” First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” Alec Baldwin as Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross
The image conjured up is of a fast-talking, cheaply dressed guy with a face unctuous and pocked with acne. He avoids eye contact but acts like your best friend even though you just met. He is not someone one would trust with important financial decisions.
This is how I picture the typical sales guy. Which is highly ironic since I have been in and around
sales most of my adult life. Even today, my role as a Realtor in Ann Arbor puts me squarely into a sales career. I work hard at being nothing like the self-serving, charlatan sales stereotype, but since I have such distaste for sales a logical question is why the hell did I get into it?
An accidental salesperson
There used to be a book on my shelf entitled, The Accidental Salesperson. It was a missive on how to be good at sales without, well, being a sales guy. A lot of us don’t get into sales on purpose. We just kind of float there. I never read the book but it became a kind of mantra for me as a disclaimer in conversation. Almost embarrassedly, I would qualify my answer to “what do you do?” with something like, “I’m in sales but I’m not like the others.”
Yes, I am in sales. (That flows like the aftertaste of cold, stale coffee from the bottom of the pot.)
They say admitting you have a problem is the first step toward a cure, or something like that. The nugget of good news is, while the slimy stereotype is perpetuated on tv and in movies, that is NOT me. I rely on the fact that I don’t have it in me to be the quintessential salesman–I’m not that good. Nor could I be because of one thing: I have a conscience.
Every night, when I brush my teeth, I have to look at myself in the mirror. The resulting conversation, which stays mostly in my head but admittedly sometimes is aloud, sending the klaxons screaming on the early-warning Alzheimer’s radar my wife Elin has directed at me, goes something like this:
“Did you do Good out there today?”
“I didn’t worry about me. I focused on my people.”
“But did you make a sale?”
“I listened to what’s in their heads, what’s important to them.”
“Do you realize you are talking to yourself again?”
I’ve learned that I can be effective and conscientious by putting the attention on the people who choose to work with me. Understanding them allows me to detach from the Glengarry, Glen Ross “Coffee is for closers” mentality, which is another sales stereotype: forceful, unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer, keeps coming back at you until, worn out, you say ‘yes’ and buy the damn timeshare or vacuum or insurance or cable deal. If I can direct my attention on the process I can stomach–even enjoy–devoting my working life to sales.
Being in sales used to cause a huge ethical dilemma for me: on the one hand I had bosses demanding big bottom-line results and closed transactions. On the other, I had customers who demanded something more of me. I’ve decided through the years, through good training and bad and through life experience, the key to happiness is learning. I learn by listening to people, hearing about their challenges, problems, hopes and desires. Then I figure out a way to get them close to a solution that works for them. I just happen to do it in the context of buying and selling homes. A lot of my approach was learned from observing a good friend when I worked in another industry.
Another friend, a therapist, told me once we all are in sales.
How many times have we as parents tried to get our kids to eat vegetables by selling the reward of dessert? How about the sales job our kids give us on staying out an extra hour by negotiating an extra chore? How is sales different than a therapist devoting themselves to serving their clients and getting a referral in return? Or my daughter’s basketball coach coaxing his charges to do an extra suicide because it might win a game or two?
I see sales transactions everywhere. My friend is right: we are all in sales.
There’s a sales axiom particularly apropos in real estate: you either get paid in money or you get paid in experience.
There is something about sales I do appreciate–at it’s core it’s very genuine. I don’t get paid for my efforts unless I understand and help meet the needs of others. I only make money if I help someone successfully navigate the process of buying or selling their home, from our first conversation to the day they receive or hand over the keys to the front door. There’s a sales axiom particularly apropos in real estate: you either get paid in money or you get paid in experience. There’s no failure. To be honest, I believe this is more sincere than collecting a salary. Nothing is given. I have to get better at everything I do all the time in order to better serve the people who would pay me in either hard money or experience.
What could be more honest than that?
Work can be a series of experiences with no currency attached.
Living on commission can be scary. Work can be a series of experiences with no currency attached. Or you could go on a run where the money flows and get a little loose with spending. Elin and I live with that and sometimes life is difficult. But I always keep coming back to my core belief that there is great reward in self-reliance; one’s skills, insights, abilities to adapt and grow. And earning a living based on how well one brings out the best in themselves and others is bliss when it works.
I guess that’s how I accidentally wound up in sales. I must have been drawn to the sense of connecting people to what they want. I couldn’t have foreseen it would be as a Realtor. It’s funny. Some people in my business use terms like “trusted advisor” or “consultant.” But I think that’s because they are uncomfortable with the stigma attached to being a sales person. Certainly I see examples that don’t reinforce the image and not as infrequently as one might think. It makes me work harder to stand out as different from the stereotypical salesperson.
I just hope people notice.
The title of this essay is borrowed from a song by Hammock, one of my favorite post rock bands. Here’s their website: http://www.hammockmusic.com/