Sales—Is It For You?

Not that long ago, when my dear brother was announcing my ascension into the rarefied air of corporate executives, somebody commented that he or she would appreciate some perspective on the sales profession. Our commenter said, “I just don’t know if I’d do a good job at sales or like sales.”

I have been in sales in one form or another since I was 13 years old. In a tale that I’m pretty sure has been told here or somewhere else, Jack and I ran a mail order BMX shop out of our mother’s home for much, much longer than anybody had a right to—especially when those two someones are 19 and 13, respectively. It’s one of those things that made a lot of sense at the time, but seems downright impossible now that it actually happened.

Our mom would answer our home phone with the name of our shop when I was in school, write down whatever somebody requested, and then she would send a page to my Motorola Gold Flex with the details of the order. I would come home and then call the various distributor networks and place the order. Somehow, none of our customers thought this was weird. And we actually even made a little money!

Unfortunately, we had made an arrangement with a local bike shop to share some of the financial burden, and the owner was an unscrupulous Brooklynite who had somehow made it to Hilliard, Ohio. I don’t remember exactly all of what happened, but the long and the short of it was that our partnership was discontinued, and thus, so was our mail order shop.

That small taste of money and the thrill of the hunt led me to working at a musical instrument store after school in high school, and then another one when I was in college. I’ve been in some form of a sales role ever since, whether it was in front line sales, sales management, sales coaching and training, sales leadership, leading a national sales force, and now, as the VP of Sales for the largest privately held media company in the world.

Never have I not been the top performer in an organization. I made $135,000 working in the mall part time for Verizon when I was 22 years old. I started a brand new, 20-location wireless franchise when I was 23. I took three separate stores to either number one or two in the country for T-Mobile—out of 1250+ locations. I led the top market in the country for Cricket for two years. I took a failing newspaper media sales division and led them to $45M in growth in 3 years. I led sales trainings for Fortune 500 execs.

I should also mention, at this point, that I’m a college dropout who majored in music.

But you can read all of that on LinkedIn. I tell you my life story in sales because it’s important to know that it’s the one field where you can make literally millions of dollars without an advanced degree, or a brilliant mind, or even a great idea. But what do you actually need?

It would be simplistic to say that it comes down to hustle. Actually, it would be downright false. My brother has, on more than one occasion, called me, “the laziest man in the world.” There’s a lot of truth to that. I have seen people have above average sales careers based on being grinders. I respect it. But it’s not me.

I will tell you this one, simple truth about sales: in order to succeed, you must be emotionally brilliant.

Do you know what single event pushed people headfirst into buying cellular phones en masse? Do you know the very instant that changed people’s perceptions of cell phones from “luxury” to “utility?” That one moment in history pushed cell phone adoption from about 30% to over 80%.

It was September 11, 2001. In one moment, everybody in the world wanted to know if their loved ones were safe. They wanted to be able to tell their loved ones that they were safe. And almost every cell phone network crashed, nationwide, except one: Verizon. And that’s how I made $135,000 working part time at the mall.

Why does that matter? It’s because people never buy rationally. They buy emotionally. The logic center of the brain is dormant when buying decisions are made. You can lie to yourself all you want about how you “made a spreadsheet” and “weighed all the options.”

No, you didn’t. You used that logic to justify the buying decision you had already made in your mind. If you want proof of this, think about the last time your friend asked you what car he should buy. Then, think about what car he actually bought. I wrote a car buying advice column for over two years. Twice a week for 104 weeks, people wrote to me and asked for my opinions. Approximately three people took my advice. The other 205 bought the car they were going to buy anyway.

Sales is never about logic. It’s rarely about data. Data is a nice-to-have. But it’s mainly there to prevent buyer’s remorse.

No, sales is about emotion. Sales is about desire. Sales is about knowing that your customer wants one or more of these four things: Safety, Love, Vision, or Information. And then, after you figure that part out, you give it to him. It’s that simple.

I’ve seen salespeople come armed with presentations, and binders, and flip charts, and god knows what else into a meeting. I walk in with my notepad and two ears. And I always, always win. You have to be able to look into the eyes of your customer and know, perhaps even better than he does, what he wants more than anything in the world. And you have to make him believe that buying whatever you have to sell him will satisfy that need.

And that, my friends, is taxing. It’s difficult. It wears on you like you wouldn’t believe. You’re acting as therapist, bartender, hairdresser, and best friend all at once, and you’re doing it all the time. You have to reassure your customer that he’s making an amazing decision, and you have to congratulate him for doing it. You have to make him feel like he’s the most important person in the world, and then you have to do it again for the very next up.

It doesn’t matter if you’re selling a cell phone, or if you’re selling a $40M advertising spend. It’s exactly the same. You’ll buy from me because I have made you feel so completely safe, or inspired, or informed, or cared about, that you won’t even care what you’ve bought. At the end of our transaction, yeah, you’ll have bought something you didn’t have before. And that thing, well, it will be ephemeral. It might bring you joy for a while. But not too long after, it will just become something else you own.

But you’ll never forget how you felt in the moment you began to own it.

That’s my job. If you think you can do that too, then go for it.

33 Replies to “Sales—Is It For You?”

  1. John Van Stry

    Working in sales is HARD. High dollar successful salesmen are a wonder to behold when they work, but I honestly have no idea how they keep going from day to day.

    Reply
    • MD Streeter

      It’s like watching a professional athlete. I’m too uncoordinated to do anything amazing on a field, and I’m too much of a numbskull (and, as I posted in the comments to Jack’s earlier article, definitely too trusting and naive) to work out the emotions of the people around me. So yes, you’re right, it is a wonder to behold.

      Reply
  2. Ark-med

    Congratulations Bark, great to see an article by you. Looking forward to reading more crazy-but-true stories.

    Reply
  3. gtem

    Congrats Bark! Hearing stories like yours is absolutely inspirational to me.

    I’ve been in engineering for the entirety of my professional career, but I’ve always had a bit of a side hustle flipping cars/motorcycles since high school, and I’ve been ramping up a bit since covid. I see/hear about the kind of money guys in (professional) sales my age (or even younger) are making and it’s certainly given me pause about my choice of day job. I’m hardly what I consider a brilliant engineer: not motivated enough to be particularly detail oriented or to do proper documentation, I have a decent mind for design and solving problems. Plus it’s been an easy gig where I’m at. My sales side hustle is vastly more engaging to me, I’d like to think I’m pretty good at presenting my “product” well and closing… and boy is it satisfying. To be fair my competition on FB marketplace tend to be a bunch of room-temp IQ mouthbreathers so it’s kind of a low bar. Been working on a business plan to do vintage motorcycles (read: cheap 70s-90s Jap stuff) at a higher throughput via BringATrailer, alternatively trying my hand at car sales at a dealer just to get a taste of that world… but I don’t want to leave my “golden handcuffs” either.

    Reply
  4. Power6

    Great to see an update from you Mark. This piece struck a chord with me. I am a totally technical, analytical and emotionally stunted type of person. I fell into a tech career after dropping out of college, which was perfect for me. I always wanted to learn about how the social and emotional part of how life works. I really started at zero, I was an awkward weirdo with no chance of a girlfriend, who needed therapy to say hi to people at work lol.

    Long story short after many years working my way up I gravitated toward working on the revenue side of businesses, I never liked being an expense. I made my way to the sales side as a sales engineer. It opened up a whole new understanding of business, one that the techs complaining about those “sales guys” didn’t see. My job was to help the customer build the “backwards rationalization” of what the sales person just sold them. I spent time with all the sales people that needed me. The worst ones had presentations and spreadsheets for the customer, and used me as a crutch, I’d try my best to sell the deal for them. The top sales people educated me on all the familiar things you mention about the emotional buying process. And this is in B2B! It’s too easy to dismiss emotional sales as just a “fickle consumer” thing, and think “B2B” is different. It’s not, you just need more support for your customer to have solid rationalization, as it affects their career. Sales is neat as you can control your own destiny, we had sales people making less than the office manager, and the best ones made more than the CEO. And everyone gets to see the hard numbers of where they rank.

    There’s more, my education allowed me to start a company, then crash and burn. Turns out I am alright at selling the right product, to the wrong people. But I landed OK in a place where I get to work in all disciplines in my position now.

    I am curious your thoughts on marketing…I’ve seen so many different relationships between the sales and marketing departments, some healthy and others not so much. Sales people love to complain about “the leads”. How do they work together for the common good…

    Reply
    • jc

      The whole sales vs marketing vs commissioning dynamic is interesting to me. I’m a field engineer by trade, so my problem is the commissioning of the system that’s already been sold. I haven’t been at this job long but I’ve already seen and heard about things that sales sells not matching what actually happens or the office engineers not giving enough details to the electricians that set up what I need to commission.

      That technical rationalization thing is why most of the sales engineers in my company move to sales from either systems or field engineering.

      Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      Truly great salespeople don’t rely much on marketing—I don’t care much for demand generation campaigns, even though I run them myself. These days, the best demand generation tools are passive, not active. I can nearly ALWAYS sell somebody who submits a lead themselves.

      The great salespeople generate their own leads. I’ve required my salespeople to have self-sourced demos forever, even when I had a full Sales Development Team (as I do now).

      Reply
  5. jc

    If I remember correctly I was the one asking about sales. Thank you for the detailed answer, I hadn’t thought about sales from that perspective. Unfortunately I’ve got plenty of time to read it cause Delta boned me and cancelled my 6am flight and couldn’t re book me for anything before 7pm

    Reply
  6. Trucky McTruckface

    Thanks, I’ve been looking forward to this piece. I’m about to make the jump into sales myself (real estate, in my case), and I think your statement about emotional brilliance is spot on. In my experience, most sales people are either sharks that run their scripts without really listening to the customer, or just plain awful. The ones that actually pay attention, don’t make you feel like you’re being sold, and make you want to give them repeat business are rare and remarkable.

    I’m not sure I’m the most emotionally brilliant person, but I can read people well enough that it’s worth a shot to see how well I can develop those skills. I think I at least have some advantage of starting this in my thirties and having plenty of experience with people and the kind of terrible sales people I don’t want to be like. If I was a kid out of school, I wouldn’t have that perspective and would likely have just parroted whatever BS “training” I got until I washed out. Besides, you can’t win the game if you don’t even play.

    Reply
  7. Jim

    This may fall under the “safety” element of how people make decisions, but I find that deep down most people want to be told what to do by an authority figure. My supposition is that the entirety of the public face of the “retirement planning” industry could be replaced by about three or four well designed websites if people were not so unsure of themselves, and behaved somewhat logically.

    There is a reason why Suze Orman and David Ramsey sell so many books and tickets to seminars, and it sure ain’t because they are providing unique, or even good, advice.

    Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      It absolutely falls under safety. If it turns out that following Dave Ramsey is a calamitous decision, well, at least a lot of other reasonable people did it, too!

      Reply
    • Ice Age

      My theory is that God created human psychology to be most compatible with a benevolent dictator. The problem is, only God Himself can pull off both “dictator” AND “benevolent.”

      Humans sure as hell can’t do it.

      Reply
      • Jack Baruth

        The Five Good Emperors, maybe.

        Xi Jinping seems like a reasonable candidate for benevolent dictator; unlike the leaders of the American Uniparty he is unashamedly interested in the perseverance, and greatness, of China’s native people. The Chinese equivalent of “White Nationalism” is… literally the explicit policy of the Chinese state. Any Chinese official who dared to suggest that illegal immigrants “deserved” China more than the native Chinese would find himself facing a prison cell or a firing squad in short order. And the country is walking back previous accommodations made for people who practiced alternative lifestyles: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2022-02-17/being-gay-in-china-has-gotten-harder-under-xi-jinping

        As you’ve pointed out, however, absolute power does not sit well on human shoulders and never has. Our country does best when it is governed by people who have “skin in the game” and who are also chosen by people who have skin in the game. The primary example of this is probably Athenian. Here’s a modest proposal: we make all forms of lobbying or fundraising illegal, candidates are chosen through a series of increasingly broad runoffs, and you get one vote for every $100k in net worth you have, up to, let’s say, 100 votes. If you have less than $100k in net worth, you get no vote.

        Oh, and let’s say just for fun that any money you inherit or receive from a family member or trust doesn’t count. If you want to vote, you have to do it yourself.

        If you know you’ll never be wealthy or successful, you could earn votes by spending time working on WPA-style infrastructure improvement. Earning a low wage for five years while you repave roads and build homes? Five votes. Serving in the military? Only if you don’t take a paycheck.

        This sounds horribly reactionary and oppressive but it would probably accomplish a lot of populist/left-wing goals. Wealthy people, as a whole, are simply less prone to be wildly swayed by emotional appeal — which is why they are wealthy. I doubt we would see the country doing as much overseas adventurism as it does now. There would probably also be more attention paid to the environment.

        Probably not a great idea but it’s better than the way we do it now. When I think of the fact that my McJob-working, itinerant-renter, no-plans-for-the-future 23-year-old self got the same vote that I get now as a homeowner and head of household, I’m a little bewildered. That just sets up a permanent situation where lazy people vote to steal the assets of wealthy people.

        Reply
        • ScottS

          Following the 1787 Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”, to which he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

          Franklin understood the risk of one equal vote for each and every citizen. We have essentially lost the Republic to lobbyist and mob rule democracy.

          Reply
        • hank chinaski

          From another founder: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

          The utopia you’re describing, like libertarianism or cold fusion in the lab, is as the USA was founded, created under unprecedented conditions that ‘don’t exist in nature’: in this case a White European Christian Patriarchy in an essentially unoccupied virgin continent an ocean away from the meddling of a millennium of European baggage.

          The Han have a system that is uniquely Han and exists for the Han. Elsewhere today, only the Russians openly exist in the same fashion. The Indians and Japanese have a bastard of ours and theirs but are similarly ethnostates as such (the former still carrying the caste system that drives both upper and lower members abroad for different reasons). Haiti, Zimbabwe and SA speak for themselves.

          tldr: das rayciss

          I might be inclined to give paid military service a pass. Nobody got rich doing it except the top brass that graduated to the MIC or politics.

          Reply
        • Ken

          Hell, if we’re being reactionary and oppressive, why stop at the “right” to vote? We could follow China’s policy on reproduction too.

          Ted Turner said it best w/his approach to “reproductive credits”. Everyone gets a 1-kiddo credit, but there would be a secondary market for selling credits as well. The poors can sell additional credits to the wealthy. Ensuring that there are less people on the planet, thus stemming “climate change”, and that those that are of the best means are the ones to have the most children. So… less poors right, and more educated contributing members to society, through voluntary sterilization?

          As horrendous as this sounds, it does feel like we’re headed for some kind of dystopian Gattaca / Blade Runner / Hunger Games / Wall-E / Pick-your-poison future, without some kind of radical intervention.

          Reply
  8. Rick T.

    Always enjoy anything you write. During my first midlife crisis I had a full time job, went to horticulture school, and worked at a well-known and respected garden center/nursery on the weekends.

    My EQ would generously be rated as average; I’m basically an introvert; and the thought of making a cold sales call makes me break out in hives. Yet I could sell the living s**t out of those plants because I understood the customers’ needs, I knew what I was talking about, and I totally believed that the plants I was selling were the right answer. Too bad there were not commissions and I made only about $10/hour.

    Reply
  9. G Jetson

    Mark, it seems as though the biggest sales success you’ve had is selling you to you. At first glance, that seems like an attempt at an insult, and that may have been my first inclination, but I don’t think it is. We all need to believe in something, and who better to believe in than ourselves?

    Regarding your Verizon success, sounds like an incredible right place right time situation to me, as you yourself implied. However, YOU showed up every day and put in the hours, and kept looking forward to more and more opportunities. We can all use a lucky break or two along the way, and anyone who has achieved success has certainly had them. But you sound like you have a lot of grinder in you as well as emotional awesomeness.

    After buying many cars, homes, appliances, you name it, it seems to me that buying becomes far less emotional and far more “plugging the hole.” This may be even more true for less tangible things like advertising or IT services. Let’s see, AWS or Azure? Who gives a shit? They both work, you won’t get fired for buying either one, and you’ve solved a problem and can take a nice vacation from strategic, “visionary” decisions for awhile. Perhaps the emotion involved there is mostly relief. Box checked, yay.

    I do appreciate your thoughts. Upon further reflection on them, I may buy what you’re selling here, but I reserve the right to swap an egg or 2 out of the dozen as needed.

    Reply
  10. Disinterested-Observer

    Anyone I’ve known that was a good salesman was a natural. I don’t think it is teachable.

    Reply
    • John C.

      I have always thought that too. Bark’s CV contains a lot of coaching of salespeople. I will be interested at his thoughts as to whether it can be taught to the level of art form, or just making the not natural serviceable.

      Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      I partially agree. I’ve taught literally hundreds of people to be competent, $100-150k a year salespeople. The brilliant ones? You probably can’t teach that level of brilliance to most people. And the brilliant salespeople make the worst sales managers, much in the way that brilliant athletes make terrible coaches. They simply can’t fathom why you can’t just “do what I do.”

      Reply
  11. Ice Age

    I’ve long thought that being a salesman is something you have to be born to do, like being an artist, or a songwriter, or a leader. It’s a talent, a part of your core personality that can’t be learned. You either have it or you don’t.

    One of the things I’ve heard salesmen, particularly accomplished salesmen, say is that sales is easy. To that I would say, “Yes, it is” – if you have that particular combination of extroversion, gregariousness, charisma, optimism and moral flexibility. To a salesman, and by that I mean someone born to do it, sales is as natural as breathing because they’re born with all the necessary capabilities hardwired in.

    It’s like people asking me how I can draw. I don’t know, I just do it. I could teach you proportion, perspective, line weight and a hundred other things related to making images on paper but if you don’t have the personality for it, you’ll never truly “get” it.

    Reply
  12. Dirty Dingus McGee

    I was never a natural salesman, I had to learn it.When my partner and I formed our business, we would both work at it, and still do to some extent. Our problem is we are not selling a product, but a service. I can’t show you a brochure for our “new, improved Model XJQ/3 encabulator”, all I can show is past projects. One of the services we sell is an analysis of a processing line. Me, I tend to be blunt about what is needed to improve the efficiency, my partner tends more towards the soft sell. Different customers prefer different presentations. The trick is judging, quickly,which that customer prefers.

    Reply
  13. LynnG

    Bart, your comment that brilliant sales people make the worse sales managers is true. That is one of the reasons government works so well and successfully. In Government, the best contracting officers, best logistics people, best whatever, are promoted to managers. Rarely does it work because the skills of bringing home a multi hundred million dollar contract on time and at or below budget are not the same skills needed to manage an office of contracting officers, logistics specialist, or what ever. It is the Peter Principle on a grand scale or as Max Weber theorized, in bureaucracy individuals are promoted to there level of incompetence. It is really to bad, as opposed to what people think there are a small percentage of really effective people in government but they soon get moved up into areas that may or maynot be in their bandwidth. And that in a nut shell is why the government contracts out for so many of their functions becuase it is easer to pay experts to do it… For example, up until the mid 2000’s the national flood insurance program was using flood maps created during the Great Depression, huge maps on rolls of heavy paper. At the turn of the century it was determined that new maps need to be made and digitized. Well there was no where near enought skilled government employees to create the maps and digitize them so a $2B (that is will a B as in billion) contract was let to four major engineering firms to update the Depression era maps… and it got done. But I would bet that 95% of the people that look at flood maps thinks the government created them….

    Reply
  14. Daniel J

    I just missed the cell phone boom. I was selling Sprint, Nextel, Bell South, and Trac phones out of radio shack for 2 years. From 1996 to 1998. During that time the phones were basically free, but a decent plan was easily 100 bucks per phone, and that was for 30 minutes a month. Yes, 30 minutes! Went over your minutes? 2 bucks a minute for some carriers.

    Selling multiple carriers was a PITA because we never had the plans and phones certain exclusive sellers had. We finally ditched Bell South and became a Sprint exclusive where plans and phones were much better.

    I then worked in selling paint from Sherwin Williams for 5 years part time while getting my Computer Engineering degree. The only way to make real money was to travel across two states and sell the company paint to GCs, architects, and residential home builders.

    I said no to that and entered the glamorous life of an engineer.

    Reply
  15. danio

    I loved my time in sales, but hated my bosses. I’d still be selling wholesale powertrain assemblies and fleet trucks 100s at a time if it weren’t for them.

    I agree about emotional intelligence. You have to be able to read your customer. A lot of selling is data/committee driven, but the close is definitely emotional if you can get to the bottom of what’s driving the decider.

    I managed to flip several long standing accounts from other manufacturers using these techniques with a lot of time and effort. In the truck world, some buyers are techies and want to talk shop until they feel confident about the product, and my team. Some just want to get the numbers right to please their boss and know you’ll be there for them to clean up any messes.

    The freedom of being on the road, meeting new and interesting people, conquering things and the money were all big drivers for me. Per usual my company called and found a different position they wanted me to do as they do every couple years and now I’m managing the Technical Services group. Not nearly as exciting, and honestly feels like a waste, but the perks are good enough.

    Reply
  16. VTNoah

    Congrats on your recent success Bark. I moved into sales two years ago and it was the best move of my career. I’m slightly more intelligent than your average midwit but I also have a great sense for other’s emotional states and found this to be some of the most rewarding work I’ve done. Your observation on how to be successful is spot on, those who put even slightly more effort than the rest into their day to day end up winning. Maybe we’ll catch each other at the next NADA, I’d love to pick your brain on your company’s ad tech.

    Reply
  17. Jonathan H.

    I don’t know if I’m in “sales” like you’re describing it. I work for a a small business whose owner refers to himself a salesman and refers to me as one. I work on 100% commission. 50% of the profits of every sale I make. I came from a job doing the same work except it was 100% salary but the customer base was already established. I “sell” industrial material handling equipment to (mostly) automotive manufacturers in the central Kentucky region including project management during the installation phase. I’m sure you can guess who my biggest customer is. Actually there are potentially 1000s of customers on this one piece of property all with with different budgets to work from. So the manufacturer is technically my customer but I cater to the needs of quite a few individual customers within that company. Whether it’s Toyota or one of its suppliers I’m always in a competitive bid situation. Low bid wins in nearly every scenario. Does your advice apply here? If not is there a way for me to apply a different version of it?

    My issue is that with the advent of Covid my normally solid consistent customer base is no longer spending money like they used to. I could always compete competitively on price so there was always work. Now I’m forced to be more of a salesman than I would normally be. Developing new leads within my existing customer base who still are operating under the same financial constraints as my existing ones or seeking out completely new customers via cold calling, which I completely suck at and hate to do.

    I don’t feel like I’m dealing with emotions-based customers in this particular line of work. Any thoughts on my situation or is it a completely different animal than the kind of sales you’re talking about? Seeing as my sole income is based on my ability to sell, the last two years have been particular hard. Unless I can fix my current situation my only option seems to be to go find a “real job” with a salary and benefits. I’m not opposed to this but I give up some freedoms I enjoy now.

    Reply
  18. goose

    This is a fascinating discussion, thanks all!

    Glengarry Glen Ross was a great movie:

    “Second prize: a set of steak knives. Third prize: you’re fired”

    Reply
    • Ice Age

      I read an article once that claimed you could tell if a person was going to be successful in life by their reaction to Alec Baldwin’s speech. Supposedly, if the speech fired you up, you’d be a success. However, if the speech made you want to physically fight Alec Baldwin, you wouldn’t.

      Reply

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