For someone who comes across as a sales person, I actually dislike selling. It’s tough, difficult to scale and in most small (<20-person) companies, you see the classic 80/20 rule in full force. Almost all of the sales are generated by 1-2 people. During the dark years (2005-10), when the poverty became too consuming I would quickly get a sales job which would help me temporarily get out of some desperate fix I had gotten myself into. These jobs usually lasted less than 3 months as I would usually leave or simply get fired. Nonetheless I found the experiences invaluable as selling is a natural part of most businesses. Selling to investors, prospective / current employees, other businesses, suppliers, not-yet-believing parents / spouses etc.
There are different type of sales people (which I won’t go into here) but usually the universal metric of sales people is, well, selling. Revenue. Nowadays, people like to throw in vanity metrics but at the end it’s all about the Benjamins baby.
After my first media play Brash Magazine crashed and burned in 2008, I ended up working at a digital recruitment agency in Manchester (recruitment agencies help companies fill vacancies with qualified candidates and usually take between 15-25% of the first year annual salary as compensation). Even though I was there for about 4 months it taught me some very clear and important lessons about sales-based organisations.
The Cold Call.
A large part of selling requires getting cold (as in they have never heard of you before) ‘leads’ and somehow figuring out how to convince those leads, aka, people to buy / do business with you. At the best of times this is tough. Now imagine trying to do it over the phone. Extra tough. In the 90’s they called it telesales, it’s been repackaged and branded ‘business development / canvassing’. Still the same dirty work of interrupting strangers and trying to have a conversation with them. When I started at the agency in 2009 I was given a phone and Internet connection and asked to get dialling. My mission: coax out job vacancies which I would then attempt to fill for 15-25% commission. Fast forward a thousand phone calls and zero meaningful conversations I realised one important lesson - I really hated this. It was the most inefficient, tiresome, soul destroying thing I had done to that point. With that said I decided I was still green and just kept dialing. Dialing. Dialing. Dialing. After the first month, I was nowhere. I had set myself some lofty goals and was embarrassingly far from even remotely achieving them. Sales generated month 1. £0,000.00
It was a small agency so the managing director (and owner) brought me in for a ‘chat’. Basically he told me I was doing a shit job. That my activity levels were NOT high enough and I should be aiming at more ‘dials’. He explained that the agency had been built on dials and they had stacks of contracts with digital employers to testify. This a few months after my first and largest startup to date Brash magazine had publicly crashed and burned taking 3 years of my life, self esteem and everything with it. Not what I wanted to hear.
After our ‘chat’, I left with two simple things. 1.] I was done with mindless cold-calling, I would rather quit than go back to dialing and getting abused by thousands of strangers. 2.] I needed to have a look at the ‘stacks’ of contracts. Of the 12 or so people at the agency all dialing away furiously, no-one had really taken much notice to the existing agency-employer contracts to source and fill vacancies for them. To me that made no sense. We are all interrupting strangers daily to secure these contracts when we have a stack of them sitting in the filing cupboard gathering dust. Madness.
I simply picked up the contracts, sat down and called every company who had been contracted and closed previously. The results were immediate. Within 3 weeks I was able to secure >70 vacancies. No more cold calling, these were warm calls, the agency had previous relationships with these employers they had simply neglected them. My problem then became filling vacancies, which is a relatively peculiar thing as a recruitment consultant. I spent most of my days sourcing candidates from CV databases and having long-winded conversations with them as I attempted to arrange interviews, prepare them and ultimately help them fulfill their dreams in further employment. I am slightly random and super chatty so I am sure most of them thought I was mad, but some of those candidates I still speak to today. As a sales person, the only metric to truly measure yourself on are numbers. And I started to put those on the board. Within 3 months I had placed several candidates and generated ~£40,000 in revenue for the agency. I was definitely in the top 3 at that time (there was a guy who sat next to me who used to pull £20 - 50,000 per month in revenue for the agency. A true sales star). You would have thought the Managing Director (and owner) would be happy. This was money going directly into his company’s pocket. The previous month I had generated ~£18,000 and was scaling my little contract-warm-call-candidate-love-placement-commission system into quite the easy money maker. I was firing on all cylinders.
He was not happy. At all. Why?
He felt my relaxed nature and hours spent on the phone speaking to candidates was not good for his agency. He was concerned that my approach was negatively effecting those around me. He came back to me getting my activity (read dials) levels up. I should be dedicating more time to ‘business development’ and not just filling vacancies. I asked him what my job was? He replied it was to place candidates, which was exactly what I was doing. All day. Which was the problem. Huh?
To this day I never really understood what he was trying to explain to me as I quit on the spot. Sales as long as they were clean and ethical were my mission. To place candidates, he was concerned that my approach didn’t fit his approach or view on how it should be achieved. Success is success is success. The numbers spoke for themselves, but he wanted it his way. Success for him was narrowed by his view on what it looked like. I couldn’t work for a company like that. For me, a salesperson whose primary tool was a phone could turn up everyday in a damn chicken suit and as long as he delivered I wouldn’t care. Not one iota.
Sometimes you have to focus on the drivers of delivery first. I was never going back to mindless cold-calling / canvassing - whatever you wanted to call it. For me, you wanted sales, I gave them to you. The manner in which I delivered them was largely irrelevant (unless they were criminal or fake of course). After 4 months it was time to move onto the next adventure. But thankfully I took a fair amount of sales-skill with me. I developed my own brand of selling. Which has become useful in everything I have done thereafter.
Everyday I ask the business development team at iROKO one question. Super simple. Wheres my $? That’s it. All further conversations are predetermined by that.
* the above picture has nothing to do with the story. I just love the image.