I was 16 years old when I started in sales and holy shit was I dumb.

I couldn’t recognize a buying signal if it struck me flat in the face.

The first job I had in sales was for the national tabloid newspaper – when you could still smoke inside the boiler room (which obviously I did).

Now direct telemarketing is probably the business in the world that has the highest employee turnover rate – which also explains why they would take me in at 16 – and it’s no wonder either. I was thrown in at the deep end, with very little instruction and expected to swim.

Most people drown doing this exercise, because they have very little success, and going from rejection to rejection is mighty difficult.

The reason I stuck with it though, is because through absolutely no fault of my own, I managed to hit on a few early successes.

I would stumble upon a few people during the course of a working day, who had been thinking about buying a subscription anyway and those early successes got my sales-juices flowing, and got me riding the high that is making the sale.

So that’s the first lesson right there: 

If you stick with it long enough, you’ll eventually find someone who’ll buy what you’re selling.

This is a double-edged sword though, because it can lead you to think (which it did in my case) that if I just call on enough customers, then I’ll eventually find someone who wants to buy, and so all that matters is getting through to enough customers. In other words, this is a complete quantity over quality approach – and something which I later learned couldn’t be further from the truth. But we’ll get back to that.

Anyway, so I had a few early successes, but because I was 16 years and dumb as f*** it didn’t take long for me to blow it.

On the first Christmas dinner I attended with the company, everybody got absolutely smashed and as a result we started cold-calling customers in our drunken state. As you might imagine, this didn’t sit well with management and as a result a few of us were told to get out and never come back.

I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere, but let’s stay focused on the selling part, shall we?

Anyway, so I’d gotten severely bitten by the sales-bug, and I figured that the only place it made sense to look for my next job was in another telemarketing position.

It didn’t take long for me to find a new job either, because like I said – there’s tons of churn in these positions, and they’re hard to fill.

So I was back in the saddle after a few weeks. This time with a local insurance company, where my job was to book meetings for the insurance salesmen- and women of the company.

This time around I got slightly more instruction from the coaches and management. The key lessons were #1 don’t sell on price, and #2 look for customers that fulfill certain criteria.

Fulfill certain criteria?

That was new.

So the point wasn’t that we were supposed to sell to anyone and everyone who we could get through to?

That certainly changed things.

In the beginning, I obviously didn’t follow this advice, because – why would I? My method had worked just fine up until now.

What I soon learned however, was that doing it in my own way, meant that I was routinely getting outperformed by people who weren’t half as good as I was (in my own humble assessment).

But they were clearly getting better results by doing things differently, so I figured I might as well go ahead and give it a try and do as instructed.

Lo and behold, it worked!

I couldn’t believe it.

The more customers I talked to that fulfilled the criteria we were looking for (and conversely, the quicker I got rid of the ones that didn’t) the more meetings I booked, and the higher the hit-rate. It was a miracle.

So that was lesson number two right there: 

The more customers you target that match your product or service (and avoid the ones that don’t) the more successful you’ll be

Now, it wasn’t as though I changed this one behavior, and my entire life changed from one day to the next.

It was more like a slow (glacial) learning process, where I slowly but surely adjusted to this new knowledge that I was trying to incorporate into my style of working.

One of the reasons why it took so long, is because I tried doing too many things at once.

Not only did I want book the most meetings, I also wanted to do it my own way, and preferably with less effort than everybody else (there’s that humility again).

After a few months of struggling back and forth with these two warring aspects of my psyche, I eventually figured out that the only way to get this right, was to get the basics right.

So I ditched everything I’d learned at my first job, and started fresh.

I literally stuck to the script I’d been provided, until I knew it by heart, and could rattle it off in my sleep.

That made a huge difference.

And once I got to that point, I was able to add a little bit of my own flavor on top – sprinkle a little bit of the right intonation here and couple it with a few different aspects there.

All of the sudden I was the top-performer in the department.

The lesson (number 3) I learned from that struggle is this: 

 Learn the basics first. Learn them by heart. Internalize them. And then you can add your own personality and style on top – not before.

Through all of these struggles, there’s one final meta-lesson that I take away from all of this, namely that if I keep searching for the kernel of learning then I’m bound to find it. And once I do, I’m all the better off for it – in spite of the struggle and frustration along the way.

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