Advice for People Who Are Young and in Sales

My first job in sales was cold calling for a national charity when I was fifteen years old. When I was eighteen, I joined my family’s business and was required to sell B2B with no training, and with hair past my shoulders. After I moved to Los Angeles to play music, my manager forced me into outside sales when I was twenty-three years old (and still with shoulder-length hair). At twenty-five, clients and prospects treated me like I was young, and would often acknowledge that fact in sales calls. I have no idea if my age cost me deals, but I suspect it did. What follows is a few ideas about why it is sometimes harder to sell when you are young and what you can do about it.

No Business Acumen

The way most people acquire their business acumen is by working in business for many years. The more years you work, the more you know about how things work. Because you haven’t had the years to gain business acumen, your clients may be more skeptical and trust you less than you deserve. Even though you may know what you are talking about, your youth may concern them. From their view, they struggle with the advice you offer them because you don’t look like you have enough years in business to be able to provide competent counsel.

While you can’t do anything about your age (not to worry, time will take care of that faster than you think), you can do something about your business acumen. You can become interested in business, listening to or watching CNBC in the morning while you are in the gym or on the treadmill. Every year, there are popular “it” business books that everyone reads. Business is like fashion; every season, the themes change. For less than thirty-dollars and six hours, you can keep up with the conversation. For less than that, you can listen to an audiobook.

Starting when I was twenty-five, I asked every client I met with to help me understand their business. I also asked them how I could be more valuable to them and what I would need to know about their business. Instead of avoiding the fact that I was young (and looked young), I converted my clients into mentors and teachers.

When you embrace something about yourself, you make it difficult for other people to use it against you. You are young, and you are learning.

Situational Knowledge

There is only one way to get experience, another factor that is difficult to overcome because it is the chicken and the egg problem. How can you possibly have experience before you have the experiences? The term “situational knowledge” means you have had the experiences that provide you with the knowledge necessary to see patterns. It’s what allows a salesperson to suggest that one choice of action is better than another, that this solution is better than that one. Because situational knowledge requires experience, it will take time for you to acquire it.

Your clients may see your age as evidence that you don’t have the experience to offer them the advice you’re providing them. This isn’t always true, nor does it have to be. However, it is unlikely that anyone had told you that you need to acquire situational knowledge.

First, get a notebook and start writing down your experiences. Write down what happens when your clients or prospects take some course of action. When they succeed, write down what they did that you believe contributed to their success. When they fail, make a list of factors you think caused them problems. When you solve a problem, write down what you did to solve it. Do the same when you cause your clients problems, as you inevitably will.

Second, start collecting stories. You may not have the experience to have situational knowledge, but you know people who have it in large quantities. You can borrow their situational knowledge and their stories. Your company has tribal knowledge, a set of shared experiences and stories. When you don’t have the experience, you can borrow it from other people on your team. Starting in the back of your notebook, start asking those ahead of you on the path to share their stories and how they help their clients by teaching them why one decision is better than another.

The Trust Factor

Both of the factors above can lead to a lack of trust. It can be hard to tell if you know what you are talking about and even more challenging to know whether you can be trusted to execute if your client signs your contract. They may wonder if you have the juice to manage your internal teams to get things done on their behalf. There are things you can do to increase the trust you build with your clients.

You will distinguish yourself by doing your homework. You can read about the company you’re calling on, so you are familiar with what they do. You can also learn about their industry, gaining an understanding of the challenges they might be experiencing. Asking your peers with more experience to share what they know about that industry from working with their clients can provide you with some ideas about the challenges that caused them to buy from your company and how you helped them.

Even though “business casual” is now mostly just “casual,” you can increase trust by dressing professionally. You can leave your smartphone in your car (or in your bag, if you can’t survive being more than eighteen inches away from your phone for more than a few minutes). You can also show up with a strong agenda, a list of powerful questions, and some ideas about why your dream client should do something different in the future (a theory about how and why they may need to change). You also want to be seen taking notes. One of the ways you signal that you are paying attention and care about what your prospective client is saying is by being seen writing it down. I offer this piece of advice based on my situational knowledge of witnessing it not being done.

Generally, you want to be seen as a professional in your field. Even though you may not be an expert in your industry yet, you should look and sound like someone who is on the path to becoming one.


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