I didn’t know too many salesmen while I was growing up, so my perception of them was shaped in large part by the jokes made about them. I understood the jokes weren’t meant to be taken literally, but hear something often enough and you do get impacted. So yes, I knew used car salesmen didn’t always trick widows into emptying their bank accounts to purchase oil-leaking gas-guzzlers. But it happened more often than not, right?
My own sales experience only reinforced this villainous stereotype. For a grand total of two weeks I sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. While the vacuums were remarkable our sales pitch was not. We’d bully our way into a home, counting on most people being too polite to throw us out. Then we’d give them a half hour demonstration, uncovering all sorts of hidden dirt and filth in the house – this machine could pull it out of even a newly laid carpet. Then we’d make an emotional appeal, asking parents how much their children mattered to them, and presenting the $1,500 machine as a way to save their children from sickness and allergies.
I wasn’t all that good at this guilt-inducing plea, so in that two-week period I sold just one vacuum, and even that was only because my trainer clinched the deal. A few days later I was greatly relieved to hear that the couple had changed their mind and gotten all their money back.
This brief foray into sales taught me that it was every bit as sleazy as I had imagined.
Two contrasting ideas
Some years later I started dating a lovely sales manager. If I’d been thinking it through, that should have challenged my perception of sales as a low-ethics field. Clearly it wasn’t true of all salespeople! But I didn’t put two and two together. I didn’t really think about how what she was doing – selling student agendas to schools across North America – was, in fact, sales.
It was only later that year, when I had the chance to meet her company’s sales staff at their annual sales conference, that I was forced to re-evaluate. Talking with them made me realize it was possible to be a good salesman and still be a good man. It all came down to two very different understandings of what makes a salesman good.
1. Can sell anything to anyone?
One of the first salesmen I met at the conference was a twenty-something-year-old who bragged he could sell ice to Eskimos – didn’t matter the product, he could sell it. He went on about how good he was at upselling, convincing principals to buy this and that add on.
As he talked I noticed something he didn’t. His fellow salesmen were not impressed. I can’t remember now whether he was cut off, but he was answered. A more experienced fellow made it clear that this is not what a good salesman does.
In the days that followed I had a few conversations with this second gentleman, and was able to dig into what he thought sales was all about.
2. Can meet his customer’s needs
His understanding was built on his love for God and a love for his neighbor. He saw his role as a salesman as trying to meet his customers’ needs. That could be a complicated task: it might involve explaining to a customer that they have a need they didn’t even know about. The product he sold, student agendas, weren’t standard school equipment in the same way that pencils, paper, and rulers are. But he believed in his product; in a very real way he was in his job for the same reason a good teacher takes her position: they both want to help students learn. He knew that his agenda could help students be better organized by helping them manage their time and keep track of assignments. There were features that could help teachers and parents too, and all for the price of only a few dollars each.
His sales pitch wasn’t dependent on pressure – he presented the features of the agenda in as clear and concise a manner as he could, respecting both the principal’s intelligence and his time.
A couple key differences
So what’s the difference between the first sort of salesman – the one who thinks he can sell anything to anyone – and the second sort who is trying to meet the customer’s needs?
Attitude is the biggest part of it. Instead of being full of himself, the Christian salesman is thinking of others, trying to serve them by offering the opportunity to buy a valuable product.
A second difference is that a Christian salesman can only sell a product he believes in. Christians wouldn’t want to sell sand in the Sahara, even if our powers of persuasion were such that we could pull it off. A Christian salesman needs to be doing his customer a service that is to the customer’s benefit. It was no coincidence that the sales staff at this agenda company also had a role in product development. They were trying to meet customer needs, and after talking with the same principals and superintendents year after year, the sales staff could give valuable advice to the product development team about improvements, and good features to add.
I was grateful to meet this second salesman and his many godly sales colleagues. They changed forever the way I understood sales, showing there is a way to honor God in this field too.
Of course, there are still the sleazy sort, and lots of them. In some companies there could be pressures to overhype products, and to push customers into buying options they don’t really need.
But that shouldn’t make us steer clear of the sales field. We do need to be aware that we might face such pressures, and understand that in standing against them we could even lose our position. But at the same time, the servant-minded salesman is going to be appreciated by all his customers – honesty and integrity are valuable “sales tools.” In fact, the godly salesman I talked to was later honored as one of his company’s top sellers.
If you have that servant mindset, and a product you can believe in, then sales can be a God-honoring job indeed!