Let’s All Commiserate: The Misery of Being a Salesperson

Ugh. They all look so happy to meet you.

One of my favorite articles from the satirical news website The Onion is the 1998 editorial: “Why Can’t I Sell Any of These Fucking Bibles?” It’s really funny. And these days I can commiserate with the commentator.

I honestly have no idea what the hell is going on. Why can’t I seem to sell any of these fucking Bibles? I’m offering the best goddamn Bible I’ve ever seen — not some piece-of-shit Bible that’ll fall apart before you’re halfway through Matthew — and still, everywhere I go, I get the door slammed in my face. What gives?

Having spent the past few years teaching myself to code (and I didn’t break the internet, so you’re welcome), I am now trying to launch the business management website www.OliverClarity.com. Everything I know about promoting an online platform I learned from watching the Mark Zuckerberg biopic “The Social Network”. According to that movie, you simply introduce the website to a handful of people and with no further effort they go wild about it, making you rich, famous, and extremely envied. There’s no selling involved. In fact, you can be introverted and unpleasant to the point of being somewhere-on-the-spectrum-asocial and it doesn’t matter. The platform sells itself. It’s so successful they even make a movie out of your life.

As an introvert with an admittedly acerbic sense of humor and somewhat lacking in social graces, I find the Zuckerberg sales methodology quite attractive. I’m not a natural at selling. The idea of actually marketing OliverClarity — meeting and talking to people I’ve never met and asking them to subscribe — holds no appeal. Unfortunately, the Facebook approach doesn’t work for most businesses, mine included. Zuckerberg’s methodology succeeded only because he was offering 1990’s college kids a revolutionary technology that marginally improved their odds of getting laid. Selling a business management platform to today’s entrepreneurs requires an entirely different approach. If only I could figure out what it is.

Great salespeople are born. According to one study published in the Harvard Business Review, more than 70% of top sellers display what have been identified as “natural sales traits”. You know the type, they smile a lot (on purpose) and genuinely seem to enjoy meeting new people. Natural sellers are warm, personable, and gladly initiate conversations. They make eye contact and “work the room”. In sum, gifted salespeople like to socialize. Since every significant other I’ve ever had has felt the need to periodically remind me not to be a complete dick in group settings, it’s safe to assume that I lack the sales-gene. Don’t judge, the odds are very good that you don’t have it either.

For most of us selling is at best a chore. It’s awkward, starting with the feeling that you are imposing on people. Then there’s the fear of rejection that takes us back to those really awkward times when you had to find a date to the school dance. It’s hard putting yourself “out there”; you didn’t want to hear “no” then, and you don’t now. If you’re selling something you created, that fear of rejection is compounded because the perceived criticism goes beyond you as a salesperson to your sense of self-worth as an entrepreneur and innovator. When everyone doesn’t go wild about your new product or service, there’s that sinking feeling that the great idea into which you’ve poured your heart and soul may have been nothing but a fool’s errand.

So how do we cope? There is a cottage industry of books, blogs, and courses not only on how to be better at sales but assuring you that promoting products and services doesn’t make you a bad person. Read away between reaching out to potential customers; just remember, less than 30% of top salespeople become successful by learning how to do it. You can try therapy; maybe your aversion to sales is your mother’s fault. She didn’t hug you enough, or hugged you too much. At the very least she could have made sure you got the sellers’ DNA. But whatever explanation you glean or catharsis you find doesn’t mean you can stop selling. And now you have to make a little extra money to pay the therapist.

The bad news for those of us without the sales-gene is that no matter how much we dislike it or uncomfortable it makes us feel, selling is an essential entrepreneurial task. The only way for a business to succeed is to develop and grow a customer base. If you can’t support a team of promoters genetically-predisposed to the task — and most startups and early launch companies can’t — that leaves you to do the job.

So let us — those with some level of aversion to selling — take a minute to commiserate and empathize with each other. We’re all in the same position, and there is some solace to be found in the fact that we’re not alone. Remember, most entrepreneurs tasked with selling find it uncomfortable.

But now, having done so, let’s get back out there and sell, sell, sell.

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