What No One Tells You About Working in Sales

My whole life I’d been under the impression that working in sales was a relatively unimpressive job that didn’t take much — apart from having a charming smile and the ability to spin tales. In fact, this aversion to working in sales was so extreme that even while I was applying to roles right out of grad school, I actively avoided anything that said “Sales” or “Business Development”. Instead, picking fancier sounding buzzwords like “Policy”, “Strategy” and “Program management” despite those roles being far fewer and in-between.

But boy — was I wrong. As luck would have it, I found myself spending the last year working a sales and account management job at a wonderful energy access start-up based in Nairobi (called Spark Meter)– and it’s been nothing short of an incredible learning experience.

First off: I learned that working in sales is actually far more about listening and less about selling.

The best salespeople are also the best listeners — especially when it comes to B2B (business to business) or enterprise sales. After all, you can only sell a product after you understand what your customer's problems and needs are — and that learning can only come from listening to them intently and asking the right questions. Well-established sales bibles like “Consultative Closing” and “Getting to Yes” are great starting points for guiding these conversations without seeming too pushy or like a novice.

In fact, you want to position yourself so that your clients tell you EVERYTHING — whether pertinent to your business or not. And you also want to be diligent about filing that information away, perhaps in your organization's CRM tool for maximum visibility — because you never know when that information will come in handy for future sales.

The other surprising attribute of successful salespeople is their ability to follow through on what they say in a timely manner.

So much of “closing” deals relies solely on the follow-up — which perhaps ties well into the listening piece well. After all, it’s hard to give your customer what they want if you don’t know what that is — and the best way to find that out is by asking relevant questions! The real bottom line here, though, is that it’s really important to follow up with your customers immediately: whether prospective or existing accounts. If you tell them you’ll send them certain material or give them a demo, make sure that you do it ASAP.

Scheduling emails to make sure they’re in your customer's inbox first thing on a weekday (in their time-zone, if you happen to work internationally) is also a great hack!

Following through on promises or action items can definitely be boring and cumbersome — but unfortunately, there’s no way around it; you require discipline to do any job well. You definitely don’t want your customer to think you’re flaky or even worse, that you aren’t that interested in them.

Being likable is of-course another extremely important aspect of working sales — but what defines “likeability”? it’s not just the charisma that you’re inherently born with. Learnt aspects of likability include maintaining strong eye contact, smiling easily and often, and most importantly, repeating either a few words that the other person just said or even just mirroring their body language to establish an instant connection.

Another tip I learned that could be helpful: next time you want someone to really feel “heard”, try repeating 3–4 of the exact same words they used in their last sentence during your conversation back at them.

Just be a bit mindful of making sure that you aren’t just being a parrot or mindlessly saying words back to them with a blank expression — just keep the conversation flowing and you’ll make them feel heard.

To be totally honest — working in sales can be really fun! It gives you a great lens into any industry, especially if you’re able to speak with and engage with multiple customers. You’re automatically forced to not only learn the ins and outs of your own product — but also of your customer's businesses. It also allows you to build certain “softer skills” that you might have never considered before or never had the inclination to polish. Finally, I also think it teaches you a lot about active listening and discipline — two qualities that are essential irrespective if you’re an entrepreneur, an actor, or a banker: you just can’t go wrong.

Credits to Dilbert for always showing us the light!

If you have any other tips to share or any other insights — please do let me know. I’d love to evolve my skills and step up my sales game. Similarly, if you disagree with any of the pointers or takeaways, let me know why and what I’m missing. Looking forward to your feedback!

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Cleantech, Mobility & Energy access enthusiast. Former Tree-hugger @Yale; Splitting my time between Bombay & Nairobi but my heart is in San Francisco.

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Sanjna Malpani

Sanjna Malpani

Cleantech, Mobility & Energy access enthusiast. Former Tree-hugger @Yale; Splitting my time between Bombay & Nairobi but my heart is in San Francisco.

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