Salespeople and some non-salespeople alike understand there are salespeople and then there are . . . well . . . salespeople. The same holds true for sales leaders, most of whom were successful individual contributor sales representatives (reps) at some point. For simplification let’s just bundle both leaders and reps into the “sales professionals” bucket.
Many sales professionals love what they do. Others live in a perpetual state of misery. With the right leadership, miserable sales professionals can thrive and be happy with match quality, skill development, and direction, while those above-average performers who already love what they do can become significantly better through good coaching[i]. That’s partly why this book exists: to provide insight on sales professionals’ development. However, this book is just as important for coworkers in non-sales functions, such as software engineers, finance, or company founders, serving to demystify what happens in the sales realm.
This book is comprised of two parts: the first is focused on front line sales reps; the second looks at sales leaders. Regardless of one’s role, the book should be read in its entirety to gain a holistic perspective and reap the greatest benefit. It’s important to note I’m intentionally using a conversational style. While some may be slightly put off by my candor and perhaps my humor, if I were in front of you, this is likely how I would speak with you and the approach I would take. So, I’m being honest, and earnest, two things, as we’ll learn later, that are crucial in both life and sales. Humans are hardwired to remember stories, so I’ve sprinkled in truly personal anecdotes to underscore important lessons. The only things I’ve changed in the stories are the names, which I’ve altered in an attempt to protect the innocent (and the guilty). In the end, you will have actionable insights for understanding and improvement, all delivered through a conversational tone and via the insight and power of story. That’s my hope for our time together at least.
This next part of the introduction is mainly for those who aren’t sales professionals, though sales professionals should probably read this part for recognition.
Sales is the lifeblood of business. Sales = execution. The best idea, product, or service must be sold. If it can’t be sold, it’s dead on arrival, and the business will cease to exist, period! That favorite electronic component, that wearable you love, someone sold that in bulk near the front of the supply chain. Now you benefit from how aesthetically and functionally pleasing it is.
Externally, from the smallest component part in production, to the most elaborate piece of machinery, sales professionals are responsible for market realization.
Internally, selling across functions or selling up to management moves the business forward, agnostic of role or position. That means if you’re an engineer, and especially if you have direct reports, you’re in a “non-sales selling” role, as Daniel Pink puts it in To Sell Is Human. In his book, Pink proves through activity analysis that more than 40 percent of time is devoted to internal selling related activity. Sales is all around us, and when done right, it leads to positive outcomes.
But there’s a stigma about sales professionals. That they are overbearing, aggressive, and manipulative individuals who strong-arm clients into acquiescing to purchase. Perhaps some of that was the case a long time ago. Those who don’t know have unfortunately adopted those infamous traditional characteristics even though they’re the antithesis of what works in today’s buying environment. True sales professionals are actually extremely helpful, knowledgeable, and adept at addressing customer needs. True sales professionals do not come off as though they are selling at all. They are seamless.
What qualifies me to be an expert on the subject?
This is where I'm supposed to outline a sales pedigree going back to my great-great-great grandpappy, who was the first sales pioneer in our family. If I did that, I’d be lying. The truth is I got into sales you can say by accident. I helped a stranger and his wife out years ago. They were appreciative, and the stranger offered me a sales job at his company, a rep agency.
If I hadn’t been deep in the hole with debt after college and unemployed with no viable job prospects on the horizon, I probably would have passed on the opportunity. I’d probably be writing a cookbook right now. Later, I discovered the rep agency was under pressure from the main manufacturer they represented to hire someone to replace a rep who should have retired about a decade sooner. They were just as desperate as me!
For my first foray into sales, I was a full commission independent sales rep. That means the agency secured product lines, and I sold those products in a clearly defined territory for a commission—a split commission, actually, where the agency principals took 45 percent of my commission earnings while I retained 55 percent. The commission average for the manufacturers we represented was about 5 percent. So, if I sold $1,000 worth of product, I earned $27.50 before taxes. Yay! Of course, I had to pay for all my own expenses, including travel, vehicle, meals, electronics, and the like. On top of all that glory, I had to pay double the social security tax, plus file as an independent contractor with the IRS.
Being a full commission rep, or a fool commission rep, depending on how you look at it, meant living a feast or famine lifestyle. I was already in debt. Though I had no sales training, I had things to sell and a small-but-existing customer base with established product lines. I had no choice really but to figure out how to be successful mostly on my own. I jumped in with both feet. I showed up to my first day on the job armed with the product catalogs I’d been studying and dressed in my best (and only) suit.
The agency principals, Bob and Tom (not their real names), met me at their office, where I learned my first sales lesson. After going through assigned territory accounts, Bob, a combination elder statesman and hustler, along with his partner, Tom, a middle-aged, former AAA baseball player, cut to the chase.
“You have your territory, your product lines. How are you going to be successful and make us proud?” Bob asked.
“I’m going to study these catalogs and memorize all the product features to start,” I said naively.
“Steve, don’t do that to yourself!” Bob exclaimed. “There are thousands of products in there for hundreds of different kinds of customers.”
“Yeah,” Tom added, “we’ve been doing this for over twenty years, and we don’t know a third of that stuff.”
“Well then I’m open to suggestions,” I said perplexed.
Tom pushed into my personal space, raised his chest against mine, and used his index finger to convey his point. “Don’t bullshit anyone! If you don’t know something, say you’ll find out, because the second you do bullshit someone, you’ll lose all trust. Besides, you can’t bullshit a bullshitter!”
We all laughed, one of us uncomfortably. I turned to walk out of the office toward my car, ready to embark on my sales journey, when Bob launched a final salvo.
“One more thing,” he said. “Don’t ever come in here or go into any of your accounts dressed like that. You’ll make everyone nervous looking like a goddamn lawyer!”
Looking back, those formative, and often uncomfortable, sales years are best described as a classic baptism by fire. I learned the hard way what worked and what didn’t, including what advice to follow from Bob and Tom. “No BS” is cardinal rule number one in sales (pay attention folks whose mantra is “fake it till you make it”). Product knowledge and knowing which application is best suited for which purpose are of paramount importance, too, regardless of Bob and Tom’s take. I also took every opportunity to learn directly from the manufacturers we represented, either through product trainings they offered, or when riding with sales managers and product managers when they visited my territory.
By year five at the agency, I was a top-performing sales rep, out of debt, and had some meager savings. I must have made an impression because accounts gave my name to a multinational company with a subsidiary in my territory that was looking for a regional sales rep to cover eleven states as one of their first sales hires. They offered premium products, a base salary plus performance bonus, benefits, a company car, and an expense account that was seemingly bottomless the first few years.
Within the first year of becoming a regional sales rep, I had outperformed everyone at that company by a significant margin. We were growing like crazy. We started hiring more sales reps, and I was training them on sales fundamentals and territory management. Eventually, I was promoted to Sales Director West. As we kept crushing goals and growing exponentially, I became the first VP of Sales. After eleven years at the company, I was promoted to Chief Sales Officer for the North America HQ.
We had grown more than seventeen times into a midsized company and become the top subsidiary. We bought an additional thirty acres of land where we were planning on building a production facility in front of our United States HQ, doubling the size of our office and warehouse. We had the full support of the mothership back in Europe. Additionally, we helped change an industry from one that was conditioned to buy cheap products, to one that was willing to pay a premium for innovative products that had greater benefits with longer lifespans.
Working for this multinational company was the highlight of my career, not just because of the success we achieved together, but also because I formally and informally learned sales and leadership techniques that work. The company spared no expense in developing its people including me. I learned different sales methodologies, studied sales leadership at major universities, earned sales management certificates to further augment my expertise, went back to school for an MBA to become more well-rounded in business, and learned in the field from some of the most progressive sales leaders at the time. I was able to experiment and implement new sales initiatives; design territories, create sales training curriculums for new and existing staff; and roll-out creative, team-building strategies among other things.
I must have missed the chaos, uncertainty, and struggle I experienced early on in my sales career, though, because I gave it all up to break into Silicon Valley tech as a sales leader. My position was comfortable, my future was predictable, and my influence in the industry was respectable. And then I walked away from what some might call the perfect job.
I was fortunate. I eventually secured a VP of Sales position for a series A funded technology startup, supported by a who’s-who list of investors. Intellectually, the company was at the next level. Most of the staff were graduates from top-tier schools and had advanced degrees. I built out its sales organization. Along the way, I learned the intricacies of working at technology startups. That fast-paced, intense, and ever-changing environment was a shot in the arm that forced me to grow further as a sales professional.
Since parting ways with that tech company, I’ve been offering advice as a sales leadership consultant for local businesses as well as for Silicon Valley venture capital portfolio companies where my background can benefit more people and those who need it most. There are some amazing people doing incredible things that are impacting the world. These people have great ideas. They have created innovative products or services. They just need help selling from sales organizational infrastructure to deal close. That’s where I come in.
I’ve seen a lot, lived through a ton, studied successful sales organizations, read volumes of sales-related books, experimented with sales methodologies, and so on. I’m still learning new things, usually around technology, but the sales fundamentals remain constant. My purpose is to impart some of that knowledge on to you. After being in sales deliberately for nearly twenty-five years across industries and in different positions, I hope I’ve earned your trust. And, in case you were wondering, I still live and breathe cardinal rule number one: I won’t bullshit you!