Is selling shameful?

Discussion
Mar 20, 2015

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Getting Personal About Business, the blog of Zahn Consulting, LLC.

In the course of my professional career, I have worked with easily over a thousand people who derive their income from facilitating transactions that include the transfer of products and/or services in exchange for payment — in short, people who sell for a living. However, few feel comfortable identifying themselves as a salesperson. In my coaching and training sessions, I spend a fair amount of time confronting that dilemma with them upfront.

For most of us, when we hear the term "salesperson," we default to visions of a sleazy fast talker who is self-centered, egotistical and willing to lie to accomplish their goals — often at the expense of the customer’s needs.

I’ll ask my clients if they can recall what they answered in first grade when they were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Even for people who ultimately choose to pursue a career in sales, they and those closest to them do not "value" it as a career worth pursuing.

Titles such as regional manager/territory manager, marketing representative and business development specialist often seem like euphemisms for sales jobs.

Also, unlike other fields, salespeople do not have impressive diplomas on their walls, leather-lined books on their credenzas or photos with their graduating class from a prestigious program. Just having a "gift of gab" is seen as key to being successful.

Overcome the Shame

The best way to overcome this hesitancy to identify as a salesperson is to focus on the customer’s situation more than one’s own. It may be trite to say, but it’s important to change one’s approach from viewing the customer as an obstacle to be overcome in the pursuit of acquiring a sale to one of collaborating with the customer to achieve an outcome or objective (in other words, being "win-win").

There is nothing as rewarding and noble as accomplishing a goal that allows others to meet their business needs. So, in that sense, while it may seem contrary to conventional wisdom, sales is perhaps the most cherished and valued occupation one can choose to practice.

How common is it for salespeople to feel some shame about their occupation? What are the keys to becoming a great salesperson?

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25 Comments on "Is selling shameful?"


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Keith Anderson
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

Shame or anxiety in sales derives from the perception that the role is about persuading people to do something they shouldn’t or don’t want to do.

But the article correctly highlights that successful people solve problems, often by first clarifying the problem itself (which many prospects have mistakenly self-diagnosed) and later providing a solution.

Volumes have been written about what makes salespeople successful. The best professionals I’ve encountered have empathy for their prospects, conviction about the value of what they offer and the acumen to negotiate deals that work for all parties.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
3 years 8 months ago
As I wrote in this post, a lot of people can’t close a sale because they feel like a fraud. They may be expected to sell a TAG Hauer but own a Swatch. They feel they are more practical than their customers. Or smarter. Or more noble. That they see through sales-y tactics. That they are somehow more pure because they don’t work on commission. Nothing you are looking at, sitting on or wearing happened without someone, somewhere selling it. Commenters here I’m sure will say how selling is passe and deride those who, like me believe it is at the very heart of why retail sales are down. That all that matters is the click and the discounts, whether given via loyalty, smartphone, email or direct mail. I believe they are wrong. Nothing happens unless someone first sells the idea, the product, the feeling. That’s what I help retailers with in my business. If you have a kid wanting to be the next Tarantino, he or she will have to sell someone to give… Read more »
Frank Riso
Guest
3 years 8 months ago
I am more familiar with two types of salespersons. Those who sell products and services to retailers and those that sell goods and services to the consumer. The best salespersons selling to retailers are those who know the industry somewhat, but truly know their product inside and out. They are the ones who can be honest, and most importantly can solve the problem by selling the solution. Sounds simple enough but it is not easy and few really succeed at it. The best salespeople selling in a retail store are those who let the customer sell themselves. They do that by correctly presenting the features of the product and then let the customer decide. They are also able to help with full knowledge of the product and can recommend the better item to them and win a customer’s confidence. Think of the last new car you purchased: Why did you buy from that salesperson? Confidence in that person is normally the reason. So the keys are to be honest, know your product and to be… Read more »
Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
3 years 8 months ago

True confession: I am a salesperson. A buddy of mine was once told, “When you get out of school, if you can’t get a real job you can always drive a truck, or go into sales.” He and I both went in to sales.

In my opinion, a key is to sell something you believe in and work for a company you trust. If you have products or services that provide good value and are reasonably priced, it’s a matter of finding the right customer matches. You also have to be willing to say “we may not be the best fit for you,” which brings you back to working for a company that allows you to do that.

In short, sales is like any other job.

Once you start thinking about your own needs, or the sales of your company, you start trying to meet a quota and don’t necessarily have the best interests of your customers and prospects at heart.

Tony Orlando
Guest
3 years 8 months ago
Where do I begin on this one? A great salesperson is someone who has a great deal of passion for what they are selling. As a broker for several meat and deli suppliers, plus over 50 years working in my supermarket and catering business, it is a skill that can be taught. There are many schools and seminars that can teach you the book knowledge of the art of selling, and there is great stuff to learn, but it goes beyond that. Who you are in personality and how your interact with the people you are selling to will determine your success. My father taught me many of the skills needed to succeed, and there are basics to selling that are critical to being great. Always engage with a friendly handshake and make eye contact. Be a good listener, as understanding the customer’s needs is key. Your honesty and integrity can never be compromised. Product or service knowledge must be at a high level. Be prepared to provide solutions to the customer’s concerns before you… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
3 years 8 months ago
No truck is on the road carrying any product from somewhere to somewhere else unless a sale was made. Once that product gets to its “temporary” destination, it sits there until someone purchases it. That does not happen without a salesperson. I learned many years ago that to be a good salesperson you have to be a good listener. You can not sell someone anything unless you know what they want. This is not the age of the Hollywood sleazy used car salesperson. This is the age of selling what someone needs to achieve the goals they have set for themselves. It is no longer sell and forget because in a few years that person might need something similar and call on you again to again fill the need. Your job is not to sell what you want just because you can. It is to sell what they want because they need it or want it. I have been in sales in one way or another for many years. I am proud to say I… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

I’ve worked with plenty of sales forces and it seems to me the best salespeople weren’t apologetic about their jobs at all. In fact they succeeded because they believed that— through the sale—they were transferring actual value and providing a service to the client/customer.

The first quality of success in any field is to not feel apologetic or ashamed of what you do.

As for salespeople I think it is more important to be a good listener than a fast talker.

David Livingston
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

It’s very common to feel shame. One key to becoming a great salesperson is to believe in your product and put your customers ahead of your commission. If it’s all about the money you will never be happy in your job. I’d probably make a bad chiropractor but perhaps a good Toyota salesman.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

I have the perspective that salespeople provide things people need and want. Isn’t that a good thing? I also don’t see that shame in very many sales folks. Personality that people like is most important for success in sales. Many people can get away with a lack of product or service knowledge if they have a likable personality. Yes, I do feel you should know the stuff you’re selling, however personality goes a long way.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

Wow—I was so surprised at this post. Thirty-five years ago I started teaching personal selling and have always found that by the end of the class the students have a new understanding of and appreciation for salespeople. In my experience salespeople who do their jobs well are proud of what they do. When people go beyond the stereotype of salespeople, they also see the value and skill required to do the job well. The ability to use questions to uncover what a customer really needs and provide a product or service that satisfies the need is an important, and difficult to master, skill. Deploying that skill in a way that builds credibility for the salesperson and a good relationship with customers is also essential for success. Salespeople who do that are proud of their jobs.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
3 years 8 months ago
I have been in sales all my life. Contrary to popular belief there do exist formal corporate education systems designed to provide the latest in modern sales training. This should not be, but always is, confused with the condensed versions used to support industries with very high attrition ratings, such as real estate, machinery, automotive and others of the like. Even with the best of support to ensure success in the candidate selection, the turnover in the very best sales training efforts with thorough sales training systems is astronomical by my own observations. What is more interesting is how many individuals fail after successfully completing a comprehensive sales training course. Suffice it to say that you can fool the system but never the market. In the real world everybody “knows a guy or a gal” or someone that can write or take an order, but few would recognize a real sales person even if they were married to one. These men and women are very connected, precise and effective in terms of knowing and executing… Read more »
Zel Bianco
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

If salespeople feel shame, then they are not selling something they believe in, period. Sales is about solving a problem for your prospect so they become a customer. If you didn’t solve their problem, they will not be a customer for very long. The objective, whether it be in retail sales, or in our case, a solution provider to the CPG industry, is to have customers for the long-term, not just this year or this quarter. By long-term I mean years and years. What I am most proud of in our business is that we have clients that have been with us for over 12 years. You don’t accomplish that without having a true partnership with your client or customer.

David Zahn
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

Great comments from true professionals and peers who “get it.” I also think that sales is an honorable profession and there is no need to apologize for selling as a career choice or occupation.

I do think that many sales people are seen, by buyers and even themselves, as being more “Willy Loman-like” or like the stereotypical used car salesperson (and everyone who can relate to those two archetypes serves to prove the point of sales people being “assumed guilty for the sins of those who came before them”) than true problem-solvers. It is up to the salesperson to PROVE they are different and add value.

Have a great weekend everyone and thanks for sharing your ideas!

Steve Bryant
Guest
Steve Bryant
3 years 8 months ago

Most professions have negative stereotypes. Absent minded professors, attorneys (don’t get me started), nerdy accountants, nerdier IT folks, plumbers with butt cleavage—anyone remember Dr. Beeper in Caddy Shack? It’s not unique to sales. You are what you believe you are and you are the way you behave. Most jobs in this world are sales jobs in one way or another, and most personal interactions are negotiations in one way or another. In fact the number one salesperson in any organization should be the CEO. Great salespeople listen, understand how to solve their customers’ problems and deliver on their promises. They actually help people buy and they sleep really well at night.

Those ashamed to be salespeople probably should be, based on the way they behave. Those who are proud of their work with customers probably should be for the same reason. Selling does NOT begin when the customer says no. It begins when the customer says hi.

Don Uselmann
Guest
Don Uselmann
3 years 8 months ago

I am going to confine my comments to retail apparel and accessory sales, my focus for 35 years. On a high level, great salespeople don’t simply provide friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, efficient service—they help their customers dress. Great salespeople are more important in a customer’s life on a daily basis than the customer’s doctor, lawyer, financial advisor or any other professional because they impact how the customer looks and feels every single day, impacting self-esteem and self-confidence. Great salespeople develop long-term professional and intimate relationships with their customers. The truly great ones have purpose in their jobs and earn in excess of $300K a year. There is no shame in any of that.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
3 years 8 months ago
“Change one’s approach from viewing the customer as an obstacle to be overcome in the pursuit of acquiring a sale to one of collaborating with the customer to achieve an outcome or objective” That pretty well summarizes selling. I could write a book on it. Come to think of it, I HAVE: “Inside the Mind of the Shopper.” At the time I wrote the book, I didn’t think of it as a sales book, but seeing the Amazon rankings gradually made me see what I had done (and was doing.) In the categories Amazon assigned: #3 in Books > Textbooks > Business & Finance > Sales #6 in Books > Textbooks > Business & Finance > Marketing #12 in Books > Business & Money > Industries > Retailing These are the current rankings SIX YEARS after the book was published! But this comes from a lifetime of PERSONAL selling (door-to-door when I was 7 or 8). Growth-science-personal selling has become my mantra for advising retailers and their suppliers. The challenge for the SELF-service retailer (customer,… Read more »
Kai Clarke
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

Most salespeople have no issue with the moniker of salesperson, neither do their counterparts (buyers). Some prefer the term “vendor” but this is really a non-issue in today’s environment. Great salespeople know this and focus instead on great customer service with their partners, and communicating transparently with their partners.

vic gallese
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

I think it is uncommon for anyone who has been in sales for longer than, say, one year to feel “shameful.” I think newly hired salespeople sometimes are unaware of what the role calls for, but they find out if it is a fit relatively soon.

There are trainable skills to learn: suggesting solutions, handling objections, etc, but a successful salesperson must come to the game with a true desire to serve and help customers fill their needs and wants. That trait is impossible to train!

Lee Kent
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

Coming from the worst salesperson in the world, me, salespeople should be reminded of their gift. Good salespeople truly have a gift of meaningful interaction with others. I can only dream of this.

My husband accuses me of giving so much of my work and time away because I have no clue how to sell. True, give me a call and I will likely do lots of free work for you before you ever see a bill.

Yes, I can write, I have lots of knowledge about an industry, I like people, but that still doesn’t get to it.

Salespeople everywhere, hear my applause! I can only wish to be more like you.

For all my 2 cents!

Frank Beurskens
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

Sales is not like any other job. If it were, it wouldn’t be as rewarding as it is for great salespeople. Sales takes the dreams and visions of others and converts them into economic rewards. It grounds ideas into reality. Believing in the product, providing value, and trust are all nice sentimental aspects of sales, but bottom line, sales people are problem solvers, identifying a need and filling it with a solution. They are self-serving, not some benevolent being; every employee, executive, or ecumenical being for that matter are self-serving.

Negative attitudes about salespeople may come from shadow projections onto others; witnessing a skilled communicator present a compelling idea that changes an opinion can frighten someone who lacks confidence or expertise to influence others, or fears losing control.

Tina Kaufman
Guest
Tina Kaufman
3 years 8 months ago

A great salesperson will listen to their client and/or potential client’s needs and concerns, as well as believing in what they sell. At the end of the day a great sales person will sell what is best for their client and not their wallet. I believe at the end of the day, that creates a win-win relationship.

Wouldn’t that be ideal if every salesperson experienced owning their own business and understood the challenges of the day-to-day operations?

Shep Hyken
Guest
3 years 8 months ago

A good salesperson won’t feel shame. No, they will feel confident. They know they have a good product that the customer needs. A good sales person will walk away from a sale that is “not right” for the customer. Otherwise, when the customer realizes they were “sold” something they didn’t need, the salesperson loses the customer. Conversely, when the sales person is more interested in the customer’s success, the salesperson becomes the trusted adviser. Salespeople need to be smart and knowledgeable, so remember the old adage: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Michael P. Schall
Guest
Michael P. Schall
3 years 8 months ago

If one feels “shame” about being a sales person, it’s their own fault. Selling is a noble profession—helping someone fulfill a need or derive meaningful benefits from a service or product—tangible or intangible. Sadly, many people think that selling is a zero sum game. Those who do should feel shame.

To become a great salesperson, start with empathy, listen carefully, ask questions, then listen some more. Repeat. Focus on one person at a time with 100% of your attention. Begin fulfilling their need and not yours. Then, they buy.

Mike Jacoubowsky
Guest
Mike Jacoubowsky
3 years 8 months ago
The issue isn’t about feeling shame that you’re a salesperson; rather, the issue is that, no matter what your profession, you aren’t doing a very good shop if you aren’t selling. Everything is selling. Selling someone that there’s value in what you’re doing for them. My kids school assignments got a whole lot better when I read them and said, who’s going to care about what you’ve written here? It’s dry. It’s boring. Your job is to SELL your ideas. You look at the people who change the world; they’re not just smart, they don’t just have better ideas, they know how to sell. Steve Jobs was likely no smarter than Wozniak. One knew how to sell. Maybe if we get people to understand that a good percentage of their failures in life are because they don’t know how to sell anything, including themselves, the “profession” of selling will be better respected. And by the way, cashier<>salesperson. True salespeople earn their way, using their brains, doing something more than just scanning bar codes and taking… Read more »
Ajay S
Guest
Ajay S
3 years 8 months ago

No shame at all, as long as there are entrepreneurs out there looking to sell their wares there will be sales guys around. Now if these entrepreneurs want a miracle then they should pray hard and not expect overnight results.

The most admirable aspects of salespeople are:

  1. Their approaches and knowledge of their products.
  2. Perseverance.
  3. A never say die attitude.
  4. An aggressive nature (Subtly of course).
  5. Internal support is very much needed.
  6. They provide solutions.
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