I got my first job in sales when I was ten years old.
Each day I would trudge through my neighbourhood streets, ringing doorbells and pitching subscriptions for multi-packs of crisps. I only earned 20p for each sale, which is probably why I threw in the towel after four afternoons.
I don’t look back on this experience as a failure or a waste of time. This position would kick off a lifelong interest in sales, and the lessons I learned from it stayed with me well into adulthood and influenced every area of my life — not just my career.
Like most kids, I grew up hearing how a university degree would change my life. It would open up career opportunities, help me connect with peers, and give me the experiences I needed to succeed in the world.
As you might have guessed, none of those promises came to fruition. I spent more time unlearning what they taught me instead of applying what I had learned.
Take creative writing. You might think that studying this in school would have practical applications in sales, as both are about building a cohesive narrative and telling an interesting story. This wasn’t the case at all.
Writing courses at university focus on the structure and form of writing, completely ignoring the reader. In the real world and in sales, writing is all about the reader. I was shocked to hear that my post-school writing wasn’t cutting it, and that I had to re-learn how to write for an audience, not for a professor.
I ended up drawing from other experiences in my life to improve my communications and sales skills. As it turns out, random conversations with strangers about crisps taught me more about sales than all my years at university. School did the opposite of preparing me for the real world.
Learning by Doing
The informal and entry level jobs I had as a kid showed me that if I wanted something, I had to go and get it myself.
Sometimes that meant doing something outside of my comfort zone, like knocking on a stranger’s door and striking up a conversation. Not only did this help me be more comfortable with talking to people, it also taught me to present and persuade.
Rejection is also part of the sales process. Working these jobs showed me that I couldn’t let a missed sale put me off. I had to go back and try again with the next person, putting into practise whatever lessons the botched sale could teach me.
By contrast, university taught me that failure is a bad thing. It doesn’t matter what you learn in class, only that you do your homework and pass the tests. Nobody cares if the things you “learn” help you in real life.
This was a critical lesson I had to learn outside of university: in order to succeed at something, you have to do it, not listen to lectures about it.
We’re All In Sales
Even if you aren’t interested in a sales position, learning good sales skills will directly impact your day-to-day life.
When deciding with friends or family what to watch on Netflix, you pitch your preference in the hope of convincing others to agree. Essentially, you’re selling your idea to your mates, and if they buy it, you get to watch whatever you want.
If an accountant thinks their ability to do their job well would be improved by adopting a new software solution, they will have to convince others within their organisation that this is a good decision. This is sales, too.
And believe it or not, getting what you want from your parents can also be a form of sales.
How Sales Skills Can Help You in Life
Most people look at entry level sales and retail jobs as being pointless. My experience has been just the opposite: they’ve prepared me more for success in the real world than any class I took at university.
Spending time in those roles teaches you to be resilient, to communicate and connect with a wide variety of people, and to present things in an attractive light supported by convincing arguments.
Those aren’t just skills that can help you sell crisps, they’re skills that help you become a better communicator in all areas of life.
You can learn these skills right now. If you have a retail or sales job, or if you find yourself talking to a lot of strangers, think about how you present the ideas you’re “selling.”
Consider the listener’s perspective — are you giving them the information they need? The emotional hooks that interest them? Put yourself in their shoes and share with their perspective in mind. And don’t be afraid to have a “missed sale.” That’s all part of the process.
This is real learning, and you’re picking up valuable skills. Don’t let anyone tell you an entry level job is pointless. Sales skills translate into many areas of life. The best way to build them is to get out in the world and start practising.
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