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Practice Management > Building Your Business > Young Professionals

Sales: A Misunderstood Discipline

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As companies slash their workforces in response to one of the worst bear markets in history, financial services professionals are bracing themselves for the bumpy road that lies ahead. Our industry has taken devastating blows, but we can take comfort in the notion that the strongest companies and the best people will emerge from the chaos.

If you look closely at the industry’s biggest layoffs, you’ll find that the positions being eliminated are the back-office, administrative and–in management’s eyes–redundant functions of corporations. In these volatile times, companies are holding on to their most valuable assets: the seasoned sales professionals who drive profits and perpetuate business growth.

Given that a company’s sales division is arguably its most vital entity–and the last to be cut during corporate downsizing–one would expect that recent college graduates would have their sights set unwaveringly on a career in sales. In fact, just the opposite is true: the next generation of professionals is eager to take virtually any job but a sales position.

Case in point: I was attempting to recruit a young person to our company a few weeks ago. Although this 23-year-old was insurance licensed, she expressed interest only in non-sales related fields. Her preferred area of focus, she told me, was marketing.

I have always had a special interest in (and passion for) both marketing and sales. While there is great overlap between the two disciplines, their distinct differences provide the key to unlocking the mystery of why so many young people are rejecting the sales profession.

In the simplest terms, marketing is the process of trying to make a product or service attractive to rather nebulous demographics. The marketing process transitions to sales when individuals within these populations have been identified and actual human conversations begin to take place. Thus, while the language of sales and marketing is much the same, it is with whom the conversation takes place that defines the key distinction.

Both fields have their own challenges, and truly great marketers are just as difficult to find as truly great salespeople. However, of the two professions, sales is clearly the more intimidating (and less attractive) profession in the eyes of most young job seekers. You rarely hear people say, “Yes, I am interested in any position your company might have available, as long as it’s not in marketing.” On the other hand, you hear that type of disclaimer ad nauseam when it comes to sales. Why is that?

In my opinion, there are three main reasons:

1. The sales profession has a negative stigma. Tell your friends you got a new job in marketing, and their praise and support is nearly unanimous. Tell them you got a sales job, and some–if not most–will offer condolences or criticism.

At the root of this widespread stigma is the fact that failure in the sales arena is more obvious than in other fields. Incompetence so outweighs excellence in sales that many people have formed a warped view of what constitutes sales effectiveness. They equate the profession of sales with the people who are failing at it. The thinking is, “If I take a job in sales, then I’m just like that guy who hassled me on the car lot last week.”

2. The sales profession involves a high level of individual accountability. When trying to sell a product or service, a salesperson can face rejection, criticism, ridicule and even rage. The customer’s refusal is not merely indicated by negative consent or lack of response; it is explicitly expressed by a living, breathing person looking you in the eye and leveling a dismissive communication at you.

Many successful sales people continue to incur such responses–even as their businesses grow and prosper. It is simply an inevitable part of the profession. The problem is, the average person’s ego is not typically strong enough to endure this type of rejection.

3. Good sales role models are hard to find. Not only do many people equate the word “salesperson” with “loser,” they actually see the relationship as causal. You are a loser because you are a salesperson, which makes the converse true: If you are a salesperson, you are a loser. The regrettable result is that some of the best salespeople in the world are not recognized as being successful or productive members of society. On the other hand, many thriving medical doctors, attorneys, landscapers, home security experts, and internal managers also happen to be phenomenal salespeople, but are not perceived as such.

Many young people are limiting their career opportunities due to the misguided notions described above. When a young person says, “I’m interested in any position as long as it doesn’t involve sales,” they often don’t realize that they might as well be saying, “I’m interested in any position…

…as long as it doesn’t involve solving problems or helping people.”

…as long as it wouldn’t be considered most vital by an acquiring company.”

…as long as it wouldn’t escalate my value to the company and prepare me for advancement.”

To reverse these misconceptions, seasoned sales professionals and managers must educate the next generation of the workforce about the realities, myths and multiple dimensions of the art and discipline of sales.

The most important message to convey is that effective selling is not about pushing products. It is about building relationships, and getting to know your customers so you can understand their needs and preferences. It is also about effective time management and responsive customer service.

An effective salesperson must know the product he or she is selling inside and out, and have the ability to communicate its value to the customer in clear, concise terms. All of this is especially important for financial services professionals, but it holds true for salespeople in any industry.

Of course, it would be erroneous to proclaim that all young people who reject the sales field are misguided. Many of them don’t want to be in sales because they see it as extremely demanding work (which it is), or they simply feel their talents would be better directed elsewhere. And that is perfectly fine.

However, I believe that the vast majority of tomorrow’s workforce, regardless of their current position or career aspirations, will be more effective in their chosen profession if they have a clear understanding of the true nature of the sales process.

Greg Salsbury, Ph.D., is an executive vice president for Jackson National Life Distributors, LLC. He can be reached at [email protected]


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