01/21/2013 08:38 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2013

Nobody Wants to Be a Salesperson When They Grow Up

When speaking to a group of 10th graders at a high school in St. Paul on career day, I typically ask the class what they want to do for a job or career. The answers will vary from a marine biologist, a professional athlete, an architect to a video game designer. Their vision is of something sexy and getting paid for what they like to do. What I rarely hear is, "I want a career in sales" or "I want to sell things." However, I can look around that room and know a healthy portion of those students will be selling for a living; they just don't know it yet.

Because the selling profession isn't most folks first choice for a profession, many will fall into a sales career after college and just survive rather than thrive. Some will become professional job switchers, while others maintainers of status quo, and experience moderate levels of performance. The 20 percent who become top performers usually find the career they chose really "got into them." What I mean is, they find tremendous purpose and value in the satisfaction of winning in a competitive sales environment, helping their customers solve problems and feeling the freedom of the road (not occupying a cubicle). Top line, they essentially enjoy new challenges every day that the selling profession provides.

Why is approximately 60 percent of a sales team (for any given company) considered moderate/average performers? Because selling is tough! It helps if you love what you do or find purpose in the job since you will need to be resilient in the face of the many challenges faced day to day. As an accountant (along with numerous other professions), one can hide in his cubicle and crunch numbers. As an average salesperson, he is probably experiencing significantly more rejection than customer commitments. He may also feel he is on a tread mill always starting over quarter to quarter and year to year (which after many years can wear on an individual).

What Does It Takes to Be a Top Performer In the Selling Profession?

When we look at top performers, we consider four things: skills, purpose, motivation, and behavior. To achieve top performance, you need to ask yourself a few key questions.

Skills: Can you sell? In other words, do you have the skill? We often ask clients if they know highly skilled people who are not successful. Usually a high number of hands go up. We once worked with an individual who had an MBA from one of the top business schools in the country and had read every book on selling and account management. In fact, he could tell you what to do in every situation. Still, each quarter he was the worst performer on the team. Why? When we needed to find him, all we had to do was call his office because he was always in his office (instead of meeting with customers)! Skills do not guarantee success.

Purpose: Why do you sell? Deep down, what is your purpose? As we noted in the beginning, not everyone wants to go into sales. But if you find purpose in what you do, if you really love your job, you will be more successful at it. Remind yourself why you chose this profession and what you love about it.

Motivation: Will you sell? Do you have the desire and initiative required to succeed? One manager told us of his top performer, Aaron, who did not have a high skill set but was extremely motivated. In fact, if you walked into Aaron's office, you would find a picture of the new boat he planned to buy and the new truck that he would need to purchase to pull the boat. Aaron loved material things that money bought, and it drove his behavior. "He was consistently my top guy," the manager said. "However, because he was so motivated with a lower skill set, he was like a bull in a china shop. I was always cleaning up after him. Why? No one could stop him once he identified an opportunity, and he would see whoever he needed to get the deal done. I would rather have someone motivated rather than listen to excuses why someone didn't make his quota."

Behavior: How do you sell? Are your actions in alignment with your goals and objectives? I know a salesperson who routinely says, "Not so fast," even though the senior executive decision maker is ready to buy his service. "I want to make sure there is a good business fit," says Jack, the salesperson. "Let's schedule a time to review my recommendation, and in the meantime, let me talk to members of your team to learn more about your business. If I feel a good fit exists after that, we can do business." Keep in mind, the executive was ready to buy now! However, Jack's selling process is so disciplined; he knows that there are certain things he needs to do to be successful. Ironically, when it is time to meet with the executive again, Jack presents a larger, more encompassing solution based on his research. It is a better fit, and the executive ends ups signing a bigger contract than he would have originally. Most salespeople think this top performer is slowing the process down, although he is ensuring a high close ratio, while developing a network of people who will want to work with him in the future.

In conclusion, you may have fallen into the selling career but you owe it to yourself, your family and your company to ensure the career gets into you.