Not many in the PR industry would confess to this, but I for one don’t actually like to sell.
Or to paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s famous1 “I hate to write, but I love having written” by instead stating that I hate to sell, but I love having sold.
Now, don’t get me wrong:
I respect the art of selling immensely. To me, salespeople are the wheels that keep our economy and our society turning. In comparison, PR is more of a lubricant in this great corporate machine of ours.
But it’s not just salespeople who sells, much like it isn’t just communication officers and PR consultants who communicate professionally. We must all communicate — and we must all sell our products, our services and ourselves.
Fresh out of school, I quickly realized that my total lack of sales skills was going to be a serious problem. But in the end, I did find a solution.
Why I Considered Choosing A New Career
I was always impressed with people who knew how to sell, how to close the deal. But it was also demoralizing, because I knew that most of them were naturals with abilities that would be nearly impossible for me to imitate.
When I studied public relations at Mid Sweden University2, there were people who questioned my chosen path. They weren’t complete off either; what they saw was an introverted individual with weak social skills and lacking any types of sales skills. I did have doubts myself from time to time.
My first year in the industry was all about securing publicity for clients. This meant selling article ideas to journalists over the phone, pitching away like crazy. I remember locking myself into the bathroom just to breathe for a couple of minutes before going at it again. It didn’t take me long before I realised that this wasn’t going to work.
During this period, I listened to a great many self-help tapes on how to become a better salesman. Good news was that I knew how to listen actively. Listening is a bonafide superpower when it comes to being able to sell anything to anyone. I also learned 20 ways to close and I watched Glengarry Glen Ross3 quite a number of times.
None of this actually worked though. I was almost about to find myself another career …
Seeking My Inner Teacher
When I was the most stressed out, and sitting on the subway on my way home after a long day at work, with spontaneous nose bleeds and bolting headaches, I fantasised about pursuing another career. I dreamt of becoming a teacher.
Some say that being a teacher is a calling and I can really understand what they mean. What could be more meaningful than making sure that other individuals are armed with knowledge to create better results for themselves and the people around them. I couldn’t imagine anything more noble or meaningful than being a teacher!
It was a bit surprising though; I wasn’t exactly the teacher’s pet in school myself. In fact, I didn’t get along with most of my teachers and I even ended up in several conflicts with them over a range of disagreements. Yes, I was a pain in the ass.
Many other students sought conflicts with their teachers by refusing to spit out their chewing gum, keeping their outdoor jackets on or refusing to take their baseball caps off. Or by not paying attention, being rude to classmates and making stupid noises. I never cared for that type of disobedience:
I attacked the teachers’ educational skills. In plain terms, I criticised them for being stupid. This didn’t exactly go down well:
There were a couple of kids with pyromaniac tendencies who did burn actual buildings to the ground. And their classroom behaviour wasn’t exactly charming, either. Still, there were teachers who preferred these rascals over me.
My biggest pet peeve was this:
I get that someone somewhere has decided, probably on good grounds, that we should learn this specific thing at this specific time and that this knowledge will be helpful to both us and society. But I don’t want to learn this until someone tells me why I should learn this.
Maybe this why of teaching could be my ikigai4 in pursuing a career in teaching?
The Humble Art Of Teaching
At the time, I had a girlfriend who studied to be a teacher — and she did later went on to become a teacher in history, politics and religion. For 4,5 years, I read all her course literature, ranging from Michel Foucault to Jean Piaget. From all of these books, I especially remembered this quote by Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard:
“If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there.
This is the secret in the entire art of helping.
Anyone who cannot do this is himself under a delusion if he thinks he is able to help someone else. In order truly to help someone else, I must understand more than he — but certainly first and foremost understand what he understands.
If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help him at all. If I nevertheless want to assert my greater understanding, then it is because I am vain or proud, then basically instead of benefiting him I really want to be admired by him.
But all true helping begins with a humbling.
The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve, that to help is a not to be the most dominating but the most patient, that to help is a willingness for the time being to put up with being in the wrong and not understanding what the other understands.”
— Søren Kierkegaard
Just as the first time I read these words, I felt a strong kinship with them. This is how I want to be thought. This is how I want to teach. And I also knew from my 15 months in the military that this resonated very closely with my leadership style.
What I realised was that I did in fact like to help people. I’m no Mother Theresa, but I’ve always had this strange calling towards helping others reach their full potential.
And if this is how I teach and how I lead — maybe this can be a way for me to sell?
The Secret Question: Can I Be Helpful?
So, instead of thinking “now I’m going to sell this to this person”, I think “now I’m going to see if I can help this person”.
This mindset untangled a lot of mental knots in my brain. It changed everything.
Of course, this also means that you sometimes have to say no to people who think they need your help — when in fact they don’t. Or even when you don’t feel inspired or passionate about their challenge.
In a competitive PR industry, turning down business like that wasn’t exactly commonplace. I started doing much better in sales immediately, but I was worried that my selective process wouldn’t go down very well with prospects or bosses.
The Side-Effects Of Being Sincere
When I told prospects straight up that I couldn’t help them, they appreciated to my honesty. And when they later encountered challenges where my skills would be of real use, they came back.
Another side-effect was that prospects perceived me as a PR professional with ‘integrity’, which I thought was funny since all I tried to do was to find a way to make this whole sales thing work for me!
I soon learnt that selling in the B2B service industry didn’t have to be so tough:
All you need is one project for one client. If you deliver results in a way that makes your client really happy, then you will get another job. If not from them, but from someone else via recommendation. It’s really that simple and it’s the only way I know how to build a business.
If you’re honest in your approach about helping people, sales won’t even be such a big part of your workload, only conversations with people to see if you can maybe help each other out.
Final Note: Managing The Douchebags
Unfortunately, any industry has its fair share of douchebags. Douchebags are people who will claim that you didn’t help them enough — just so they can get more help from you without having to pay for it. This leads to the final piece of the puzzle for those of us who don’t really like to sell:
Douchebags … they don’t deserve your help.
In the end, it’s corporate Darwinism; if you help douchebags to stay in business, you’re not really a part of the solution, and that’s not really helping anyone. So don’t feed them!
How do you think about sales? Does it come easy for you or do you have to push yourself? Please share in the comments.
- Did Dorothy Parker really say this? Lots of writers have been attributed with this quote over the years and you can read an analysis over at Quote Investigator.
- Mid Sweden University has a great PR program (with yours truly serving on the advisory board), check it out here.
- If you haven’t watch the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, then start by watching this epic scene where Alec Baldwin gives his motivational talk.
- Ikigai is a Japanese term that translates to “the reason for being” or “why to get up in the morning”. It’s a great concept — and a great word.