7 Life Lessons From My Sales Job
As the month started, I realised that October has always been very special for me, be it in terms of birthdays or life events. One such life event, last year has been really special for me and has also led to a huge degree of personal growth for me. It was this 11th day, last October that I made the transition from a marketing role to a hard-core investment advisory or counselling role. In a lot of ways, this lucky break was a dream come true for me, and in the last one year, that feeling has rarely fizzled out.
My current job encompasses two areas to which I had vehemently been saying no to for years and years – Finance and Sales. When I started with my MBA, it was with a clear sense of direction to get into marketing because I believed that would be the only area to channel my creative inclination. Finance was for boring nerds and not a free spirit like me. As for sales, unless you were rude, brash and aggressive, don’t even look in that direction. My summer internship, a sales stint at an FMCG company, seemed to seal that view for me. It didn’t help that my father held, and still holds some pretty staunch negative views about the personality required to be a sales professional.
Last year, as I told my colleagues about the opportunity I had the good fortune of getting and intended to take up, the reactions were immensely varied. There were some who were completely gung ho telling me that since I already kept yapping about Personal Finance, it was something totally up my alley. There was the tentative bunch who asked whether I really wanted to go away from marketing and how they could not even imagine themselves doing anything but marketing, along with what if I realised that this investment counselling was really not my thing. But, the best reaction that I still remember was from this well-meaning (hopefully!) colleague in a cross functional team who told me I was crazy to shove my foot on a sharpened axe by moving away from the cushy world of marketing to the exhausting world of sales.
One year later, I am happy to report that this move has worked out even better than I imagined. In my usual style of bullet-point celebration, I thought of talking about 7 key ways in which I believe this job has contributed to my growth not only as a professional, but also as a person. After all, while secondary research can do only so much, personal observations also add to the way we grow as people, right? And I also think a lot of these lessons hold true for all of us, in so many of our life situations that I thought it might well be worth sharing.
1. Know your stuff
First up, for the obvious one. Being in the financial services space, where things are ever dynamic, it has been extremely crucial that I know what is happening in the market. Most of the high net-worth clients that I end up meeting are extremely clued in to the markets (sometimes unhealthily so) and the minute they feel that you are not aware of atleast the basics, they are bound to stop trusting you. If you are supposed to be the expert or an advisor, you better know your game. Before I started with this role, I used to read only a weekly supplement dedicated to Personal Finance. As I started this role, I started a daily habit of scanning and reading important news from a business newspaper on my morning commute. Another thing which has helped is a daily concall that my bank organises for all employees pitching investment products. After all, we are the face of the bank and this is a basic enabling tool that we get to be tuned in to the latest happenings.
2. Keep the customer’s needs first
My role is defined as someone who understands the customer’s needs and then recommends financial products for them, ensuring there is no mis-selling thanks to wrong communication. Considering the pressure of sales targets, it is not easy to keep focused on the client’s needs, especially when they clash with your objectives. However, in my experience, each and every interaction with the client counts. Having the right intention and being true to the role, keeping the client’s needs foremost, in my view has not just helped me keep a clean conscience but also helped with a good relationship with most clients.
3. Be open
I have often had my moments where I am stuck up and rigid. Ask my parents and they will start with stories starting from whatever age you pick. The one thing this job has done is to ensure I am open to things, experiences, locations and people. I have now lost count of the varying points where I have quickly gobbled up lunch to be in time for meetings, ranging from taxis and local trains to even simply standing on the road and finishing my food while people watching. Previously, I have often turned up my nose at places which made me feel uncomfortable. Not any more. I have met clients in swanky offices, run down wholesale market shops and even crumbling ancient houses, only with a sense of wonder at the newness of the experience. In some ways, this openness has given me more of a can-do attitude than I imagined.
4. Hone your communication skills towards simplification
There are two ways to sell financial products or in some ways communicate anything for that matter – one, make it so complicated and complex with all possible jargons so that the client bows to your superior intellect and shrugs off all responsibility. Second way is to break it down, simplify the product so that the client understands what they are getting into and are well engaged with their money. In my view, the second one requires far more skill and better communication skills. I have been lucky in this regard that my boss in this job, who alas moved just as I completed three months in the role, was also of the second school of thought. One thing he told me to focus on while communicating complicated products to clients, was to always answer the question of “what can go wrong?”. Finally, while investing money into any product, risk is one thing that any client should be made aware of, however subjective and hypothetical.
5. Listening and observing will get you much further than just talking will
When I was making this switch from marketing, I read as many blog posts as I could about skills required to succeed in sales. One thing often mentioned was that while a gift of the gab helped, what really marked out a good sales professional was an ability to really listen. To that, from the last one year, I add a skill of observation and a sense of curiosity. I have now lost count of the number of meetings I have exited with a big grin on my face from the stories that I have heard, absorbed and been entranced by which I often peddle in other client meetings as conversation starters. Some time back, I met a client who had a real estate allied business but his office had elements with the most funky, cool designs. As usual curious, I asked if he had a passion for design and out tumbled anecdotes with almost every such item in that small office. Another client laughingly told me how he had lost tons of money, buying horrible stocks in the market but all those stocks had their own histories like one being the recommendation of an ex-girl friend. Oh the stories you get to hear if you are willing to listen! 🙂
6. Do not be afraid to ask questions
Another thing I have learnt in the job is that questions are good, especially when asked in a curious and courteous manner rather than an aggressive,, attacking way. Wherever I have felt a gap in my understanding, be it a client’s travel story or about their family or their mindset in terms of money, I now ensure I ask questions to satisfy my curiosity. Not only does it make for a far more engaging conversation, the communication is far clearer than with things left unsaid.
Finance is serious business and also often potentially morose. Ask me for I have run from it for years. Just the smallest actions like smiling more or keeping an upbeat countenance has sometimes helped me. Of course, if I like the client, the action comes far more instinctively to me.
While I had some apprehensions of facing up to my fear of sales, I now know I actually love it. In a lot of ways, this is my calling in life. How the form factor changes over the years is yet to be seen. Whenever anything shapes up, you know the reveal-all will find it’s place here!
Have you ever done something that you were afraid of, only to realize that you actually love it? Have you ever made a career switch that people have found odd? Let me know in the comments below.
Thank you so much, Rajani!