In my undergraduate days I was a part-time telemarketer handling calls in response to TV commercials that advertised everything from medals to stamps. Armed with a script, I cold-called strangers of all ages and educational backgrounds. Once, I called more than 50 women in an attempt to sell just one pair of anti-cellulite tights.
It takes a thick skin to be in sales (with or without tights), especially when it comes to how salespeople are traditionally evaluated. There is only one brutal measurement: how much money you bring in. There is no room for ambiguity or argument; if salespeople don’t hit their targets, heads roll.
Yet, we are all salespeople—even if it’s not reflected in our titles or job descriptions. There’s a good chance you’re selling something every day you go to work, even though you may not receive an official evaluation on how well you do at the end of the quarter. Some of us persuade customers to buy products or services; some of us persuade our colleagues to buy into something. If you’ve got kids, there’s a good chance you’re selling them ideas every single day (they, in turn, are doing their best to sell to you).
During my short-lived sales days, I was at times appalled by my own chutzpah, though I also secretly enjoyed learning about the psychology of selling. It’s a skill that has served me well throughout my career, long after I hung up my headset.
Searching for "sympathetic individuals"
Working in a call center (or "contact centers," as they prefer to be called) provided an experience I’ll never forget—it was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. It was vibrant and exciting, yet also bizarre and alienating.
There were moments when I had never felt more alive, thriving in the connections I made with those on the other end of the line, in the most direct and honest way imaginable. This is the thrill of selling, and there’s a good chance you’ve experienced it, too.
I came to realize that if you look at markets as "sympathetic communities for social exchange", as the philosopher Robert Solomon once put it (and if you’ve never done that, I recommend it as an exercise in perspective), then selling is the search for a sympathetic individual.
This is why my most astonishing takeaway from being a telemarketer was how intimate my conversations were with some of my “targets”—some who were so lonely that they were grateful for the simple opportunity to talk to another human being, even a stranger on a business mission.
The real value of selling
As a Business Romantic, I am a champion of infusing our jobs and work environments with more romance (think: enchantment, mystery, and meaning) because it can make our careers and lives more meaningful. One way to increase romance in business is to place greater emphasis on building and maintaining the human connections we forge at work—if you can make it in a contact center, you can make it anywhere!
You might think business begins where romance ends, but I believe business provides a last resort for any kind of human connection at all. A business transaction can sometimes provide genuine human contact (including feelings such as compassion, empathy, and sympathy) in a sea of isolation.
Selling gives us the permission to relate to others, because a seller pitches more than just a product or service: a seller offers up a piece of him or herself in the process—which is what sparks the first bloom of human connection. Selling is a means to an end, yes, but the human connection can live long after the transaction is considered complete.
Ultimately, selling is a journey without end, both on and off the job. The numbers—or however we rate our performance—may add up from time to time, but the real value comes from the journey itself and is immeasurable.
To learn more, check out The Business Romantic (Harper Collins, 2015).
An earlier version of this post first appeared in The Improvement Zone.