12 lessons from my sales job
Selling isn’t what you think it is
What comes to mind when you think of a salesperson? How do they look? Perhaps you think of someone slick and standing on a street or at a conference, dressed in a suit? Possibly you think they’re a little sleazy? Are they wearing a nice watch? You don’t think of a writer, sitting at home in a hoodie; but that’s me. I do startup recruitment for my ‘day job’: a more polite term for the job that actually makes me money as I do all my jobs during the day. I’m self-employed, so I have no salary and get paid on commission only (yes, like those ‘no-win, no-fee’ lawyers you see on TV) and that’s how I like it.
I love the honesty of getting paid for results. A lot of what is wrong with modern work is that we’re paid for our time: how many hours we work, rather than what we achieve. Being paid for your time is a format from the days of the industrial revolution that still makes sense for factory and shift workers but not knowledge workers. I haven't sold my time to a company. My time is my own and that gives freedom to my days. I do a lot of yoga.
I’ve had many sales jobs. I’ve sold flats, clothes, holidays, and legal insurance for intellectual property patents. The money aspect of a sales job is important. You need those commissions to be high for the pain of the failures to be bearable, but more so, it’s those high commissions that make sales so much fun.
I’m beginning to question if our work needs to have a ‘purpose’. Work needs to be fulfilling and challenging, otherwise, our brains slowly rot away or we get so bored we start to act out in other parts of our lives.
But there’s a fine balance. Too many of us cross over from challenging work to stressful work, and we allow it to dominate and destroy our lives. We often say our work ‘has a purpose’ to justify the sacrifices we’ve made for it. Perhaps we all share a human need to believe that our work is of service to something and has a greater ‘purpose’, saving us from asking the dreaded question: what is it all for? My work is split between my creative work and the work I do for money. In theory, this splits my ‘purpose’ from the ‘function’ (making money) of work. Often we expect our jobs to do both for us, but separating them out is freeing; it allows them to both do what they’re supposed to do. My writing doesn’t have to make me money, and my recruitment work doesn’t need to have a purpose.
However, I’m beginning to think that my writing doesn’t have a purpose beyond it being something I simply have to do for myself so that I can survive in this confusing and complex world. I enjoy it hugely. I’ve only been writing for a few years and now my need to create is like a thirst; I can’t imagine life without it.
It’s funny, because in helping people get jobs as a recruiter, I’m more directly ‘changing lives’ than I may be through my writing. Funnier still, I get more fulfillment from recruiting. Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic wrote that
‘Creative living is stranger than other, more worldy pursuits. The usual rules do not apply. In normal life, if you’re good at something and you work hard at it, you will likely succeed. In creative endeavours, maybe not.’
Burnout isn’t about having too much work to do; it’s what happens to you when you’re not getting back what you put in. It’s a feeling of disillusionment with work. The creative industries are a recipe for burnout. You can’t take it personally as a writer: the competition is too intense for that. So many people want to write, and so few people read books. There are so many podcasts and so much talent; audiences have limited time to consume it all.
In recruitment, more often than not, I get back what I put in. There’s something satisfying about that. I find it comforting to focus on recruiting work when my creative work is spinning outside of my control.
You cannot talk about sales without talking about money. Salespeople make a lot of money. The personality type who does well at sales is motivated by money– to be specific, the thrill that comes from making it. There’s a high that comes from seeing of a closed deal and your success marked with a number and a value.
I care about doing a good job and doing right by people. For my own sake, if you sell someone something they don’t want, they take it back and you create more work for yourself. In recruitment, if someone doesn’t pass their probation after three months, I have to find someone to replace them. That’s not happened yet, but it almost certainly will. But rational reasons aside, I care because I just do. I’m not buying and selling meat in a market, but handling real people and their lives.
What makes you good at sales is very simple: it’s accepting that your product is not for everybody. The real skill is to be able to detect the signs that what you’re selling isn’t right for the person you’re talking to, and to move on to the next as quickly as possible. Sales is more like dating. It’s about finding the right match. There will be someone out there who will want to work at a company I think is boring, or live in a flat that I think is ugly. It’s my job to find them. The legwork is finding the right people to ‘fill the top of the funnel’ as we say in sales.
I love watching the business aspects of the Netflix reality TV Show, Selling Sunset. There’s a scene where one of the estate agents, (or realtors), Chrishell wants to sell a property below the asking price because she’s found a buyer. The boss says no. They argue. I understand that she wanted to get the sale off her plate and get it done –she hadn’t finished the job. You need to be hungry to succeed in sales. You need to keep going. You don’t stop looking for new potential buyers until the deal is done.
Working in sales is rejection bootcamp. The nos come so frequently, that you become immune to them.
The reason creatives struggle to sell is because it feels much more personal. And it is personal. Selling is far easier when what we’re selling is separated from the self, and it’s impossible to separate our creativity from ourselves.
Before my book came out this year, I was walking into bookshops, feeling like a door-to-door salesperson, clutching a copy of my book. I had to take a breath before going into the shops. I’d hover around the sales desk waiting for the bookshop owner to be free, with a printout of my Evening Standard coverage poking out of the book’s pages. I would introduce myself as a new local author, pitching my book while all too aware of the customers around me in the shop listening in. It meant making myself vulnerable, and it was incredibly humbling. The reactions I got were mixed.
I love the relationship aspect of sales. Every day, I get an insight into people’s lives and what’s important to them. My job is not to change their point of view and show them how their perception of the world isn’t quite right, or that what’s important to them doesn’t matter. It’s to listen. What do their questions tell me about their mindset and their fears?
Some people would rather be miserable in a day-to-day job than do something they enjoy for a lower salary. They want to pay the mortgage on a big house, or have a wife who doesn’t work at home. Those aren’t the choices I’d make, but it’s not my place to judge theirs. My job is to make sure they’re aware of the reality of the decision they’re making so that they can make it with open eyes. A good estate agent doesn’t brush over the cracks of a home in the early stages - you almost want to point them out.
Perhaps I take it too far. A potential candidate on a recruitment call told me recently that talking to me was like ‘free therapy’.
People think sales is sleazy, but trust and relationships are everything in sales. In recruitment, I need to deliver interested candidates, but they need to be of quality to prove I have good judgment. I’m walking a tightrope, balancing between getting a person who wasn’t looking for a job to go to an interview and making sure that they perform well when they show up to it. If the trust is there, everything I do and the candidates I present are looked on favourably. If it’s gone, then it’s game over for us all.
I need to believe in what I’m selling. When I first went self-employed and started out as a freelance brand consultant, I converted most of my leads for new business. Towards the end, when I’d lost some of the fire for it, I’d be ghosted after calls.
Now, I try to get my head around what’s so special about the company I’m talking to a candidate about. I need to believe in the candidate when I go back and pitch them to the client, too. That belief needs to be genuine. People can tell when it’s not.
Timing and luck is everything in sales. It’s true of anything which relies on people, which is everything in life. Whether it’s dating, jobs, or buying a new car, you need to reach the person at the right time and in the right headspace to purchase or make a change.
If I was to get a full-time job, it’d be in sales. I regret moving away from sales jobs to marketing jobs in my twenties, and I’m much happier now that I’ve found my way back.
In a sales job, you’re at the front lines of two of life’s most essential ingredients - money and talking to people. There’s a magic to it. I’m grateful that salespeople exist to guide and inform us as we make changes in our lives. To sell is to be human.
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