Columnists

When Did You Know You Wanted To Be in Sales?

ColumnistsNov 23, 2021

When Did You Know You Wanted To Be in Sales?

A question from an astute young relative has Peter Smith pondering this question in his latest column.

Peter Smith is president of Memoire and Hearts On Fire. He is author of three books, “Hiring Squirrels,” “Sell Something,” and his most recent, “The Sales Minute.” Connect with Smith on LinkedIn or at dublinsmith@yahoo.com.
“When did you know you wanted to be in sales?” 

I was fascinated by the question, asked by my nephew, Jake, a senior at Santa Clara University. 

No one had ever asked me the question before and there was no quick or easy answer.

There are, of course, poignant moments along the way that stay with us throughout our career, and I began to recall some of them as I pondered Jake’s question. 

One such moment was when working at Colibri back in the mid-1990s. 

As a “non-salesperson,” I had made a huge sale of pens to a giant office supply chain. Our rep for the area had not had any success with that account so I got personally involved as the marketing director for the category and made the important sale. 

Later that day, the president of Colibri asked me how my appointment had gone. Acting as if I’d “been there before,” I casually replied with the details of the order. 

Without missing a beat, he said, “That ain’t shit. Come back to me when it sells through.” 

I did an about-face, barely containing my irritation, and walked back down the hall to my office. 

In the minute or so it took me to get there, my annoyance turned into a wide smile, enlightened, even energized, by the realization that, as curt as his response had been, I had just received a sales education. 

Sales should never be about sell-in. 

Then there was the time, 10 years earlier as a young salesman at Tiffany & Co. in Chicago, when I sold my first Breguet watch. 

I remember the look on the customer’s face when I told him a short story about Napoleon Bonaparte having owned a Breguet. That quick story was more impactful than any facts or features I could’ve shared with him. 

Stories matter. 

“The answer to Jake’s question is nuanced. There’s rarely a time, or sudden revelation, when people decide sales is for them.” 

Or it could have been the first time a customer challenged me on Whitehall Jewelers’ awful practice of massively marking up the price of a piece of jewelry so that it could be “discounted” by 50 or even 60 percent.

My response to the customer was, “I agree, this is a questionable practice that I have no control over. But let’s talk about what I can sell it for and see if that makes sense for your needs.”

In short, I had chosen authenticity and honesty over a largely deceptive practice and was still able to satisfy the customer and make a sale.

The answer to Jake’s question is nuanced. There’s rarely a time, or sudden revelation, when people decide sales is for them.

There may, of course, be trigger moments, when they choose to embrace a sales career, but the wiring that defines top salespeople is evident from a very early age, certainly long before we give a first thought to jobs or career paths.

Kevin Mitchell wrote in his fascinating book, “Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are,” that, “We are different from each other in large part because of the way our brains get wired before we are born.” 

One of the earliest and most fundamental of traits in people who become successful in sales is an inherent competitiveness from a very young age. 

 Related stories will be right here … 

In thinking about Jake’s question, I was reminded of two observed markers I noticed in his young life that might be indicators of his sales orientation. 

The first was his incredible competitiveness playing soccer as a boy growing up on the fields of Glendale, California and the surrounding towns. Jake’s dad often boasted about how seriously Jake took his game and how incredibly motivated he was to drive himself to the highest standards.

The second moment was when we were having one of our all-too-infrequent visits a few years ago at his home. 

We were all sitting around the fire pit singing songs, telling stories, and enjoying a wonderful evening and, in the middle of it all, Jake excused himself to retire to bed early as he was running the L.A. Marathon the next morning. 

I was both impressed by his discipline and left to wonder about whether he was even old enough to run a marathon. 
In “Quiet,” Susan Cain wrote, “Our inborn temperament influences us, regardless of the lives we lead. A sizeable part of who we are is ordained by our genes, by our brains, by our nervous systems.” 

I would add to Susan’s assessment that temperament is evident in the choices we make growing up—the activities we pursue, and the attitude and drive we bring to those activities, be it sports, debates, drama, fundraising or any other art form, academic or social situation that ignites our competitive spirit. 

It’s not so much that we choose sales, but that sales chooses us. If you are one of the lucky ones, use that talent wisely. 

Have a great holiday season and be safe!

Peter Smithis president of Memoire and Hearts On Fire, and author of three books, “Hiring Squirrels,” “Sell Something,” and “The Sales Minute.”

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