Here’s how I became an “accidental salesperson.”
Fresh out of college, I went to MCI – the Google of the era — to apply for a job in advertising. In college we had dissected case studies on how the founder deregulated the telecommunications industry and dismantled the AT&T monopoly. Their go-to-market strategy was bold and innovative, and they were growing at a phenomenal rate. It was a true David vs. Goliath story and my name was written into it, as far as I was concerned.
Seated with perfect posture and in my first business suit, purchased by my mother especially for this interview, I asked the recruiter about open positions in advertising. He threw back his head and laughed. “Our advertising is done in New York City,” he said. “In Manhattan,” he emphasized, just in case I hadn’t gotten the point.
He glanced out the window, looking bored, and offered me a job in telemarketing.
“Telemarketing?” I clung to my last fragment of optimism that this day was going to launch a bright future for me. “What’s the package?”
He laughed again, harder this time. “Part time, no benefits. Eight dollars an hour.”
I went to college for this? I thought. But then I replaced the perceived negative with a positive. It would get me out of bed, dressed in business attire, and I’d have afternoons with $32 gas money to find a job to fulfill my quest to become Peggy on Mad Men (only cooler).
I hit the phones running in telemarketing and, my first day, sold twice as much as the top rep. In three weeks I was promoted to Inside Sales, full time with benefits and a list of companies to call. Six months later I was promoted to Corporate Account Sales, the equivalent of Enterprise today. Ninety days later I sold Toshiba, and by the time I’d worked at MCI one year I was earning six figures. Not bad for the 80s!
Obviously, I never looked back.
Tips for Sales Success
Here are five tips from my experience for women seeking a sales position:
Tip #1: Get your foot in the door, however you can.
If you’re bright with a good work ethic you can write your own ticket.
Sales was different in the 80s. Charm and persuasive skills were everything, and an ability to tell jokes or talk sports was a huge bonus. I wouldn’t say it was easy to get an appointment, but it was much easier than it is today. Many meetings were done over lunch (at which I excel) or golf (which I don’t). I’d start with the question, “So what do you do here?” and they’d answer, opening up about business goals and challenges. By the time they finished we were bonded, and I understood how to design network services that would optimize critical business objectives such as expanding market share or connecting the supply chain.
Tip #2: Don’t sell, serve.
Prospects can sense your mindset. If you really care about what your customer wants to fix, accomplish or avoid, the rest will take care of itself.
Several years later, I was recruited by Sprint and was quickly promoted into Sales Management. The team I led went from No. 44 to second because we weren’t distracted by a marketing catastrophe (post–merger billing system crash) but focused on serving customers. My stint in Sales Management was the hardest five years of my life, but I grew beyond my egocentric approach into an understanding of what makes sales a great career: People working together to accomplish aggressive goals and achieving their own milestones.
Tip #3: The difficult experiences lead to the most growth.
I had an experience that changed my life. I was tasked with hiring the speaker for Presidents Club and chose former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and Vietnam veteran Rocky Bleier. I took Rocky to dinner the night before and engaged in what I thought was casual conversation about Sprint’s environment, characterized by low morale and high turnover. Rocky didn’t take a single note, but the next morning he wove the information into a brilliant keynote that culminated in a standing ovation. I was hooked, and so I embarked on a career in professional speaking.
The first years were incredibly fulfilling in every way but financially. Eventually I developed a winning topic from a skill where I’d always shined — selling at the executive level. (Ask me how I sold Toshiba!) I was in the right place at the right time: Technology companies in the 90s were selling big-spend, big-impact enterprise software that was highly disruptive and required an executive interface. Simon & Schuster published Visionary Selling in 1998 and I presented keynotes to employees of many companies, such as SAP and CA Technologies. I never acquired the mastery of Rocky, but I did develop the category of executive-selling skills and invented the phrase “C-Level.” Today, as a “give-back” I coach CEOs of social enterprises and non-profits on how to give a TED Talk, and I cherish the value of understanding the privilege and power of the platform.
Tip #4: Every experience in your life is leading you somewhere. Trust this!
I’ve come full circle. Today I work with a handful of top technology companies focused on sales transformation and the customer journey. I would never ask, “So what do you do here?” but my favorite part of my work is still drilling deep into their operations and culture to discover what’s working, what’s not, and how to use what works to change what isn’t.
Tip #5: Listening and learning about customer needs will always be the most essential sales skill.
Somewhere along the way I became a salesperson, through and through. I wouldn’t change one step on the path that led me to where I am today.
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