I didn’t realize how much baggage sales professionals carried around until my first professional role after college. I remember one of my first days in the field with US Healthcare.
I was feeling pretty good, wearing a dark gray pinstriped suit that my mom bought me for $89 at Today’s Man. I walked into an office building and headed straight for the front desk. There was a pack of brochures under my right arm and new business cards in my left pocket that proudly read “Sales Representative.”
“Could I speak with the person who handles employee’ benefits?”
“Do you have an appointment?”
The woman behind the counter let out a huge sigh in frustration. “Didn’t you see the sign on the front door?”
“No, but I’ll go check.”
I walked back outside. There was a big red sticker that read No Soliciting. After seeing the sign this time, I made the choice to ignore it. I paused for a minute before heading back in.
I apologized for not having an appointment. Then I briefly explained that I help employees keep more of their paycheck by reducing healthcare costs so they have money for things they really needed. I handed her my business card and put an apple on her desk (that was our trademark). Although the company eventually become a client, the path to a sale had plenty of bumps along the way.
On another occasion, I was waiting in the lobby of a law firm when a tall, silver-haired man approached me.
“Can I help you?” he snapped.
I asked to see the office manager. After learning that I was selling health insurance, he asked me to leave. He turned out to be a managing partner. On my way out, I placed the apple with my business card on the receptionist’s desk. The man walked over, picked them both up and and threw them in the trash.
Friction didn’t just come from the outside. I ran into people inside the companies I worked for who had unfavorable attitudes toward sales.
In one situation, while I was working for Electronic Data Systems, a senior executive who accompanied me to a meeting asked me not to tell the client I was in sales.
“Why?” I asked in frustration.
“They just don’t like sales people.” he instructed.
“Don’t they have sales people?” I quipped.
He even suggested that I take “Sales” off my business card altogether. It irked me. Although I didn’t immediately heed his advice, it stuck with me. I understood that the negative perception of sales professionals had merit, but the idealist in me wanted to prove that people had the wrong idea about us.
In the process, something else happened.
I found myself disguising that I was a salesperson. I even changed my business card to read “Director, Business Development.” At the time, I thought it sounded more prestigious. I also found ways to describe my responsibilities that made my role sound more important.
Or so I believed.
Up to this point in my life, I had been unapologetically authentic. However, somewhere along the way, I became more approval-seeking. The unintended consequence was that I was losing enthusiasm for the thing I did well and enjoyed so much – sell.
I remember exactly when I came full circle.
I was at the top of Liberty II Tower in Philadelphia,with a group of Senior Executives from CIGNA Corp. I was the only outsider in the room. They were tackling a few big ideas when the CFO, Mike Bell, turned to me and asked for my opinion. This group of executives led HR, Procurement and Finance for one of the largest healthcare companies in the country, and I was just a 32-year-old salesman. I was a little surprised, so I took a long pause. Then I gave my answer.
After the discussion, Mike let me know how much he appreciated our time together. Without asking, he pulled out his calendar to schedule our next meeting.
It was a long ride down the elevator from the top floor. I realized something that day. Mike and his team knew exactly what my role was, but that didn’t stop them from asking me for my advice. The difference here is that I had developed a level of trust one interaction at a time—never going too fast, never missing an opportunity to move ahead.
For every rejection I faced in the past—the receptionist, the head of the law firm, my old colleague at EDS, and countless others—I built up my defenses one bag at a time. I didn’t know exactly where to put it, so I blamed my profession. My mind would say it’s not you—rather, the sales profession doesn’t get the respect it deserves, or it’s the bad behavior of the salespeople who came before me that is getting in my way.
While some of that might be true, none of it was responsible for weighing me down. Whenever I tried too hard, pushed too much, didn’t prepare enough, talked more than I should, or said the wrong thing—they were the culprits. My sales title and my profession had very little to do with my failures.
My baggage was my own.
The sales profession spends a lot of time either defending itself or beating it’s own drum. I’ve been as guilty as anyone. We need to turn off the critics as well as drown out our supporters. The famous football coach Lou Holtz has a great saying that sums it up:
“You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.”
Reading your press clippings is wasted energy because you don’t own the narrative.
Write your own story while remaining true to the sales craft by focusing on the things within your control – your actions. You won’t always get it right, but strive for being persistent but not pesky, persuasive but not pushy, creative but not cunning, driven but not domineering. When you find that sweet spot, there will be no better feeling than knowing that you’ve earned someone’s trust.
I left a lot of my luggage in Mike’s office that day and I’ve become more aware of when I start packing my excuses into another suitcase. I also never got around to changing my business card back to “Sales”—rather, I stopped using them altogether.