasional disbelief. The common thing was achieving big goals, whether revenue/growth goals, whether addressing difficult customer problems. They were things, we/they hadn’t done before and we have to figure it out, together.
The other thing I’ve come to love about selling is that you can’t rest on your past successes. Every customer situation presents a new challenge to figure out. Each month, quarter, year, you have to figure out how you achieve your goals–regardless how well you did the prior month, quarter, year.
There is never anything dull or routine. There is always a new challenge or situation. It’s helping customers and our own people do something they may never have done before. It’s about overcoming uncertainty, fears, doubts, disagreements. It’s about doing something new and different with customers and our people.
And we, sellers, are chartered with figuring these things out. We have the privilege of working on tough problems and figuring them out.
I can’t imagine anything more exciting! (And the earnings potential is icing on the cake)
Why were you drawn to selling, what do you love about it? I’d love to see your stories in the comments.
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