Sales

Selling (knives?!), Breaking Fear, & Failure.

IMG_2880I grew up a timid child.

I was destined to be the girl who played by the rules, did what I was told, and stayed out of trouble. Fear kept me in check.

I never challenged my mom. I never tried out for volleyball. I never jumped in the water.

I was scared of everything. Of falling down. Of strangers. I would lie awake with a pounding heart, afraid something would happen to someone I loved in the middle of the night. Sometimes I’d consider that someday I just won’t wake up again, and my mind would spin.

My fears seemed irrational. There weren’t traumas that triggered these feelings, they were my own exploration of failure, pain, and mortality.

This fear was limiting, paralyzing at times. I was gasping for breath.

And then, of all summer jobs I could have picked at 19 years old, I decided to sell knives. Sharp shiny objects that I didn’t know how to use… In strangers homes.

I called strangers, and I sold them knives. Ha.

I quit after my first week. Drowning in discomfort, battling the head-shaking of my disapproving parents, and the risk of making no money at this commission-only gig made it an easy conclusion. The answering machine screened endless calls from my well-intentioned manager. I had orders I held (wait, but that’s money!) just to avoid the confrontation I knew awaited me. With dreams of “make $20k during your college break!” put to bed, I began doing administrative work at a local law office. Yes, this was easier.

My manager drove an hour to my tiny hometown, and we stood at the gas station until the sun slowly disappeared. We talked of everything, nothing to do with sales or business. As he retrieved my orders, he mentioned an upcoming management candidate meeting.

“You should come to the next meeting with Jessie.”

Before I could contemplate the idiocy of going back to a place I had just quit, I blurted, “Sure.”

This is one of my first memories of pushing to do something that was entirely uncomfortable in order to get something I wanted.

And it surely didn’t stop there. Coming back sparked me just enough to try again. I had to face some deep-seeded rejection insecurities just to set appointments. I would hold my breath, furiously dial, and read a script to unconsciously spit the words out. Once scheduled, I would force myself to the door, knock before I could hide, and walk in unknown homes.

One foot in front of the other. Focused on one motion before the next, as getting ahead of myself would surely cause me to bolt. It was as if I channeled every ounce of my impulse I could extract from my desire to succeed, and used that as strength to take the next step.

Staccato. Bobbly. But eventually I would get through each action. Sometimes I had to read a quote or call a friend who could coax me. Other times I gazed up at my bulletin board littered with sales newsletters and incentive scales to remind myself of the why.

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And then this incredible thing happened. I set appointments. I made sales. Customers were easily referring me. I started getting recognition.

That feeling became addictive.

I began paying attention to feedback, how customers were reacting to me, and examining things I said. I ferociously took notes at team meetings and attended conferences where I could learn more. My appetite for this fuel grew insatiable.

At some point down the road, rather than robotically going through the motions, I started to connect the things I was learning to things I was doing. What was rapport and how did I built it and why did it matter? What started as scanning the kitchen for “Pictures, Pets, and People”, shifted to asking questions and enveloping in the stories and lives of my customers. I was turning the process into real human connection skills.

This became my first entry into building a business and owning my destiny, discovering life outside of 9-5. I wanted to pour myself in, and quickly this knife-selling job became a lab where I could develop myself. In the office of my Pontiac driver’s seat, I became a dreamer, a leader, and an entrepreneur.

But I surely didn’t start as a sales pro.

SALES TAUGHT ME HOW TO COPE WITH PAIN:

A customer saying no or hanging up can either hurt you, numb you, or teach you. What I learned early on is that while numbing was the easiest coping mechanism, it wouldn’t have anything to teach me.

It was at that point that I decided in life, I’d rather feel pain than feel nothing.

I wanted to learn from the no. I wanted to understand what it was that made people want to say yes or why they chose no. I wanted to know why these rejections, that weren’t about me but about a business transaction, affected me and made me feel defeat.

Rather than run from this, rather than ignore and make excuses, I chose to use these difficult lessons as my mountain to climb and as my ultra-marathon to run. Daily, I would walk into this discomfort and sift through the emotions it left me with.

You desensitize fear’s power over you when you practice facing it repeatedly. Over time, that anxious feeling doesn’t lead to paralysis, it’s energy you channel to propel yourself forward.

Allowing myself to feel is what made me hungry to learn more. You can’t figure out how to ask the good questions until you allow yourself to sit in the difficulty. And as soon as I had conquered another peak, I found the more there was to learn.

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FALLING (AND FAILING) IS HOW YOU LEARN TO STAND:

Getting knocked down is the best thing that can happen to us. When you fall, you’re already down. You’ve encountered the worst. And while you may have cuts and bruises, you learn how to lick your wounds and stand upright again. With each experience, the muscles you use to stand again strengthen.

It is my longheld belief that success in sales is most largely achieved from choosing to get up over and over (and over) again.

The best sales practices in the world will never work one-hundred percent of the time, just like every person you date won’t be the one you should marry. Taking time to zoom the camera out and detaching enough to see the whole picture is where the ability to see what you could have done better comes into focus. Being honest with yourself, humble enough to ask for feedback, and soaking in the mentality and objectives of those who have been successful is where your discovery is.

And the growth comes from choosing to face it again.

Failure is a measuring stick. It’s the only thing that indicates how bad you want something. When you decide to try again and again, you learn what is worth working or fighting for.

Failure is an equalizer. It’s the one thing we all experience no matter what social class, background, or neighborhood we grew up in. We all posses the choice to do, or not to, in the face of it. It gives us all a chance to show up.

Failure is the differentiator. It demands the reaction that separates those who deserve the success awarded to them for facing it and breaking through, from those who walk away shrouded in “what if”.

To get what I wanted meant leaving my comfort zone, being bold, being daring, asking for what I wanted, being shot down, trying again. Because I learned wanting something bad enough, meant I might need to break through some walls to get there.

And I discovered I was always able to stand up again.

I believe, whether or not we admit or like it, we are all in sales. And while many of us have actually chosen that path, not all of us understand or enjoy it. You don’t have to be a superstar or a pro to succeed, and the learning and triumphs are how you can choose to enjoy it.

I wasn’t born a salesperson, but it was learned over time. The lessons and process have changed me as a person.

Whatever it is that you are scared of pursuing, afraid to ask, putting off… The possibility is real that the thing on the other side is worth pushing for. And whatever vehicle you use to get there will only serve to teach you and give you more resilience and power to get to the next one.

Mine was sales… Maybe yours can be, too.

IMG_2881My earliest selling buddies… And still my great friends today.

11 comments

  1. Incredible story, Jean. So authentic and moving but, at the same time, simple and earnest.

    This is one more example of your story and experiences reshaping my understanding of not only sales but business. I’ve learned some lessons similar to the ones you offer here in this *amazing* post — but I’ve done that outside of the business world. And so part of me has long thought, if you’re more embed in the business world, how would I learn what I’ve learned from the outside as an entrepreneur? You’ve shown me it’s more a matter of the person than it is anything else. Bravo.

  2. Great piece.

    I sold Cutco off and on for ten years or so before I ended up doing something closer to What I Really Wanted To Be Doing, but I honestly can say that without what I learned throughout that process, there’s a hell of a lot I can step up and do in my current career(s) that separate me from the pack. Especially in the worlds of politics, activism, journalism and music, it’s stunning what mad sales knowledge and the ability to run a business can do for a person. I would never have dreamed that would be the end result of that random day I went in for an interview at a Vector office, but there you have it.

  3. Great to read 🙂 . I sold Cutco for about three years and accomplished some amazing things, while picking up the entrepreneurial, self-improvement and somewhat fearless ways I have today. I, too, randomly chose to go to an interview at a Vector office because I needed a summer job, and got nothing but “you can’t make money doing that”, or “that’s a pyramid scheme.” I didn’t think it would change my direction and propel me into my current career running Business Development, Sales and Community involvement for a company in Denver. My Manager is also, to this day, one of my best friends (12 years later). It’s funny what little decisions can affect your direction in life – if you let them.

    1. Thanks Jackie. Crazy to think of that “sliding doors” effect, huh? I’m so grateful that my manager took a gamble to fetch me back or who knows where I’d be today! Thanks for your message.

  4. I’m inspired to fail 🙂 and appreciate the comments you noted about failure – it’s a measuring stick, equalizer and differentiator. We all fail but we all have options on how to handle failure.

    We can either throw in the towel or react differently; more empowered.

    And of course, those who react better to failure seem to succeed more, take more risks and live more fulfilling lives. I’ve always thought of sales being an extremely difficult job but you’ve helped show that sales isn’t so much about selling but standing up after failing to sell sometimes. Selling isn’t about sales but really about living:)

    Easy read, poignant insights and inspirational all in one article.

  5. Jean, great article thank you for sharing. Funny I am sitting in a meeting for vector/CUTCO and stumbled across your article. For the last 22 years in the same business you wrote about I too can relate to 100% of your experience. Such a cool piece. Thank you for sharing it and it is outstanding to see you still thriving. -WG

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