Becoming a salesman

A story of a headmaster, the engineer and disappointment

Imagine the scene; a budding mining and explosives engineer in his mid-twenties. The phone call to his proud father, a respected head teacher of a well-known school. “Dad, you know that career track I have sunk the past 8 years of my life into? The one where I get to run my ‘very own’ coal mine? Well…I’ve quit. I am going to be a salesman…..”

The silence was deafening, the disappointment palpable…..I remember it like it was yesterday and that moment was 30 years ago.

Sales people get a bad rap…deservedly so.

So….what is really interesting about this tale is WHY? What is it about the ‘sales profession’ that so many people dislike? (I think I can actually hear you responding as you think about the answer!!)

I’ll give you a good price!

Wherever I go on my travels, working with thousands of people across the globe, industry and profession, the response to that always (and I mean always) seems to be the same; our profession is generally not liked (and, yes I mean in the consumer context, being sold to as an individual, but also in the professional context, being sold to by suppliers). Most people experience sales people as self-serving, not listening, pushy and unreliable….no wonder the reputation is universal.

But think, just for a minute….what is it like when you meet a sales person who ‘gets it’? What is it like when you buy (personally or professionally) from someone or an organisation who truly listens and then shapes a solution that sorts out your problems? It feels good, right?

In my estimation, having asked the question of thousands of people over nearly 20 years, I reckon no more that 5% of sales professionals get this right, professionally.

And that, is extraordinary.

And, that is an extraordinary opportunity.


Because….it is ‘not rocket science’. (Thank goodness, because whilst I may be an explosives and mining engineer, I certainly am not a rocket scientist!)

If you boil it all down, no matter what you sell, or to whom you sell it, it comes down to some simple principles;

  1. Be prepared – ‘winging it’, is not an option.
  2. Adapt your style – think about to whom you are speaking; people are not the same.
  3. Ask authentic, good quality, prepared open questions and listen without prejudice to the answers, allowing you to connect, empathise and be curious.
  4. Tell your story, putting what the customer wants at the centre of your tale, and adapt it to what they tell you. Be objective, use data, facts and then bring it to life in their world.
  5. Listen to their questions and concerns, and manage the challenges empathetically.
  6. Whatever you agree…make sure that you (and they) stick to that agreement, and be reliable in the follow up.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It is likely that the ‘great sales person’ you may have had in mind did something just like that.

This fascinates me….and clearly behind each of the six areas above, there is a degree of process, skill and practice needed until it all feels natural (and usually a large degree of ‘unlearning’ needed, to stop existing less-helpful approaches).

I have spent the latter part of my career (the bit after that ‘father-son’ moment 30 years ago) helping others become part of that 5% club…truly ‘getting’ what it takes to be part of that elite group – and that has been, and continues to be, an enriching experience.

Be part of the 5% club

As for my Dad – he soon ‘got’ what I really wanted to do and would probably agree with me that I made a much better sales guy than engineer.

If you liked this article, or think it would be useful for others, please like, share and comment, as you feel appropriate.

Alex Selwood

One thought on “Becoming a salesman

  • Elizabeth Selwood

    Very well observed Alex, but then, it would be; it’s your life, and I’m sure you’re right about your career path. Dad said that it’s “spot on”.

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