The issue of respect in sales goes far beyond the experience of just the people who work as sales-related professionals. It affects the success or failure of startups, the economy at large, and even the ability to solve some of the world's most pressing problems.
To understand why, let's start off with what's not working. Often, the whole idea of selling gets a bad rap.
When I ask people to name their favorite sales movies, they name Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, and Boiler Room. Those are the absolute worst sales movies. They show everything that's wrong with selling. In these depictions, selling is an effort to convince people to do things they don't want to do.
The "do anything for a commission" mentality is still the dominant perception. And unfortunately, it has often been reality. That's because many people have fallen into sales without any real training. Many studied business or accounting, then got into the workplace and found that they either didn't like what they were doing or couldn't make enough money doing it. So they switched to sales. And their entire entree into their first sales job consisted of, "Welcome, here's your quota, good luck."
Most people have never been taught the fundamentals of selling. Here's what sales really is: Understanding clients' needs and showing them why you genuinely believe that what you're offering can solve a problem they're facing. Emphasis on the word "genuinely."
Someone told me early in my career that "sales is the transfer of enthusiasm." That line has stuck with me, because it's the key. To be truly great in sales, you have to have a real passion for what you're doing.
If you're just selling for the commission check, you're feeding into the perception of everything that is wrong about selling. If you're selling because you believe that your product or service can make a difference for the right client, then you're doing it right and should be commended - because it's tough work, packed with integrity.
That's why it starts with searching for the right product or service until you find one you're passionate about. That time and effort are worth it. Sales is the best profession in the world when done right, and one of the worst when done wrong.
Make or break for startups and solutions
Lots of startups are designed with the intent to offer real solutions that can help consumers or businesses. But it's the sales function that makes or breaks those startups. And because sales is so often looked down upon, many founders never give sales the attention, effort and respect needed to do it well.
I've worked with lots of startups facing this problem. Founders have hired salespeople and simply told them to go sell whatever the product or service is - without providing them the tools to be successful, such as a deep understanding of what the business offers and why it's so important.
Many founders also don't hire salespeople who are passionate about the business, because they don't know to even look for that. They see it as a "necessary evil," rather than as advocacy.
Startups also face this problem when they seek funding. There are people with brilliant ideas that could turn into exciting, successful businesses, but the founders themselves don't know how to sell an idea to VCs. So it never gets off the ground.
The solution then dies on the vine. Or someone else who's good at selling scoops it up, succeeds with it, and turns it into a billion-dollar enterprise - leaving the person who originally thought of it in the dust.
The more the stigma against selling goes away, the more people will be willing to embrace the process and learn how to do it well.
Everyone, in every profession, has to sell at some point.
When you interview for a job, you're selling yourself. You might be the most talented person on the planet, but if you can't sell yourself then your talent doesn't matter because you won't get hired.
Inside businesses, people face this same problem. You may have a great idea. If you bring it to the boss' office and don't know how to pitch it, your boss will look at you and say, "Go back and do your job." But if you can sell it, your boss may respond, "Woah - let's change our approach and do that."
Fortunately, there are signs that sales is starting to get more respect. More are adding sales majors or minors. Some also have sales labs and online courses. And increasingly, these schools are teaching the importance of passion, listening, and only pursuing customers who can truly benefit from the product or service.
Still, there's more work to do. Right now, there are people who have great ideas to tackle some of the world's biggest problems. The big question is whether those ideas will ever be sold so they can turn into action.
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