As a cash-strapped college junior in the summer of 1995, I dreamt of studying abroad in London and attending graduate school. I was torn between becoming a lawyer or a professional writer. At one point, I even considered pursuing a JD and an MFA to use my skills in the media and entertainment industries.
Back then, my boyfriend and I could barely afford rent, let alone my lofty aspirations. So, I took to the streets of Big Bend Boulevard in Webster Groves, MO, and applied for jobs at every small business, bank, daycare, and sturdy building with a front door.
I stumbled upon a car dealership hiring receptionists and filled out a paper application. The team seemed intrigued by the scruffy, visibly poor alt-looking girl standing before them. They bombarded me with questions about music and bands before a salesman finally took my application and suggested I take their personality assessment.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I agreed. After completing the test, a 30-something sad dad in khakis returned with an offer: “We’ll hire you today, but only if you agree to sell cars.”
I hesitated, reminding him that I was a college student. He was like, “Really? Is that going somewhere?”
In retrospect, he had a point. So, I went back to my college and talked to every administrator, alumni professional, professor, and career coach I could find. Eventually, someone helped me land a summer internship in the HR department of a candy factory. And while the math didn’t add up for graduate school, I was determined to make my undergraduate education pay off.
That’s how my HR career began. And to this day, I’m still trying to determine if the investment paid off.
HR Hates Sales
My skepticism of sales professionals didn’t end in 1995; it continued for years until I left HR.
Why was I so suspicious of those who just wanted to help? Part of it was learned behavior. Boomer HR ladies seemed to despise sales professionals even more than they loathed technology back then. For some reason, they’d sooner embrace Saddam Hussein than shake hands with someone selling them job ads or emerging employee technology.
People’s mistrust of sales professionals often stems from negative past experiences, stereotypes, or misconceptions. Some of the main factors that contribute to this mistrust include:
• Aggressive tactics: Overly push or high-pressure sales tactics can make customers uncomfortable and feel coerced. Such techniques lead to the perception that sales professionals care more about closing deals than addressing the actual needs and concerns of the customers.
• Dishonesty: Some salespeople may exaggerate the benefits of a product, downplay its drawbacks, or make false promises to secure a sale. Customers feel deceived and lose trust in sales professionals when they discover the truth. Focus on commission: Sales professionals often work on commission, which can sometimes incentivize them to prioritize their financial interests over the customers’ needs. It creates mistrust, especially when customers feel they are being sold something they don’t need or want.
• Stereotypes: Popular culture and media often portray salespeople as manipulative, slick, or insincere, which can contribute to the general mistrust of sales professionals. While this stereotype doesn’t apply to all salespeople, it can still negatively impact their reputation.
• Lack of product knowledge: A salesperson needs a deep understanding of their product or service. If they don’t have it, they can’t provide accurate or complete information to customers. It leads to dissatisfaction and mistrust if the customer feels misled.
Sales professionals are visible, verbal, and ever-present, which can work both for and against them when dealing with potential leads who have had negative experiences.
Sales Doesn’t Help Itself
Historically, the language sales professionals use has been less than inclusive and customer-centric. Some examples of problematic sayings include:
• Always Be Closing”: While focusing on closing deals is necessary, this saying can encourage pushy or aggressive sales tactics. Building relationships with customers and understanding their needs is essential, rather than only focusing on the sale.
• “The customer is always right”: This saying can lead to a lack of boundaries and unrealistic customer expectations. While making customers happy is essential, setting reasonable expectations and maintaining professional integrity is also crucial.
• “Fake it till you make it”: This saying may encourage dishonesty or a lack of authenticity. Building customer trust is critical, and being genuine and honest is a better approach.
• “It’s a numbers game”: While the more prospects you approach, the higher your chances of success, this saying can lead to a focus on quantity over quality. Building meaningful relationships and targeting the correct prospects are crucial for long-term success.
• “You can sell ice to an Eskimo”: Sorta racist, no? The saying implies that salespeople can manipulate anyone into buying anything. In reality, successful salespeople identify genuine needs and provide solutions that benefit their customers. “
• No doesn’t always mean no”: This saying can be problematic because it can encourage salespeople to push too hard or to ignore a customer’s objections or concerns. While it’s true that some initial “No’s” can be overcome with additional information, persistence, or addressing concerns, there are times when a “No” genuinely means the customer is not interested or the product isn’t a good fit.
Many of those sayings still make my skin crawl, and I haven’t worked in human resources for fifteen years.
Everything is Sales
I have a new take on this topic now that I’m older. While claiming that “everything is sales” might be an exaggeration, sales principles and skills apply to various aspects of life. Sales involve communication, persuasion, negotiation, relationship-building, and problem-solving, all valuable skills in many contexts.
Here are a few examples of how sales skills can be applied in different situations:
• Job interviews: When applying for a job, you are essentially “selling” your skills, experience, and personality to the potential employer. Feels gross, but persuasive communication and showcasing your value are crucial to securing a job offer.
• Personal relationships: Building and maintaining personal relationships involve effective communication, trust, and understanding, all skills that sales professionals (and HR ladies like me) must grasp.
• Advocacy: Whether you’re trying to promote a cause, fundraise for charity, or garner support for a project, you’re essentially selling your ideas and goals to others.
• Negotiation: In various aspects of life, people often find themselves in situations where they need to negotiate—for example, when buying a car, discussing a salary, or resolving conflicts. Sales skills, such as persuasion and effective communication, can help achieve a favorable outcome.
• Marketing and promotion: Sales skills are crucial in promoting products, services, or ideas to a target audience, even if there is no direct monetary exchange involved.
It’s too bad that nobody taught me that many aspects of life involve principles and skills commonly associated with sales. In fact, my growth as an HR leader would’ve been stronger with a background in car sales. Nevertheless, developing these skills at any stage in a career can contribute to success.
Do I Still Hate Sales?
You might wonder if a secret part of me still detests sales. Truthfully, I never really hated it. Instead, I was more intimidated and felt insecure about my knowledge gap, which led me to react strongly as an HR professional. Being highly verbal and impulsive, I formed opinions with little depth, which was my reality for many years.
And when I started my own business, I remained cautious of people and companies with well-established sales processes. How could they be so good at something that seemed so mysterious and somewhat sketchy? My wariness primarily stemmed from my insecurities about dealing with naturally gifted individuals.
Over the years, however, as a business owner, I’ve studied sales books and conversed with professionals about their problem-solving and communication skills. As a result, I now recognize that I have much to learn from them.
I’m a lifelong learner, albeit a slow one, but I’m determined to improve. If you, too, lack sales skills or harbor suspicion toward those trying to solve problems, it’s time to let go of those reservations and level up. The world is waiting for your big idea. Don’t get in your own way like I did.