Last night, I got a frantic call from a rising senior at an Ivy League university with a stellar background and a near perfect GPA.
He was just finishing up his summer internship at a prestigious investment bank and wanted career advice. Specifically, he was stressed about the impending career choice he had to make upon graduation: investment banking or management consulting?
I could not help but pause to take a deep breath as this was the 100th time I have been asked this very question by many ambitious students like him.
For the past several decades, this “path” of getting an investment banking or a consulting job, followed by a job at a venture capital/private equity/hedge fund, would prime someone to garner acceptance into a prestigious business school, followed by more senior positions at similar firms.
This has been the unspoken but known magic formula of success for students pursuing a business career.
I don’t blame them as I fell into this same path in my early career. At the time, I recall the utter need and desperation to follow this algorithm, as I believed this was the only path to success.
Yet, if I could do it all over again, I would take a completely different approach.
What would I do now? I would get a sales job.
In fact, it does not matter what type of sales – insurance, cars, cell phones, cosmetics… I would take any opportunity that would teach me how to prospect, qualify, pitch, close and manage customers.
And here is why.
The Most Important Skill In Business Is Sales
If I look at some of the most successful leaders in business, one undeniable common thread they all have is that they are incredibly gifted at selling.
They know how to create and share the story with their customers in a way that is difficult to resist. Customers will say, “Wow, I really believe in this person. I want in.”
I am not just talking about selling a product or a service, but selling a vision.
Ultimately, you have to get people to buy into you, follow you, and choose to support you. So, you have to sell not only to external customers, but to investors, your internal teams and new hires once you have your own team to lead.
Building a strong team culture, with enthusiastic and excited employees requires selling your vision of why the work is important to them and to your customers. So, it’s critical to perfect selling, in all areas.
The Most Difficult Skill To Master In Business Is Sales
Sales is not just about closing deals.
It involves careful strategy around how to identify and prospect target customers. Then, once you have successfully reached out to key customers and have gotten their attention, it requires thorough preparation of your pitch. What are your customers’ unique pain points and how can you help offer solutions?
This courtship may take a few days to weeks, if lucky, but often times, it can take up to many years. After successfully convincing them to trust you and your product/service, your job doesn’t end there. The goal is to maintain a strong relationship, and keep your customers happy for many years to come.
Each part of the sales process presents unique challenges and requires a multitude of skill sets to master.
Along the way, you learn how to be mentally strong; being diligent, persistent and patient are core traits of being excellent at sales. So, the earlier you start, the more time you have to learn and master.
The Most Transferable Skill In Business Is Sales
Various researches have estimated that people switch jobs about 7 times in their career. Though the validity of this number has often been argued, one thing is clear; no one will have the same job, same role forever.
Case in point: people switch jobs at some point even within the same company. Accordingly, roles and responsibilities associated with new jobs change, requiring a different set of capabilities.
Regardless, there is one skill set that is required in any job – effectively communicating with both internal and external members, collaborating across cross functional teams and delivering results.
These are fundamental skills naturally trained and developed in sales. In fact, if you look at the background of top executives at successful organisations, many of them started their career in sales and continued to prove their leadership in different roles.
I made my first cold call when I was in my mid thirties and only after I started my own startup.
Many long months went by without a single sale, even after making hundreds of cold calls and sending out thousands of emails. I felt hopeless. Even with my MBA degree, prior experience in investment banking and consulting, I could not get a single new customer.
It was a very painful truth to swallow – I did not know and had never learned how to sell.
Fast forward several years (and I have gotten better at it), I am still learning.
I look back at the many years of missed opportunity to learn the art of selling and wish that I could have started the process much earlier in my career.
It’s been some of my most challenging times, but sales has taught me so many things about business in a holistic way. Study your prospective clients, build relationships for the long term, nurture relationships once formed, never give up, etc.
Most importantly, it helped me become a better listener and more empathetic to my customers’ needs.
Truly, having to work so hard to get one customer and seeing that that person has made a conscious decision to say yes, to give you a chance, and to choose to spend their resources on you, makes me that much more passionate to serve my customer.
So, if you are debating between Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, think again and get a sales job.
Feature Image Credit: deathtothestockphoto.com