WHAT’S A NICE PERSON LIKE ME DOING IN A JOB LIKE THIS?
“To be successful, the first thing to do is fall in love with your work.” Sister Mary Lauretta
When a career counselor first recommended I consider a job in sales, I looked down at my tailored suit and mentally reviewed my make-up and jewelry, trying to pinpoint what made him think I was sleazy. Salespeople, after all, ranked just behind ambulance chasers on my ethical scale. Why would anyone want such a job?
The obvious answer, according to that same counselor, was “For the money!” As a single parent climbing out of debt from a failed marriage, that was an attractive incentive, but sales was not for me. For six years I was an administrative assistant by day and attended graduate school at night. Now I was ready to “move up.” But ten interviews for Administrator positions later, the results had formed a pattern: Businesses called me “over-educated” while academe considered me “under-degreed.” I was fast becoming skilled at handling rejection. I reconsidered sales.
The job counselor painted a glossy picture of success: custom suits and Italian shoes, a company-provided Cadillac and dining at four-star restaurants. But I was haunted by stereotypes. I remember thinking many an alleged organized crime leader wears thousand dollar suits and gets photographed at black-tie society events. That doesn’t mean I want to be one.
Salespeople in my mind were pushy, greedy, self-serving, and more than willing to tell a half-truth or an outright lie to get the sale. I thought of the job itself as pressuring, manipulating and convincing people to buy things they don’t need, often with money they don’t have. If the world’s oldest profession is prostitution, then the world’s first “professionals” were selling and I was embarrassed remembering how often I’d heard the slang terms for prostitutes applied to salespeople.
In my crisp navy suit and well-polished low heels, my silk scarf bowed, and my savings account nearly empty, I set off. Every one of my first three sales interviews resulted in a job offer. Dizzy with my newly found success, I weighed my choices and selected a company with a good reputation, formal training program, and base salary in addition to commission. I would be selling word processors to businesses where IBM Selectric typewriters were considered space-age technology. I bought some new suits and quashed the fear that I was starting down a path that would start with selling product but end with selling my soul.
My first day came, and I met my peers. This in no way reassured me. One was a chain-smoking “veteran” who made it clear I’d better not come near his accounts. The other was a young man so full of himself he nearly burst out of his Oxford shirt. He offered to teach me “everything I needed to know.” Since he’d been on the job three months, I figured it wouldn’t take long. My Sales Manager, a good-looking man with a flirtatious manner and a tendency to touch me often, was no help.
I was eager to start the training program, since I knew nothing about selling but knew I was a quick learner. After the four weeks, I still knew nothing about selling, but had learned every picayune feature and detail of my product line. I was pumped. I left convinced my word processors belonged on every desk in the corporate world. My product would make secretaries and administrative staff more efficient, executives more productive and cheerful, eliminate disease and end world hunger. I soon received the rest of my training at the hands of my prospective customers. They pointed out features my product lacked and where it fell short of the competition. My inflated confidence sprang a leak and, instead of “hitting the ground running” my ego deflated and I hit the ground hard. When I picked myself back up, remembering I still had bills to pay, I asked more questions of my customers and listened carefully to their answers. From them I developed a thorough understanding of my product, what problems it solved, and where it failed to provide a solution.
The second half of my training program was devoted to sales technique. I sat through a 24-videotape version of Tom Hopkins’ How to Master the Art of Selling and was handed a copy of Zig Ziglar’s See You at the Top. I dutifully memorized power closes word-for-word and developed a “script” for telephone prospecting. I taped a mirror to my telephone to remind myself to smile and trained myself to say a warm thank you to the dead phone after someone hung up on me.
Out in the real world, I soon abandoned the baggage of scripts and closes. I realized I was already a better listener than most of my colleagues and that when I used that skill, the customer told me what the problem was and helped me decide how best to solve it. Whether through nature or nurture, I was good at putting myself in the customer’s shoes. I began to build relationships with customers. I got to know the support and field service people who were my life preservers in a sea roiled by inconsistent product quality. And I learned to keep a roll of Tums in my purse and a bottle of Maalox at my desk.
My income doubled. Then tripled. Sooner than I would have dreamed possible, I came to consider six figures to be realistic and attainable goal. But I was not happy. I changed companies to sell data processing software and minicomputers. After conquering the basement bastions of aging keypunch machines, I changed jobs again. I became an expert at selling local area networks and communications technology to businesses relying on a mail clerk with “sneaker net.” I won awards. I became a well-known and respected consultative salesperson in my field. But I was not happy.
About ten years into my career, my dissatisfaction reached its peak. Although I enjoyed working with my customers, I hated introducing myself as a “salesperson.” I felt I was carrying the weight of all the sales stereotypes and all the negative images of corporate America on my shoulders. I wanted to do work that mattered. That made a difference. And it seemed impossible to do that within the Fortune 1000.
My soul was hungry. I tried to feed it by volunteering on a crisis line. I spoke at self-help groups and mentored. It wasn’t enough. I longed to teach or do social work, even considering training as a lay minister/family counselor so I could do work every day that I perceived as having intrinsic value and that I considered congruent with my spiritual needs. When I realized I did not have the credentials for those jobs, I aggressively pursued “business” positions in social service agencies as marketing director, development director or fund-raiser, and executive director. But there were many people qualified to do those jobs who had worked their way up in social service and had stronger credentials than mine. It was deja vu: a familiar pattern of interviews followed by rejection letters.
Then I experienced what Jung called synchronicity and my family would call luck. Returning from a business meeting, I sat next to a fellow employee from another office, someone whose success I admired. I asked him what made him successful, expecting to hear about techniques and “tricks” of the trade. Instead, he talked about integrity and the daily challenge of maintaining it within corporations driven by stockholders’ demands for short-term results. He expressed frustration at the split between his business and personal lives and shared with me his longing to integrate his spiritual growth into his daily work. My mind was racing as we said our good-byes and, before I drove out of the parking lot, I stopped to write down my thoughts. Is it possible to integrate selling with spiritual principles? Could I be a force for change within the corporate world? Could I integrate work and home, job and spirit, and help others to do the same? I knew now I was not alone in wanting to find a way to heal the split.
Through trial and error over the next ten years, I learned the answer to the questions is yes. I have found and worked with many people who share this goal, and I have learned that salespeople have unique opportunities to grow spiritually within their jobs. We are also well positioned to lead change in our companies.
The movement to bring “soul” to work is growing rapidly. Business “gurus” like Stephen Covey, Ken Blanchard, and Tom Peters have recognized the need to transform business by bringing spiritual values and business practices in line. Americans grab up books like Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work hoping for an answer. But while many are focused on business in general, the fundamental business of business remains buying and selling. And sales remains a well-defended bastion of “all’s fair in love and war” thinking.
I’ve thrown out my old sales training books. I laugh at the scripts and closes I memorized. I approach every customer as an individual and every opportunity as a chance to serve. Every meeting offers lessons in listening, learning, compassion and respect.
I, like most professional salespeople, am a problem-solver. Together with my customer, I create value. I create value for my customers and my employer even when I tell a customer my product is not the best solution and recommend he seek another approach. I face conflict head-on and with empathy and I do my work with integrity. When I feel a twinge of conscience or discomfort, I no longer reach for the antacid but instead find a quiet place to close my eyes and listen to my inner wisdom, the voice of spirit. I have lost sales, but I have rarely lost a customer. And in many cases I have not only won a customer, I have won a friend.
At the time, I was fortunate to be working inside a company that was serious about developing a diverse workforce. I was able to call attention to sexism, racism, and cultural stereotypes when they surfaced and to actively promote equality of opportunity. And I understood that many people are better qualified than I to teach, counsel or minister. But until recently, few were qualified and willing to stay within the corporate world as what Peter Drucker calls “Change Leaders.”
Today I work with sales representatives who provide hardware, software and services primarily to manufacturers. Their products impact the very point of production and can make or break a customer’s profitability for a day, a shift, or longer. It is a challenge and a joy to work with people who are committed to doing their best for their customers, to helping solve the problem or to get out of the way. I hope my book, Selling with Soul, will help people considering a career in sales, as well as both current rookie and veteran salespeople, rediscover pride in our work as we declare today and every day “bring your soul to work” day.