what do you go home to?

“Oh, you’re in sales, huh?”

Can’t you just picture the scene: You are on an airplane. You exchange small talk with a seat mate and inevitably the discussion rolls to what you each do for a living. The other person is a teacher on sabbatical on their way to China or an archeologist headed for South American or the Air Marshall ensuring the flight’s safety. They ask, “What do you do?” And you have to say it.

For me talking about what I do for a living is as painful as watching my fiancé’s seven-year-old son eat vegetables. In response to the other person’s question I’ll turn my head downward and mumble something like “iminsales” or say it so fast they can’t hear it clearly, “Iminsales. That’s a nice blouse you have on. Is this plane ever going to take off?”

I’m not like this guy:  

My old boss at Reebok used to play this scene for us at sales meetings. We joked at Baldwin’s brainy portrayal of a big time sales guy but then Kevin would say in his best Alec Baldwin voice, “PUT DOWN THE COFFEE. COFFEE IS FOR CLOSERS.”  And then we wondered, is he kidding?

always be selling

I never in my wildest dreams ever saw myself in sales. I’ve always thought of the profession as icky. Like the feeling you get shaking hands with the Used Car guy. Only now I’m the guy trying to get you to buy the 1985 American Motors Pacer with “only” 50,000 miles on it. (Hey, it’s a classic. Trust me.)

Sales rep. Rep. Account manager. Account development manager. Sales consultant. Business acquisition manager. Territory manager. Whatever the name they all = Loser.

I once was filling up my car at a Shell gas station in Merrillville, IN when the guy on the other side of the pump nodded at me and said hi. Immediately the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up. “Crap, here it comes,” I thought. Sure enough, he looked straight at me and said, “You look like you’re in sales. What do you do?”

Of course he was in sales too. And he convinced me (I can’t believe I’m saying this) to allow a meeting with my then-wife and I to go over the “phenomenal opportunities of working for yourself and creating your own fortune while you help others succeed too.”

In the end, logic prevailed and we passed up our new friend’s offer to join his Multi-level marketing business.

Unfortunately that is a prevalent view of what sales people do. It’s wrong of course, like any stereotype. But it’s amazing how this shit prevails. I’ve been in the sports and fitness industry in sales for twenty years. During that time I’ve met some amazing people and become close friends with a few of them.

shit sales reps say

Sales reps are engaging and funny and intelligent like any other career group. They also are assholes, individualistic, Type A detail freaks and some are mercenaries who would tell you whatever you are buying they totally believe in one day, then call you the next day and say “that company sucked. You absolutely must buy this brand. It rocks.”

In fact, what this guy says is too close to how reps in my industry actually talk:

Why the hell would anyone stay in something they say they abhor for so many years? I didn’t sleepwalk through 20 years of my life though it often feels like time has slipped by that way. When I started I thought I was going somewhere.  Sales was going to lead to something else. Just not here.

What I have most enjoyed about this sales career  is connecting. What I sought to do in my professional life is the same as what I seek in my personal life. I am motivated by relationships around shared passions or creating those passions in others. I am not a natural at sales, so whatever success I’ve had must have been built around this idea. I’ve made some close friends among my customers and done some great business. Then there are people with whom I just couldn’t connect. And I had to give up the idea they would ever buy from me or be more than occasional clients.

I have friends in sales and after a couple dozen beers they will tell you what they love about what they do. For some it’s great money. For others they’re competitive and it’s the thrill of closing deals.  For others, it’s the lifestyle and not having to go to an office everyday and being under the scrutiny of Pigeon-brained bosses.

reward at the end of the rainbow

There is I realize selfishness involved in being a sales rep, but not in the way you might think. Of course a person wants to sell to a client so they can get their commissions or whatever reward lies at the end of the sales rainbow. What I seek are answers to life questions that I’ve come to believe are found mostly in meaningful connections with others.

I approach all possible interactions this way. I drive my fiancé crazy because I’ll talk with anyone; with the people who share whatever crowded dry space we can find beside the community pool, a guy on the elevator, a waitress at a restaurant. The context of the connection doesn’t matter. If there is a chance at breaking through the distance standing between me and others–even strangers–I’m all for smashing.

I realize I’ve used the pretext of being a sales rep trying to secure my prospective client’s business to satisfy this craving for meaning. But it works for me. Eventually, I forge business relationships that are both successful and satisfying. Maybe that’s why I’ve stayed in it for so long. It doesn’t explain my love/hate relationship with sales though. You would think that by now I would be at peace with this thing I do for work.

Sales often feels like a role in a play. When I’m in front of customers I’m on a stage putting everything into that “performance.” And when I’m done, I’m toast and want to get as far away from people as I can. So I withdraw for a while and regroup.

Maybe that’s what people do in their careers. Maybe in that respect I’m not unusual. I don’t know. I have dreams of doing other things that feel more natural that also fuel my bank account. But that discussion will wait for another time.

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