What's Your Problem?

You seem to be a bit picky for the sort of committed salesman that you claim to be.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I am looking for a job in sales and I'm totally confused. Since graduating four years ago, I've held a number of sales jobs but never for long, as I've either been working with the wrong people or have been given a telesales role (not what I want). I understand you may ask why I've left my jobs, and whether it's me just not getting on with others.

All I can say is that I haven't liked any of my jobs, but I really do believe there's a sales job out there that I would love. I have strong sales skills and will excel at selling, given the right working environment.

What do you suggest for someone passionate about selling and developing business, but who doesn't know which route to take?

A: Having read your question three or four times now, I'm beginning to feel as confused as you are. One of the dominant characteristics of great salespeople is a relentless optimism. Thirty years ago, the Parker Pen Company used to issue its salesmen with a monthly newsletter that carried a regular feature called something like Salesmen's Sayings. Here's one of them: 'Remember! The only difference between a stumbling-block and a stepping-stone is the way you look upon it!' There speaks the true 'my glass is not half-empty, it's half-full' salesperson. You don't seem to be one of them.

I can understand your aversion to telesales and I don't blame you for wanting something more fulfilling. But you seem to be a bit picky for the sort of committed salesman that you claim to be. You've either been working with 'the wrong people' or not in 'the right environment'.

Too many stumbling-blocks and not enough stepping-stones; and always somebody else's fault. Four years is a long time.

My strong suspicion is this (and it's true for a lot of excellent salespeople): you need to be passionate not just about selling things but also about the things that you're selling. You must have some obsessive interest, something you bore your friends about: real ale, old books, new clubs, property conversions, proportional representation, lion dung, garden gnomes, squash clubs, aromatherapy.

Forget the immediate salary: look for a job selling things that interest you a great deal and about which you're already knowledgeable. The chances are that you'll find yourself working with a bunch of congenial, compatible people and having - at last - a thoroughly satisfactory focus for your selling skills.

Q: I run a successful department in a business consultancy. We get great client feedback and have won more new business than we can handle. Recently, on my day off, my boss unexpectedly summoned one of my four employees. When I returned the next day, I found out he'd been made redundant. This was news to both of us. I've since tried to seek a meeting with my boss to find out why she did this, but her PA keeps cancelling the appointments at the last minute. I feel I'm being deliberately cut out and I'm at a loss about what to do.

A: A boss who consistently refuses to see you is no sort of boss. And good bosses don't fire people two levels down without the knowledge of their departmental head. There's something fishy going on here, and if you don't root it out it will soon begin to do what all fishy things do if left too long unattended.

You may not wish to face this fact, but on the evidence you present, your boss doesn't rate you. You say you're successful, and I assume that's true, so something else is going on.

I'm guessing here, but I wonder a bit about that employee of yours she chose to make redundant without your knowledge or agreement. The fact that the deed was done on the one day you were out of the office strongly suggests that it was planned and premeditated. Have you been protecting this person even though you secretly harbour doubts about them? It's easy enough to let a sense of loyalty-to-team corrupt objective judgment, particularly if the person in question is being sniped at from above.

None of this excuses your boss's behaviour, but it might go some way towards explaining it. I can recommend that you're unrelenting in your attempts to effect a meeting; she can't go on avoiding you for ever. And that, when you do get together, you use the incident of the redundancy as the doorway to a more important conversation. If she has serious doubts about you but lacks the leadership skills to raise them with you openly, the relationship can only fester. Even if the news is unwelcome, it's better out than in.

Q: I've taken unpaid leave from work for three months to look after my sick father, which leaves little time for anything else. However, my employer has called me in and asked whether I can work on some mini-projects in my 'spare time'. When I explained that I don't have any, he got a bit aggressive and said I should do it if I know what's good for me. I'm confused - he agreed the unpaid leave quite happily, but has obviously had a change of heart. We're a small company and there is no-one above him I can speak to. Can you advise?

A: It can be fiendishly difficult for small companies. I bet your boss was genuinely pleased to be able to grant you unpaid leave, but now reality bites. He's got a moral commitment to welcome you back, so can't take on a permanent replacement; meanwhile work pressures mount. Do see if you can help him as much as he has tried to help you.

- Jeremy Bullmore has been creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London and a non-executive director of both the Guardian Media Group and WPP. Address your problems to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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