During my 10-year television career, I worked as a correspondent, reporter and producer for top networks including NBC, PBS, BET and Nickelodeon. I’ve interviewed Grammy and Oscar Award winners, top CEOs and entrepreneurs and even a former Head of State, but before I found success in front of the camera in New York City and Los Angeles, I used to sell cheese.
After graduating from Western Michigan University with a marketing degree, I accepted a job as a sales representative at a food company. The company provided me with tons of binders filled with product descriptions, a laptop, a brand new Ford Taurus and the reins to 25 grocery stores that I was now responsible for.
I had no idea what I was in for, but month by month, I learned three valuable lessons selling cheese that can be applied to any situation.
Being A Self-Starter Isn’t Optional
The good and the bad of my experience as a sales representative was that I didn’t have an office to go to everyday. Unfortunately, our regional office was over four hours away from my base in south Florida. This meant that I was left to my own devices to create structure where there was none. My office was my car, my apartment and various coffee shops.
With this autonomy and no one looking over my shoulder, I figured I had two options: one, just go with the flow, and see what happens or two, stay on top of things, and get super organized. I chose the latter and am glad I did. I was incredibly detailed and plotted out my weekly sales calls, target sales goals to hit, which grocery store managers needed more attention than others and new product presentation schedules. Without this structure, I would have flailed and struggled.
To this day, one of my strong suits is organization, which has been a great benefit throughout my career. I realized early on that the only person responsible for me is me.
Oddly enough, structure creates freedom.
Focus on Demand, not Supply
Sales can be a tough industry, especially when you’re trying to sell something that no one wants.
Early in my sales representative days, I remember being pushed to increase sales of pectin. Unfortunately, there was a major problem. Many store managers couldn’t care less about pectin, because their customers couldn’t care less about it. I got that message fast, so instead of trying to sell what they didn’t want, I learned to focus on what they did want.
Instead of pushing pectin, I pushed other items that sold well in their stores like cheese, hotdogs, coffee, cereal and a slew of other items that performed well. Periodically, I’d sneak in some other products to promote, not pectin, but mostly I focused on what they wanted.
This is a great lesson as you approach your career. Identify what’s in demand, and identify how you can fill this void.
Listening Is An Art
Grocery store managers are unique. It’s a tough job, and no two managers are alike. I learned this the hard way by approaching each manager the same. Plus, early on, I was always in “sales mode” trying to sell them something or obtain great product placement for key events. Bad mistake.
The smart thing in the beginning would have been to go in, be quiet and ask them how I could help them accomplish their goals. Then, listen, and then, listen some more. It took me a while but I finally got it. Then, an odd thing happened. Over time, the more I listened to them, the more they started to listen to me and learn more about my goals.
The axiom, “the most valuable thing you can give someone is your attention,” is true.
I barely lasted a year as a sales representative. Shortly thereafter, I moved to New York City with less than $700 to pursue my goal of working in television. Though sales wasn’t for me, to this day I have fond memories of that experience and lessons learned that I use regularly in my career today. Occasionally, I even find myself in grocery stores organizing products, just not pectin.