"The Navigator" News Blog

When Salespeople get Older

Are you planning for a long career?  There are things you should know.

 As you probably know, I worked in the car business for three years at the start of my career. In that time, I worked for three different dealerships (one long engagement, two short ones) before pointing myself in another direction. Since then, I’ve rarely crossed paths with people from back then; the car business tends to be a bit insular.

However, this morning, I received a resume’ from the owner of one of those dealerships. I doubt that he remembers me; I only worked for him for a few months (his dealership was the one that convinced me that the car business wasn’t my long term gig). This guy had, at the time, a pretty profitable business. He had a great house, a ’58 Corvette, and was making money hand over fist – which is why the tenure and tone of the resume’ was so shocking. Since selling out over 10 years ago, he’s bounced from job to job, mostly in one year or shorter engagements, and in a downwards direction. His “job objective,” as stated on the resume’? “A stable living for my family and some means for retirement.” I have to be honest – it’s sad. But here’s the kicker; his is far from the only resume’ I receive like this, which started me thinking about the career trajectory of entirely too many salespeople.

When I work with business owners on hiring, I always advise them that it’s better to hire salespeople with less experience, but who are on their way up, than it is to catch a salesperson after their career has peaked and they are on the way down. The reason is simple – entirely too many salespeople peak many years before they retire, and then they ride a spiral of unsuccessful short engagements to – where? I honestly don’t know. Yes, this is the pattern of the dealer I’m referring to, but it’s also the pattern of probably 20-25% of the resume’s I see. Many salespeople tend to peak, in terms of performance, about 15-20 years into their selling career. Then they hit the wrong side of the bell curve, and go downward faster than they went up.

My question is, “why?” I still sell, after 22 years, and to be honest, it’s more fun for me now than it ever was. Part of that is because I’m self employed and doing something that I truly love, but part of it is that the zest for the sales call has never left me. I’ve interviewed enough of the previous types of salespeople to know that this is the key issue. For nearly all of the salespeople that are on a downward spiral, something happened – some event or turmoil – that knocked the pins out from under them. Psychologically, they’ve never been able to recover. Let’s talk about how to make you NOT be one of those people.

What I find, in talking to them, is that they literally can’t remember what they loved about selling; they have too easy a time focusing on the negative things that have happened. This typically leads to call reluctance (low quantity of activity) and poor call performance (low quality of activity), which leads to repeated failures. Since selling success is so mindset-dependent (I can’t think of any other discipline in business where enthusiasm is so critical to performance), a poor mindset equals a declining career. Worse, motivation is so individually based, it’s extremely difficult for others to re-energize a salesperson who has lost their zest for the job. So, maybe you should start building some “Career insurance,” on the idea that you’re going to be in the sales world for 30 years or so, and you don’t want to be like this guy.

One common thread of most of the people I’m describing is that they can’t remember details of past successes very well; they are able to focus on recent failures. So, here’s my advice to you: start keeping reminders of your success NOW. Keep a journal, and make sure to put in plenty of details about WHY, and HOW, you are successful. Basically it will be your own training and motivation manual, and it will help you get back on track.

And finally, if you truly lose your zest for selling and can’t get it back, find another way to make a living. It’s a big old business world out there, and there are spots for people other than salespeople. There’s no shame in leaving the profession; there are other ways to have success.

Don’t get me wrong.I’m not arguing against hiring senior salespeople.  I’ve made some great hires of people who were in their late careers; having a long career doesn’t mean that you have to have a declining period. But it’s worth taking a side trip from our normal discussion of sales techniques to talk a little bit about the long term implications of our business, and give a cautionary tale of what may lie ahead – IF you don’t make the right moves now.