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Diary of a Salesman’s Secrets for Success

Posted on 07 November 2009

Across America, there’s a newfound respect for one of the earth’s oldest professions — sales. Once considered a career for business majors who didn’t fit elsewhere, sales is now viewed as the engine of economic growth, the grease that keeps the wheels of business turning — and a place for the truly talented. You can’t put a price on a good salesperson, employers say.

Many students begin business careers as sales account executives. Many don’t stay. Discouraged by the hard work involved in prospecting for customers, building relationships and making sales, often alone in strange motels on rural highways, these young sales professionals decide there’s got to be an easier way to make a living.

Not me. I’m here for the duration.

I graduated from Texas A&M University in 1995, armed with a degree in business administration. A marketing major, I decided to pursue a career in sales. Now I know that I chose one tough field. Selling doesn’t always mean pushing products. It’s often more intangible. For instance, in my current position as a senior marketing consultant for Merritt, Hawkins & Associates, a physician staffing firm in Irving, Texas, I sell what’s called “search services.” For a fee, my company helps find qualified physicians for positions at health-care organizations. My job is to explain what we do and convince potential clients that we’re the solution to their physician staffing problems.

Piece of cake? I wish. My office is in Dallas, but I spend about two weeks of every month on the road, meeting with administrators at health-care facilities. I study far more than I did in college. Add to that the mental challenges of solving client problems, the paperwork and the constant search for new business and I feel like I really earn my paycheck.

For the benefit of those considering a sales career and wondering what life might be like on the road, here’s an account of my typical day and some reflections on my career in sales.

7:30 a.m. A long line of headlights ebb and flow toward Indianapolis as rush hour grinds into its early stages. Fortunately, I’m driving north, away from the city, to meet with administrators of a family-practice physician group in Wabash, Ind., to discuss their need for an additional doctor.

2:00 p.m. The meeting in Wabash didn’t go exactly as planned and a cold, gray drizzle envelopes the Midwest by the time I leave for Warsaw, Ind., and another meeting. I had prepared to meet only with members of the practice, but they nudged responsibility for establishing a physician search onto an affiliated hospital — a common practice when sizable sums of money are being discussed. But hospitals often make decisions more slowly than doctor groups, and I had hoped to close the deal during this trip. I mentioned to the group members that if the hospital became involved, they would lose control of the search process. It didn’t work. I met with hospital management over a lunch that I can’t remember.

Because unforeseen problems always come up, a salesperson must be prepared for anything. Before I leave for a trip, I typically spend about two hours preparing for each client. Prior to the Wabash meeting, I looked up every family practice doctor search Merritt, Hawkins & Associates had done over the past year in the state of Indiana and gathered demographic information, regional salary data and other details. It’s the little things–like having my facts straight — that tend to impress clients.

If you could chart sales calls, you’d have a graph that looks something like the Dow Jones Industrial Average — a series of ups and downs that emerge as a general trend, either good or bad. Despite the setback, I considered this sales call to be positive. I had spent time with the client, and the chemistry was good.

What I like about my job is the opportunity to forge relationships with clients over a long period. This allows me to ride the ups and downs. Immediately after graduation, I took a job in Houston selling office equipment, and I hated it. Each work day, I made hundreds of “are-you looking-to-buy?” calls, and perhaps sold a copier. Client contacts were impersonal, and I never had the sense that my efforts solved problems. If I sold an item, years could go by before that client needed me again. Not everyone succeeds in sales, and the initial frustration drives many away permanently. Still, too many graduates expect overnight success and give up before finding their niche.

I remember all the “put-your-customer-first” lessons from college. But for me, finding what engages you is the key to succeeding in sales. Consider my first sales job. While some people thrive in that type of atmosphere, I sank. To maintain your energy level during months of cold calls, meetings and research, the product or process should interest you every day. If you enjoy your work, other skills necessary for success come easier.

The next key to success is to pinpoint a company that will invest in you. What you learn in college is useful, but thorough training during your first year is a more likely to result in long-term success than a business degree.

2:18 p.m. On the road to Warsaw, I notice Indiana remains cloaked in flat winter brown. Everything is green in Dallas. Texans spend an inordinate amount of time and money watering lawns and public spaces to keep them green. Hoosiers seem content with what nature intended.

As I speed down the highway, I reflect on my long-term goals. Thanks to a couple of successful uncles, I hold an unshakable belief that sales is the surest way into management. For a services firm, my company is reasonably large — nearly 450 people — and it offers a well-defined career path. Salespeople enter as trainees and graduate to account consultant positions. Close to 30% of our new salespeople drop out in their first year, which gives you an idea of the attrition rate in the field.

When I became an account consultant, I took over responsibility for a territory, in this case Ohio and Indiana. Because of my success within this territory, I reached the next level, senior account consultant, faster than expected. I didn’t get a big raise, since management considers this position as training for the next step: director. But at each stage, responsibility increases. At director and above, you’re managing a team of sales people and you begin to receive commissions based on the success of your team. While first-year income potential — base salary plus commission — amounts to about $50,000 a year, directors will earn $100,000-plus annually.

The ultimate goal in this organization is to become vice president of a division. At this point, you can earn a lot more. But new grads shouldn’t only look at salary potential when choosing a career. This was my error when I was offered my first job. I failed to step back and examine what I really wanted and needed to do my best work. I realize now I should have done some soul searching. Don’t make my mistake. Ask yourself, for instance, if you want to work for a large or small company and how important career development is to your future.

Most critical, perhaps, is the size of the hill you want to climb. I’m challenged simply by working with physicians–a very intelligent and capable group. Interacting successfully with doctors takes much more than charisma and a grasp of jargon.

For this reason, I always arrive at appointments with time to spare to accomplish a few last minute chores. I sit in the rental car and mentally work through several possible scenarios, taking reference notes as needed. Myths abound about what it’s like to be on the road, but trust me, it’s mostly work.

2:48 p.m. I arrive in Warsaw, then sit in the car preparing my thoughts. Indiana has many small communities, and this is one of them. I’ve learned that you can never judge a state by one area. The Midwest hides tremendous diversity under a facade that casual visitors rarely penetrate. Sales has sharpened my perception and listening skills so that I no longer prejudge a place or its residents. A salesperson must understand different personalities and learn to adjust his or her approach without appearing disingenuous.

The most important lesson I’ve learned since graduation is that I don’t know everything. But if I listen to clients — really listen — they’ll tell me what I should do next. Sales is mostly about meeting needs rather than creating them. Many authors have written books promising immediate success in sales. At one time, I may have believed their advice. But experience suggests that a salesperson doesn’t create a need. Instead, the client will eventually say what he or she needs. Study, prepare, ask questions, listen and work.

On the road, I focus on my meetings. Back at the office, I split my day between phone time and research. Sales positions differ between industries except in one respect: phone time. Colleagues plaster such signs as “The Phone is Your Friend” on their office walls to remind them of the value of this indispensable tool. But friendship with the phone eludes some of them.

Musing on these thoughts, I unbuckle my seat belt. I realize travel brings welcome relief from the phone.

6:05 p.m. Rejection. A window salesman once told me that before each call, he would motivate himself by saying positive phrases, such as “I’m going to make this sale.” At this moment, I have lots of time to think about staying positive. Headed back to Indianapolis, I’m on Highway 13, which pierces the heart of Indiana, arrow-straight and dull. The idea that you can develop a positive mental attitude by repeating a mantra amuses me. There’s no way in sales to avoid rejection.

Warsaw didn’t go well, which is why I’m having these thoughts. The Europeans who settled here in the days before modern transportation probably never noticed the isolation. Even now, the lights of farmhouses float by like distant ships in the night. Sometimes I get so caught up in business or the day’s minutiae that I forget about the value of an uncluttered place and a wandering mind. I’m told a salesperson first must be focused, but I think being comfortable with yourself is an even greater determinant of success. Clients are naturally defensive around salespeople. If you’re comfortable, you can bring their guard down, which leads to a sale.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of sales calls end in rejection — 80% or more in your first year. I’ve heard that salespeople should be aggressive, but this generalization isn’t true either. Patience plays a greater role in success. You’re going to be turned down. This isn’t a reflection on you. It’s just the way it is in sales.

After a few months, you begin to know what works and what doesn’t. To be successful, you must be goal-oriented, organized and willing to travel. Everyone tells you that. But this advice is meaningless if you fail to listen, think and approach each call with humility.

6:50 p.m. Back in Indianapolis and the hotel for the night. I go to dinner, taking along notes to read about tomorrow’s meetings. At tables all around me, others are doing the same, alone or in pairs. Soon we’ll go back to our rooms, watch a movie, call home, turn in early. It’s a life on the road and the wheels of business will keep turning.

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  1. 28th Carnival of Money Stories II – Winter in Arizona Edition | Out of Debt Again says:

    [...] Business Khan from Higher Education and Career Blog says, “Sales isn’t the field of choice for most new grads, yet it can be an excellent way to start your career. Here’s a recent graduate’s inside view of life as a ‘marketing consultant.’”  Great reflection on one day in Kahn’s life as he shares Diary of a Salesman’s Secrets to Success. [...]

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