We Are All Salespeople
People who work in sales have a pretty bad reputation in our culture. There are long held views of people seen as con men calling on the phone to sell insurance, working at used car lots or speaking at time-share meetings all trying to part you from your money in exchange for something useless or of inadequate quality.
However, few skills matter more in work, and it is even more important when you work has a social impact.
I grew up with an extremely negative view of sales. I recall reading about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman in grade school and seeing the awful future it foretold for my dad, a salesperson. My father represented clothing lines to stores throughout the Northeast for decades. I saw firsthand the challenge of a job so dependent on the stress of closing orders to earn a paycheck. He is since left that business and now sells fencing in Florida; he has sales in his blood.
I suppose I share that with him, albeit in slightly diverse ways.
I promised myself to not follow in his footsteps. I did not want to spend my career selling a product and getting people excited about the new cut or color of a garment. My life was going to be one of impact. Yet along the way sales has been at the center of any work I have done.
Which brings me to my point. WOULD YOU LIKE TO BUY THIS INCREDIBLE SKY BLUE TERRICLOTH ONESIE?
Just kidding. The point is this:
Selling others on your ability or trustworthiness
My first full-time job after college was with the Higher Achievement Program, an after-school and summer educational enrichment program for 5th-8th grade students in Washington, DC. I spent lots of time selling parents and school officials on the value of the program, students on continuing to attend, local private and parochial schools on recruiting our students for high school and partners to offer programming at reduced costs.
Now I meet with founders and job seekers who need to decide how much they should listen to me. Usually, someone they know has introduced us and vouched for me, but not always. If not, I need to show them that I understand their situation and will help them produce solutions given their priorities (and resource limitations). This is also true of funders & investors. They make a bet that if you can sell or convince them that you can do so with others.
Selling others on a product or event
At idealist.org whether I was pushing to get the first organizations to add themselves to the empty first database before we had any individual users, or to convince schools or employers to attend the first Nonprofit Career Fair or Graduate Degrees for the Public Good event, I had to sell people on a vision of how we could, and did, change recruitment for the better. I believed then that we were the best value solution to their problem of finding candidates, and they agreed. The hardest sell was to the institutional hosts of new events that offered space, promotion, labor, and food to connect with our emerging brand. The bigger the financial or reputational risk for the buyer the more you need to assuage concerns with your vision and acknowledgement that your approach will be good for them.
Selling colleagues on you
Whether you are managing your staff, managing-up or engaging with your peers across your institution you need to be able to sell you, your ideas and strategy to realize them. All my innovative ideas would lead me down a path of conversations with individuals to understand why an idea would not work. I wanted to ensure that I understood what I was missing by engaging in a vetting process of really smart people. Armed with that I would begin to engage the colleagues around me with these new ideas and I could begin to sell them on helping to improve the concept and commit to it. You are selling people on you as the right person with the right ideas in the right role.
Selling yourself on your ability
My hardest sales job is to me. No one is more aware of my shortcomings, nor more likely to get lost in the weeds of my past misjudgments. I’ve a few tricks up my sleeve that help me when I am feeling a little down on me to serve as a reminder. The big three are an Internal CV of professional accomplishments, a doc on my laptop called Russ Seeing Russ which captures kind things people have said to me about my work and impact, and a short-list of people who are the smartest and most-direct people that I call when I am feeling a little small. These things serve as a reminder that help sell me to me.
If you started off calling bs on this idea that you are a salesperson, I hope I have managed to convince you. Whether it is the burger of the month or the solution to a niche or expansive social problem we all have selling to do. Just remember that selling is all about authentically caring about the problem of the other person and putting that problem first while also believing that the approach you are taking is going to be the one to help and you’ve the data to support that. If you can do that you are well on your way to making an enormous difference in the world. But seriously. Would you like to at least try this terrycloth onesie ON?
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.