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The world of sales has a lot of stereotypes. Think Glengarry Glen Ross (“Coffee’s for closers!”), Jerry Maguire (“Show me the money!”) or Tommy Boy (“I killed my sale!”). They can be a turnoff for some people who are considering a career in sales (though some certainly seek out the supposed boiler room atmosphere). As for me, I never had any intention of becoming a salesperson. But I’m glad I did.

Common Fears About Sales

With a background in urban planning and biology, entering sales initially felt like being sent to the front lines; the biology world is ruthless, but sales gives it stiff competition. I didn’t think I was profit-driven or competitive enough to be in any industry sales or business oriented. (Don’t get me wrong — I love getting money, and love spending it even more.) In addition, my desire to help people and my tendency to be agreeable deterred me early on. Though I had no expertise in sales, I’ve recently realized that I have more “sales” experience than I thought.

In addition to my agreeableness (“You don’t want to buy the car? No problem!”), I never considered a career in sales for the same reason that most people might avoid sales: the fears of constant rejection, messing up on the phone, not meeting quota, or of working in a cut-throat environment. But here I am today, working at a B2B software company with peers who smile at work, sometimes multiple times a day. To me, this begs the question, did they all share my initial anxiety about a career in sales?

I decided to investigate and took a survey of my fellow smilers. What I found is that having a sales background had no impact on the initial anxieties of my peers prior to joining the company. In fact, for the most part, their fears were similar to mine: “facing rejection,” “falling behind,” and “cold calling and sounding like a flaming idiot.” Other answers included: “unattainable quota,” “not being confident” and “feeling overwhelmed.” Though I’ve never specifically feared sounding like a flaming idiot, I did share their concerns about overcoming objections, especially those of savvy business people in industries I’m almost certainly not an expert in.

Persistence FTW

Recently, I realized that my initial fears about sales were awfully similar to the ones I tackled as I became a field representative for the U.S. Census Bureau. As a field rep for the American Housing Survey, my job was to get into contact with residents of randomly selected households and inform them that they were selected to participate in a survey. This generally involved persuading them to take an hour-long survey with me. I did this via numerous phone calls, multiple visits to their households, and sometimes, if necessary, talking with their neighbors or landlords to get the info I needed to track them down and propose they take my survey. Needless to say, I wasn’t everyone’s favorite visitor.

The job brought forth a lot of new anxieties. I used to take deep breaths before every phone call or doorbell ring. Even on my most confident days, I never knew how people would respond to me. I feared that I would fail at persuading residents to take the survey at the door if they hadn’t already shut it in my face. Though I was fine if my calls went to voicemail, I would worry at the slightest thought of them picking up the phone. What if I didn’t have an answer to their question? What if I couldn’t keep them on the phone long enough to understand the importance of the survey? With the Census, one mess-up could mean a total loss of credibility. (Didn’t they understand I was representing the government?!?!)

Looking back, my experiences with the Bureau weren’t as dissimilar to sales as I initially supposed. Just as I feared rejection while cold-calling, I feared a physical door slam to the face. In both professions, I feared that I would lose credibility on the phone or not know how to effectively handle objections and establish credibility in time. My success was constantly dictated by how confident, prepared, and persistent I was. This was true as a census worker, and is true as a B2B sales representative.

The Joys of Sales

Despite my initial fears, I had positive experiences both while working for the Census and for Highspot. My favorite days while working for the Census were the days when residents spoke with me as though I were a friend or a neighbor, not a government surveyor. They would share some of their life with me, invite me into their homes, and sometimes even give me a tour.

It’s not surprising that my sales peers had positive experiences to share, too. Below, some of them describe their most memorable experiences with sales prospects:

“Enjoying a laugh and genuine conversation over the phone. At the end of the day, it’s just two people having a conversation.”

“I worked through 3 different referrals … and when the decisionmaker agreed to take a call, I knew so much about her company and her role from her colleagues that both she and I felt like we knew each other.”

“I was prospecting an account and apparently established such great rapport that the prospect called me ‘dude.'”

My colleagues were also asked what advice they would give to someone to help them overcome their sales-related anxieties. From the answers, you would almost think that I was surveying an entirely different group of respondents. They included:

“I have probably messed up hundreds of phone calls and voicemails, but each time I get off the phone knowing I can do better.”

“You will get rejected each and every day, but don’t throw a pity-party — use this experience to learn about yourself and how far you are willing to push yourself to be successful.”

“Will power. Just keep doing it. The road to success is built on blocks of failure.”

How to Transition to Sales

And if I could respond to my own survey, I would state:

“Sales is not everyone’s cup of tea. But everyone is capable of succeeding.”

Why? Because sales is little more than a practice in communication and persistence. If a Census job can prepare you for sales, anything can prepare you for sales. I believe that most life experience is sales training. Overcoming fears of rejection and failure and improving how you communicate are all skills that will likely serve you throughout your lifetime — whether or not you’re in sales. When I walked up to the front door of one of my Census addresses mid-August last year, I had no idea what I was actually walking up towards was a job interview. Who knew that one of my surveyors would end up recommending me for a sales position in a growing B2B tech company?

Special thanks to all the smilers at my workplace 🙂


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