“It is only the young and callow and ignorant that admire rashness,” the American architect Cass Gilbert once said. “Think before you speak. Know your subject.”
Starting a sales job can be intimidating. Walking into a new sales room is enough to make anyone nervous, even if it’s the latest in a string of sales jobs. But if it’s your first…that’s tough.
The thing is, you can ace your first quarter, even if you've never gone near the job before. Getting through your first quarter isn’t easy, but you won’t take away the same sense of accomplishment, and the feeling that comes from a pocket full of commission shouldn’t be underestimated. About 20% of sales staff chronically underperform; roughly 68% to 80% look at the bottom 20% and make sure they’re not there.
Look at the AEs, sales managers, team leaders, around you. Chances are, one to two years ago, they were exactly where you are. Getting there starts with taking the top 20% of salespeople as your models. Don’t just survive your first quarter, ace it.
It’s normal for anyone coming into a new job to feel nervous, but while you can’t let nerves get the better of you, you also can’t react against your own nerves and overcompensate. Some new recruits will come blazing into their new position with utter disregard for the knowledge of their new colleagues. Give yourself permission to be nervous and remember you’re not starring in a remake of Glengarry Glen Ross: the people around you have accumulated valuable knowledge, even if they’ve only been doing the job a year or so. So listen to their advice!
The other place to listen more and talk less? When you’re talking to the most important person in sales: the prospect. Don’t be one of those people who thinks they’re going to tell the customer exactly what’s going to happen with the kind of bullish self-confidence that would make Donald Trump look like J.D. Salinger. It’s not going to happen.
“If I had to pick one tactic, it would have to do with that supposed[ly] antiquated piece of equipment that still sits on most desks today: the telephone,” sales consultant Mike Weinberg told the Salesforce blog. “In spite of what many of the loud voices, false teachers and Kool-Aid peddlers of today’s “inbound-marketing-only” crowd are preaching, the old-fashioned, proactive telephone call still works quite well when executed properly.”
Your manager probably knows this too. So if by some outside chance you do start your sales career on the phone, remember Gilbert’s words again: “Think before you speak. Know your subject.” Make sure you have researched the customer thoroughly before you make the call—and prepare yourself to listen to them instead of bewildering the client with a maelstrom of information.
“[Salespeople of this nature] offer too much information,” says Inc.com. “In an effort to make an impression, they festoon their pitches with too many details…No-one has time for laundry lists. Be selective.” You’ll have heard this one in training: don’t ‘show up and throw up.’
Instead, listen to the client, find out what their problem is and—instead of saying, “I can help,” give examples of other customers with similar problems whom you have been able to help, offering statistics to back up your claims. If you’re really smart, you’ll have secured some testimonials from satisfied customers that you can send on to your prospect to help convince them that you’re definitely the right company for them.
3. Be Confident, But Don’t Try To Challenge (Yet)
The transition from feeling like a relative authority on one’s subject as a senior student to being the office newbie can be a difficult one, especially if you are filling the chair of a well-liked, experienced, respected salesperson.
Think of a new salesperson’s dilemmas and the word that keeps cropping up is “lack”. There’s a lack of relationship with existing customers. How do you keep them on board and not undo all the good work of your predecessor? There’s a lack of relationship with your colleagues, many of whom may be loyal to your predecessor. That’s intimidating. And despite your education, there is also a lack of professional knowledge: the expertise that you can only garner from being on the job.
All this can contribute to one overriding, potentially crippling personal deficit: a lack of confidence.
Ashley Bodi, co-founder of small-business champion Business Beware, agrees. “Most customers don’t like to be told they need to buy a product and they don’t like salespeople to shove it down their throats,” she tells the American Express Open Forum. “Be yourself and show your enthusiasm about what your business or product is… If they don’t want to hear what you have to say then move on to the next person.”
We’ve discussed previously that a problem for younger salespeople is that they come out of business school having read Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon’s seminal The Challenger Sale and become intent on putting its lessons into practice while lacking the necessary gravitas that experience and on-the-job knowledge provide.
Sales guru John Barrows is unequivocal on this subject: “[A]t 22 years old, you can’t be a challenger… You’re going to sit there and tell me how to do my business at 22 years old when I’ve been in business for 30 years? You’re out of your mind.” The actor Allison Tolman puts it even more memorably and succinctly: “As a newcomer, you know, you don’t come out the gate as a singer and try to compare with Judy Garland.”
“Ask the right questions to understand your existing customers’ expectations,” writes Craig Elias of avention.com. Then you’ll be better placed to understand your prospects. Elias suggests beginning with your predecessor in the role. No one will know how customers were attracted and retained better than the person who attracted and retained them. If you’re lucky, you’ll work alongside them during a handover period. In this case, pump them for information whenever you can.
If you aren’t lucky enough to work alongside them for any period of time, try to get hold of their contact details through the company. Drop them a line and see if they’d like to meet up to offer some guidance and exchange some information, or even if they could just give you a few pointers via email. If you ask politely, they’re more than likely to say yes.
“As a young sales rep, I would constantly ask questions and put myself in a position to learn from the best reps inside and outside the company,” John Barrows told the Salesforce blog. “I would listen in on their calls and presentations. I would try to grab coffee or lunch with them and ask them about what they do that works. I would write everything down and then try out the different ideas and techniques to see if I could fit them into my approach and make them my own.”
There are more metrics to sales than sales. When you ask the big guns in your sales room, or you look over their results (which are often public via noticeboards or gamification platforms), check them for new sales, upsells, and renewals to understand how they’re doing what they’re doing.
Next up are your competitors. What are they doing so well that I am not copying? Why do they consistently win a certain type of customer that I seem unable to? Sometimes it’s easy to criticize anyone that’s not part of your organization—don’t fall into this trap.
Sales guru Anthony Iannarino tells a story about his days as a wannabe pop star: “As a young man fronting a rock band, I hung around with a lot of young bucks that never failed to criticize other bands—especially the successful bands. They would cut on everybody. At some point, I changed my view and decided instead to figure out what these bands did that worked for them and why…I found lots to learn, and it helped me get better and more competent faster than I might have otherwise.”
So don’t begrudge your competitors their success: study what they do well, copy the best bits from them and put them to your own use. As Oscar Wilde had it: “Talent borrows, genius steals.”
Elias also suggests that it’s a good idea to look at what nobody does that you wish everyone did. What annoys you about sales? What perceived wrong do you want to put right? Identify what’s aggravating you and start putting it right yourself—it might just mark you out as a sales pioneer.
5. The Road To Success Is Paved With Failure
Sales is about knockbacks and callbacks, be-backs and missed closes. Be prepared.
Even if you’ve eschewed the easy approach and conscientiously followed these tips, you’re still going to have a lot of tough times as a young salesperson. Things will not come off for you—as will be the case throughout your career. This is why resilience is a key quality in getting off to a good start in your sales career. You’ll get customers who say ‘I’ll be back’ - but unless they actually are the Terminator, that’s probably the last you’ll see of them. You’ll get customers who require endless careful nurturing - only to stop taking your calls, or go with a competitor at the last moment. And you have to learn to put your personality into what you do, without taking it personally. Sales is a numbers game. So dial again!
Writing for LinkedIn, Andrew Donato says resilience like this is a key signal that you’re in the right role:
“The ability to absorb shock and continue forward is a tell-tale character trait of a successful young salesperson,” he says. “Sales is far from perfect or predictable to the point where it—sometimes violently—teaches young salespeople a lesson they may have heard somewhere else but never truly learned: life isn’t fair. Great salespeople have the ability to absorb the bad and move forward without letting it ripple through their day, week or month.”
6. Understand Your Plan
Make sure you understand the structure your company uses, and the pay structure that goes with it.
Donato counsels young salespeople against the “lone wolf” strategy. He argues that adopting this approach, in which the salesperson abandons the company values and plays by their own rules, is a serious mistake for any rep, let alone a new one. “Sales is more of a team sport than people realize,” says Donato. “Embrace the core values of your company and you will not only start believing in what you sell, but you’ll be looked at first when it comes to moving up the ladder.”
Sales isn’t a particularly supervised role; much of what you do comes from your own drive, your own desire to succeed. It’s up to you to find that motivation. “Look ahead not to next month, but to next year, and the year after that, and the year after that,” says Donato. “Where do you want to be? The most successful reps I have managed know the answer, and it drives them forward daily.”
That self-motivation shouldn’t be confused with not caring about the structure you’re taught to use: make sure you’re familiar with it. What are you supposed to do if X happens? If you don’t know, ask someone ahead of time. Sales support systems are set up to be simple to use, because you’re worth most to your new company when you’re selling, so it’s usually simple to do the right action to keep the pipeline moving as it should.
You should also make sure you understand your compensation structure. Some sales departments have complex compensation structures, others use linear commissions on top of basic. Make sure you’re clear what’s coming to you, and when.
Finally, if you’d like a short, simple maxim that expresses sales best practice, try this, from Dianna Smith of the Irreverent Sales Girl:
“Be quiet. Be prepared. Be on time. Send a handwritten thank you note.”
Now go crush it.
About the Author
A serial entrepreneur and digital nomad, Geoffrey has been running his own marketing consultancy for the past year.More Content by Geoffrey Walters