“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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“It’s a place where you either sell to those who serve, or you serve those who sell.” 

I was talking to an MBA student from our one year program this week and that phrase came out of my mouth as I was describing the types of jobs that people get in Orlando.  I’m not even sure where it came from, it just kind of came out.  But is it fair?  Is Orlando really just about theme parks, and hotels, and chain fooderies, and all the assorted things that sprout up to support them and the people who work there?  Or is it more? 

VisitOrlando estimates the “economic impact” of tourism and hospitality in the Orlando area to be just under $30 billion.  By comparison, Orlando’s “high tech” industry (everything from defense systems to video game design) was around $13 billion or less than half.  Additionally, tourism generated taxes account for almost 21% of total local tax revenue.  But more importantly, from a cultural and branding perspective, if you say “Orlando,” especially to people who don’t live here, they will most likely respond with some variation of the Mouseketeer theme.

Second, if I survey the employers that attend UCFs two major on-campus job expositions, most of the jobs they are looking to fill with our non-Accounting business graduates are some variation of sales jobs. This includes retail (business to consumer), professional (business to business), and service (selling a verb, not a noun) sales.  In many cases, an entry-level employee must get to know their company’s culture, product and processes to be viable and the best way to do that is as a professional representative of the tangible good that the company offers.  Wanna be our COO?  Well, COO-L, but you have to sell what we make first!

Now, before someone decides to flame me and say I’m anti-tourism, or anti-sales, or worse, just oversimplifying things in Orlando let me tell you, gentle reader, that I’m asking these questions for a reason.  I need good info to share with UCFs MBA students.  Those students will graduate and can either be acorns that fall to the Central FL turf and become solid oaks, or dandelion tufts that flit away and take their potential with them. 

Here’s the challenge we face in our College’s Office for Career Connections and in Colleges of Business everywhere in Florida.  We have a great pool of bright graduate business students that come out every year ready to take on some “MBA type” job that professors, advisors, parents, and media have told them awaits their graduation.  Investment banker, management consultant, international business operations pooh-bah, financial analyst, maven or matriarch of the private equity kingdom; these are the jobs I’m told by our students that they want.  But is that reality?  And is that reality dictated by the economy, the student, or some mixture of both?

After taking in the graduates’ expectations versus what is perceived to be out there, what kind of jobs can recent grads with little professional (i.e., “real”) work experience really expect?  And how can they get that experience if all anyone wants them to do is take an order or sell something?  And is doing that for a living to earn your chops all that bad?  Finally….and this is the important one, where can that ultimately get you?  Are their expectations irrelevant to or non-existent in the economy we have?  What’s missing?

Or do I have it all wrong; is there a hidden job market for MBAs that my superficial review of Orlando’s economy misses?  And if so, do our MBA grads have the skills demanded for these jobs?  Do they have to move to Atlanta or New York to get that iconic “MBA job” or can they get it here…or does it exist anywhere anymore?  Who is hiring recent MBA grads and what are they asking them to do?

Intrigued by these questions?  Do you want to fire off a “HELL YEA” or “YER WRONG” note to me?  Cool, bring it.  That’s what I was hoping for so I want to talk to you.  My email address is ucf_occ@yahoo.com and I promise you WILL get a response and/or invitation to present your case (unless you’re a complete nut job).  Over the next few weeks and months, this space will be a place to find conventional and unconventional discussions on Orlando’s perceived identity crisis, and whether it really matters.  And if you don’t have an opinion or don’t care…well, that may be yet another question to ask!

Lonny