Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

6 Career Lessons I Learned From My 6 Months in Sales

Here’s the thing: I hate sales.

I’m not saying that without having conducted my due diligence: My first job out of college was in the sales and renewals department of a reputable magazine. I’d hoped that being near editorial—if not in the actual department—was a close second to my English major’s dream-job fantasies.

While I loved my colleagues and my new post-grad independence, I soon learned that a sales position just wasn’t the right fit for me. I felt uncreative, stifled by numbers, and disheartened that I wasn’t doing what I’d dreamed of when I was in college.

So when I left after seven months, no one was particularly surprised. My manager even gifted me a copy of Death of a Salesman (seriously), and I moved to my next job believing I’d left sales firmly in the past.

But in the two jobs I’ve had since, I’ve realized just how valuable the skills I learned as a salesperson have been. Here are the six biggest lessons I learned from my brief stint in sales—lessons that are important whether or not you’re selling anything at all.

1. Get Over Your Fear of the Phone

When I first started working, I had a serious fear of the phone. And for the most part, that was OK—I could easily bypass a phone call with a well-placed text or email.

When I began renewing magazine subscriptions, however, I had no such luck: Phone calls were the most efficient and effective way of contacting elusive subscribers. Moreover, department leadership tracked our call volume throughout the day. I was sunk.

After some initial hiccups (I once stammered through a phonetic spelling of a name, saying, “It starts with F, as in... Fail”), I not only got over my fear, but I realized the value of these verbal conversations. Now, rather than play a frustrating and time-costly game of email tag, I won’t hesitate to pick up the phone when I need something clarified.

2. Follow Up in Writing

Any good sales associate knows that nothing really counts unless it’s in writing. I learned very quickly that I needed to follow up friendly phone calls with shrewd emails recapping the meat of a conversation—or nothing would move forward.

That’s served me well in subsequent positions, even when I’m not intently tracking goal numbers. After a lengthy team meeting or a one-on-one conversation with a manager, it’s helpful to send a quick follow-up email clarifying that you’re on the same page and assigning next steps. It’s a simple task, but it can preclude major pitfalls that result from miscommunication.

3. Embrace Metrics

When I worked in sales, my success was wholly dependent on monthly numbers. I was obsessive about tracking my progress; I knew to the decimal point what percentage of subscribers I needed to renew in order to reach my goals. The last week of the month became stressful if I hadn’t yet hit my goal.

At the time, I decidedly disliked this dependence. But now, without having a goal percentage to hit or a commission to make, I’ve found I’m still obsessive about metrics—I even assign myself goal numbers independent of my manager’s requests. I learned that metrics, however frustrating, are in place for a reason. They help track what worked and what didn’t, and this analysis can lead to improvements. For example, while I’m no longer counting each subscriber and his or her dollar value, I am tracking every reader of my company’s blog—where she comes from, what piece she reads, how long she spends on the site—and using that data to make decisions moving forward.

4. Toughen Up

When you work in sales, you’ll learn something quickly: People are not nice all the time. No matter how respectful or polite you are, you might encounter people who are rude, curmudgeonly, or just plain mean.

But you’ll learn to get over it. Once I had been hung up on, yelled at, and insulted over the phone enough times, I learned to let things roll off of my back. In any job (or situation, for that matter), I’ve realized that an outpouring of negative emotion, even if directed at me, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with me. Toughening up was a hard—albeit important—lesson to learn.

5. Teamwork (Makes the Dream Work)

By the end of college, I was my own best teammate when it came to schoolwork. From research papers to exam cramming, I had my own work style down pat—and I liked it.

In the workplace, though, my self-motivation could only go so far. Without my talented and supportive teammates, I wouldn't have been able to tackle the volume of readers whose subscriptions I needed to renew. On a more qualitative level, they made my days way better—whether they were high-fiving me when we hit goal numbers or commiserating with me when we didn't.

In sales, as in anything, you can't do it alone. And if you've got a good team of colleagues, don't forget to count your lucky stars.

6. Take Off the Rosy Glasses

When I graduated from college, I knew that I would be lucky to find a job—any job—in a particularly depressing job market. Still, I nursed a hope that I would somehow stumble into a position that was perfect for me: one that allowed me to be creative, to write constantly, and, of course, to avoid the dreaded phone.

This didn’t happen right away, and I’m glad. Most people don’t just fall into a perfect-fit profession—getting there takes a lot of work and a little trial and error. And not loving my first job helped me analyze the pros and cons of the position and assess what I really wanted in my future opportunities.

In the two years and change since I left my sales job, I’ve been surprised to see how often I recall those transferable skills in my daily work. I’m pleased to see the sales(wo)man in me, long thought dead, resurrect herself from time to time and remind me of the lessons that, looking back, I would never trade.

Photo of salesperson courtesy of Shutterstock.