By Dave Kahle
For most of my adult life, I have been a salesperson. I’ve sold a variety of things to a mixture of markets. As a college student, I worked during the summers as a route salesperson. During the school year, I sold men’s suits in a clothing store. Later, I sold capital equipment, surgical instruments, and hospital supplies. In between those major affiliations, I recruited salespeople, and sold franchises.
Since 1988, I have been a sales consultant and sales trainer. I’ve worked with hundreds of companies, written ten books on sales, spoken at hundreds of conventions, and trained tens of thousands of salespeople. Sales, in one way or another, has been how I have made my living for four decades.
For all but the first couple of those years, I have also been a Christian. That combination of Christian and salesperson has presented both tremendous temptations as well as dramatic opportunities for growth and development.
In this article, I explore that dynamic in the hope that my reflections will be helpful to others facing the same challenges. While I’m sure the same thing can be said of almost every profession (the challenge of being a Christian manager, or professional baseball player, or truck driver, etc.) I’m unequipped to comment on those professions. My experience has been as a salesperson.
For years I’ve felt that the position of a salesperson offers great opportunities to be a light to a dark world – to lighten your tiny corner of the universe. A salesperson, by virtue of the job, is in contact with a lot of people. That is, after all, the heart of his job. And each contact and every relationship offers an opportunity to shine just a little piece of God’s providence and love into that situation. By maintaining the perspective of a Christian servant, and tightly clutching an inviolate set of ethics, the Christian salesperson can add light to a set of relationships and transactions that often sorely lack it.
That doesn’t mean that the Christian salesperson should view his customers and contacts as a captive audience for a non-stop barrage of preaching. That violates the first rule of ethical behavior for a Christian – he needs to do good work, to be a credit to his employer. By viewing most every contact as an opportunity to preach to the customer, you turn off almost everyone, and rob your employer of your dedicated sales time.
Rather, it means that the Christian salesperson should maintain his Christian orientation in every one of the myriad opportunities that compose a typical day in the life. The challenge is to live out, in all the transactions and interactions, the direction of Colossians 3:17:
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.
The job of a salesperson is, if not unique, then certainly exceptional in a number of ways. First, it is one of the few occupations wherein the salesperson has the ability to decide, every moment of every day, where he will go and what he will do. Monday morning, the slate is blank. You can go here or there, see this customer or that prospect. You can choose to make phone calls, work on a quote, prepare a presentation, or visit a customer. Virtually unlimited choices.
And, while this “freedom” is one of the aspects of the occupation that almost all salespeople cherish the most, it also carries with it tremendous responsibility to make wise choices. This combination of virtually unlimited freedom and corresponding responsibility is one of the greatest challenges of the salesperson.
There is, therefore, a constant, daily temptation to cheat, to cut corners and to make choices that serve your pleasure rather than your employer’s best interests. For example, a Christian salesperson may choose to take a 45 minute lunch rather than a 90 minute break. He may choose to make the last sales call at 4:30, and the first at 8:00 AM, while his more worldly-oriented colleague may choose a more comfortable 9:00 to 3:00 schedule.
It’s in these kinds of choices that the Christian salesperson’s commitment to doing his job as if working for Christ becomes evident.
Here’s another challenge that comes with the job: the temptation to become driven by the pursuit of money. Most sales positions offer some sort of monetary incentive as a form of motivation. The conventional wisdom is based on the understanding of the freedom of choice discussed above, and posits a need to motivate the salesperson to make responsible choices. Therefore, a monetary incentive (often a commission).
The salesperson often lives in a world, therefore, where money is a constant topic of conversation. High commissions are applauded, and the big earners singled out for recognition. It’s easy to allow the pursuit of more and more money to overwhelm you. Not that there is anything wrong with making money. As a salesperson, I always preferred working on straight commission so that I could make an income proportional to my success. I enjoyed receiving the commission checks which were a measure of my success.
The challenge is to walk the line between, on one side, being compensated for your success, and taking some pleasure in attaining that success; and on the other, to allowing the pursuit of money to overtake you, leaving your ethics and Christian priorities in the dust. When you find yourself compromising your priorities and your ethical standards in order to make more money, you’ve crossed the line.
For example, if you promise a delivery date that you know is unlikely, so that you can receive an order and the corresponding commission, you’ve compromised your integrity for the sake of money. If you exaggerate your company’s offerings for the sake of a sale, you’ve crossed the line. If you fudge a price, over-promise anything, or speak badly about the competition, you’ve crossed the line.
Deception, in all its forms, is another constant temptation to the salesperson. That means such tiny and daily temptations to over-promise, to promise when you are not sure of your company’s ability to keep that promise, to exaggerate both the features of your offerings as well as the deficiencies of your competitors, to embellish an expense report, to embroider the details of a call report, to be anything less than 100% honest all of the time – that is a constant temptation that shows itself in dozens of ways throughout the day.
Here’s an additional insidious temptation resident in the profession: the temptation to grow arrogant and full of yourself. Capturing a major sale in a big account is often a difficult, challenging task that requires astute strategy, well-developed interpersonal skills, perseverance and dedication that plays out over, in some cases, a couple of years. It’s similar to the winning the big case as a lawyer, completing the difficult procedure for a surgeon, and making a life-changing breakthrough with a student for a teacher. No small accomplishment. Rather, a moment to celebrate.
Do this with regularity, and you begin to sense that you are exceptional, someone who lives just one level above the mass of humankind. Couple that with the isolation which is inherent within the job of the salesperson, and it’s easy to become arrogant, demanding, and dismissive of those around you who have helped you reach these lofty places.
Maintaining a Christian spirit of humility within this environment is a constant challenge.
And that is what makes the profession of sales such a great place for Christians. The constant challenges serve to shape your character. In a world where the temptations are great and many of the practitioners succumb, the Christian who can, in spite of his weaknesses, gradually overcome, will grow significantly as a human being while at the same time shine a badly needed light into a world that suffers for the lack of it.