“Sales.” I said it. I said it loud enough for the sleepy young lady in the back row to be annoyed by my inflection. I smiled when I said it. And I watched their cherub-like exuberance slowly melt into an ashen repugnance. They were budding MBA graduates. A sales job is beneath them!

A month or so ago I wrote that in Orlando, “you either sell to those who serve, or serve those who sell.” It generated a LOT of discussion in various circles. Some thought I was castigating professional sales as a career path for new college grads (including those newly-minted MBAs) but I want to make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Sales, in fact, is an EXCELLENT way for new grads to gain entry into a firm.

Why? It’s the best way to show what you, individually, are capable of achieving. It’s also the most effective way to learn about the firm’s core product or service. Career-wise it’s a good move because companies will generally lay-off overhead and support positions before touching revenue generating positions. It’s also the best position to be in to interact with every operational unit at every level of the organization. From a control standpoint you generally enjoy a performance-based pay structure, are given a great deal of flexibility to self-manage, and initiate most of your interactions. Intrinsically you get to experience the highs and lows that come from setting and achieving goals along with helping your clients operate their businesses or live their lives better.

So why do students have an aversion to sales? Some claim they don’t like the reputation a “sales job” has. They immediately think of a used car huckster or other dishonest caricature. I know this picture well. I worked in the car business and there are a lot of folks whose actions keep that reputation alive. Slicksters, cheaters, sloths, and just outright crims dot the dealership landscape like so many potted plants. But it’s too easy to blame the profession for some bad seeds. I think that’s a convenient excuse for not really knowing all it takes to be a good sales professional.

Sales is hard. To be a good sales professional you have to be smart. You have to be able to retain tactile facts about the product or service you offer, you have to be able to communicate with and relate to your customer, you have to listen to their needs, and ultimately be able to apply what you know to create a solution for your customer. When I was teaching I used to say it’s one thing to barf up a list, it’s another thing to be able to pick through the chunks and identify what made you sick.

Sales takes discipline. Good sales people have to be smart enough to create a plan and have the discipline to stick to it. You have to manage your own activity, manage your time, and stay organized. It also takes interpersonal discipline. You’ll be challenged and questioned. You’ll be rejected. You’ll have to “suck it up” and make amends when your plan falls through or someone outside of your sphere of control fails to perform effectively. You create and maintain the image of the company you represent. Ask Charles Barkley, being a role model takes discipline.

Sales means you have to perform. In sales there is no cover. You either did it, or you didn’t. Your performance is out in the open and subject to evaluation. Some people are not comfortable being held accountable. In sales if you don’t perform you can expect corrective feedback. You have to be mature (and disciplined) enough to take the feedback and improve your performance. If you don’t improve your performance, you will eventually pay the ultimate price and be removed from your position.

Finally, sales is less about talking and more about relationships. In the days of sailing ships the British Navy would solicit new recruits by just cracking them over the head. You’d wake up miles out to sea with a knot on your head. Sales professionals understand that long-term success comes from building a relationship with their customers, not cracking them over the head. Only thing is, it takes time, effort and talent to build a relationship. I’ve heard people say, “So-and-so is a great talker, he should get into sales.” Wrong! The best sales professionals are the best LISTENERS, not talkers.

Regardless of the job you have, you need traits like these to be successful. Accountants have to interact, consultants have to influence their clients, analysts have to be capable of complex thought, HR generalists have to build relationships. All of these are critical competencies to a professional sales person in the same way that all of these are critical competencies for a professional business person.

I still feel Orlando needs a more diverse Entry-Level employment base if it’s going to retain the best and brightest local college graduates. Everyone can’t be expected to sell or work in the service sector waiting for their break. Especially if that break is just a higher level position in sales or service. The graduate talent pool is just too diverse. However, a lack of options, doesn’t mean those options are bad.

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“I hate fishing! Why would I bait a hook and wait for a fish to get hungry and come get the food. If I want a fish, I go down there and get the fish.”

I was having lunch with a new client and we were talking about his love of spear fishing. He grew up in Key West diving without tanks, not even a snorkel. Just a mask, fins and Hawaiian sling. It’s not a sport thing. It’s a food thing. He’s not looking for a trophy to hang on the wall. He fishes because he loves fish; fresh fish. So, if the desired end result is a meal, wouldn’t you take the quickest most efficient path there? Makes sense to me.

When my students talk about their job search, they talk about answering online job postings. They use the campus job board. They go to job fairs and do all the things that we generally associate with an entry level job search. Sounds like fishing to me. They bait their hook with a resume and wait for a job to swim by. If an employer bites, they work that strike like Bill Dance landing a trophy bass.

Here’s the problem with that approach and why I love my client’s position as a metaphor. My client likes to spearfish because HE chooses the fish to pursue. He’s not waiting for whatever wants to hit his bait. It’s essentially a shift in the power relationship; he’s taking an active role and making things happen. In the same way, incorporating networking and direct contact into your job search gives you more control of the job you try to land.

Sounds pretty straightforward, eh. So, what’s the downside? Plenty! First of all, lots of shots miss. Spearfishing is a skill and even the most skilled at it go home hungry on occasion. You need to practice…a lot! That means getting off the boat. That means getting in the mix. In job search terms, that means turning off the computer, putting on pants and getting out among people! Networking is an active strategy and to learn how to use it you have to practice. Then once you figure out how networking works, you have to do it a lot to get good. Then to stay good, you have to keep doing it.

Next you have to know where to fish. You can put a lot of effort fishing a reef with none of the fish you want to eat. Again, networking takes skill and knowing where to find the fish you want takes practice and experience. For example, knowing dolphin gather under beds of floating grass is something you learn after spending a lot of time out on the water. So if you want to network with bankers, do you know where to fish? How about HR folks? Purchasing managers?

Finally, you may snag a fish that you can’t actually land! My client told a story about tagging a huge grouper that was hanging around a wreck. But he couldn’t pull it in. He tied it off, went up for air, and kept coming back. But in the end he couldn’t land it. You might make what you think is an AWESOME connection only to hear, “We aren’t hiring” or “Gee, I really don’t know anyone that can help you.” You invested time, effort and skill. Made the shot. Got connected! But, you couldn’t make the sale. Or you picked a target that just wasn’t right for you. Happens a lot. Sometimes you can change your technique or approach. Sometimes you can back off and then hit it again later. Sometimes you have to do like my client and go get help to land it. Then again, sometimes you just can’t land it.

Networking and direct contact is the key to unlocking the ubiquitous “hidden job market.” Sounds exotic, but really all you’re doing is ditching the passive rod and reel for a more active Hawaiian sling.

Lonny