It might seem odd to try and pin a ”higher meaning” on sales. Aren’t salespeople mainly in it for the money? It would sure seem that way, given how salespeople are portrayed in the media and in popular culture. But let’s take a closer look.
The Search for Meaning
How important is meaning to a person’s life? For at least one significant answer to that question we can turn to Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, who founded an entire school of thought around a person’s search for meaning. Frankl saw this search as life’s primary motivation.
It is important to point out that Frankl also said that each person must discover such a meaning for themselves—nobody can give it to them. So while we cannot give each individual salesperson the meaning for their own life, we can certainly point out that they mean a great deal more than they might have been given credit for in the past.
Salespeople: Need for Meaning
Any salesperson will tell you: a career choice in sales, while it can certainly pay off, is also a tough way to go, tougher than many other career choices. This is true if for no other reason than the amount of rejection the average salesperson gets—for many, it’s in the range of 60-80%. Even the best salespeople in the world have a closing ratio of 40-50%—meaning the remainder is rejection. How many other professions have to deal with this level of adversity?
On top of this rejection, salespeople are often characterized with labels such as “pushy,” “arrogant,” “manipulative,” and other such labels, while not being recognized for the value they actually create.
Other professions generally have long ago realized their value to society and the culture. A nurse working through the night in an ER knows he or she is helping people. A police officer taking criminals off the streets knows the contribution they are making to society. Even the accountant, in slightly less dramatic fashion, knows that when they balance the books they are performing a valuable service.
So in addition to the high degree of rejection a salesperson experiences, they are also greatly undervalued, with their true worth to the culture rarely, if ever, pointed out and celebrated.
If for no other reasons than these, a salesperson deserves to understand their true meaning.
The negative stereotype of salespeople has often been propagated by the media and popular culture making many salespeople almost apologetic for their chosen profession. A very interesting book entitled Television and Movie Representations of Salespeople: Beyond Willy Loman by Kathrine B. Hartman, states that between the years 1903 and 2005, there were over 281 English-language movies made in which salespeople were negatively represented.
This negative representation has spread throughout the culture to the point where today salespeople are still frequently regarded with suspicion.
Interestingly this wasn’t always the case. If we go back many centuries to roughly 1200 AD, salespeople, then known as “merchants,” were the agents primarily responsible for opening up communication, commerce and trade between vastly different cultures—particularly Europe and Asia. Merchants had a positive reputation. For example, in the Arab world it was said that the trader was gracious, and had goodness and generosity.
So by developing an understanding of the higher meaning for sales—both in salespeople and society at large—we can start to overcome this negative stereotype once and for all.
It should be pointed out, though, that this negative reputation isn’t all-pervasive. As discussed in the Austrian School of Economic Thought, a product or service can only be sold to someone when they perceive its value in their own mind—something called subjective value. In order for that product or service to be sold, that subjective value must also exist for the salesperson; the prospect must value the salesperson, too. This shows that the negative portrayals of salespeople haven’t convinced everyone. If they had, nothing would ever get sold, ever.
The Higher Purposes
As we have discussed, most salespeople are not aware that they have a much higher purpose than anyone has ever given them credit for. A salesperson is the primary agent of a company engaged in trade. As pointed out by several authorities in the Austrian School of Economics, “Trade has a peacekeeping element.” This becomes rather obvious when you realize that 2 countries engaged in trade cannot be at war. The more successful the trade between 2 entities, the less likelihood of war or conflict.
To show how off the rails this can get, look at the state of trade in the world at this very moment. Trade cannot be conducted without an incredibly involved trade agreement, such as the one being proposed between the US and the European Union (TTIP). And now that Britain has left the European Union, a whole different agreement will be needed between Britain and the EU. So in terms of trade, the skills of salespeople are needed more than ever.
There is a second purpose, too. Salespeople, when they are responsibly conducting business (as I believe most of them are), are also engaged in creating wealth for themselves, their employers and their communities.
Interestingly these higher purposes are rarely taught or pointed out. Very few people seem to know how valuable salespeople are to our culture and society. Understanding this can directly lead to a salesperson finding their own meaning. It can also help a salesperson hang in there through the tougher times, when rejection is higher than normal.
Sales managers are often wrapped up in trying to motivate their sales teams. Some will attempt psychological tricks to create motivation—but salespeople can easily spot such fake motivations, and if it succeeds at all it will be very short lived.
As I said earlier, the seeming motivation for many salespeople appears to money. In the long run, though, I don’t believe that money alone will motivate anyone for very long—there has to be more meaning to life.
Part of this meaning, I believe, lies in altruism: the performance of good for others for no other reason than the good performed. When salespeople really benefit others, they not only make repeat customers but they help enhance their own reputations.
But in the end, while there are certainly other factors involved in motivation including the system of compensation, a primary motivation must be this higher meaning.
Every person wants to be happy. In my opinion, happiness is something that cannot be artificially created—it is something that comes as a result of doing or achieving something of significance. Once you have found a reason and acted upon it, happiness happens automatically.
Just like when people experience a truly deep and mutually fulfilling connection in a romantic relationship, happiness flows naturally.
In the same fashion, when a salesperson realizes that they are performing the tremendous service of creating wealth, peace and helping the community, they, too, could achieve this level of happiness in their professional life. It could put a real smile on their face when they sell, and not a fake smile, either—rather one that flows naturally from knowing the meaning and the reason they are selling.
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