What I learned from giving up a great sales job for a horrible one
This is the story of how I gave up a job with an honest, reputable company - and the chance to make up to $60K - to work for a shockingly corrupt shitshow of a company instead.
In mid 2015, I had just left academia and didn't know what I wanted to do next. I thought I had one last stint as a lecturer at the university lined up for the summer, but when that fell through, I suddenly found myself living in Northern Colorado with absolutely no source of income.
I was fairly sure I'd be leaving the state within 6 months to live with my fiancé. I would have stayed in Colorado if he had ended up not getting a job right away, but we both knew that scenario was unlikely.
A series of increasingly poor decisions begins...
With the goals of making some cash immediately and doing something new and radically different, I started looking at entry-level marketing and sales jobs.
Looking back, I realize that I chose this path for several reasons other than my pitiful lack of funds.
My family and social circle believed that only certain obnoxious personality types can do sales, and at the time, this bothered me. I wanted to prove them wrong and prove to myself that I could do it! I secretly thought some of them were introverted, risk-averse people who were just jealous of salespeople and their financial success.
I also felt like I had "failed" to be great in academia, and making a lot of money was another way to gain respect...
Mistake #1: There's nothing wrong with trying out this career path, but I shouldn't have been motivated by the desire to impress others or prove them wrong! I didn't have enough insight to realize I was basing my decisions on a need to impress, not just on what was best for me and my fiancé.
This vulnerability to other peoples' opinions combined with indecision about my future was a recipe for disaster.
I was also very attracted to the independence and responsibility involved in commission-based work. Being a wage slave, trading time for money everyday, with my only hope of advancement depending on the opinions of my "bosses" seemed so depressing. At least with commission the pay is based directly on performance. This is a much better reason for being interested in sales jobs!
Considering how broke I was and the difficulty of finding full-time work, I decided that my best bet was to take two part-time marketing positions with the potential for fast promotion to full-time jobs with higher pay.
One job consisted entirely of door-to-door lead generation for a local painting company (AKA "Pleasant Painters" for the purposes of this story), and the other involved going door-to-door and working trade shows to generate leads for a solar panel installer (AKA ..."Slimeball Solar"). Eventually I had to choose between them. Guess which one I chose?
What happened in the following months was quite the learning experience, to say the least. This episode of my life reminds me of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. (If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend checking it out. It's one of the more accessible instances of British humor I've encountered on Netflix.)
Different business models, different cultures
Pleasant Painters hired me first. I responded to a Craigslist ad and was briefly interviewed by phone, then was asked in for an in-person interview. Our conversation focused on intrapreneurship and how hard I'd work for the company in a position with unlimited commission. It went very smoothly and I was hired the next day.
I found Slimeball Solar in the same way and called them, and they only did a phone interview. The conversation was similar but a bit less personal. I had to express interest in selling photovoltaic solar panels, so I said (truthfully) that I wondered why they weren't more popular with homeowners and would love to learn more about them. They also hired me right after the interview.
The door-to-door and trade show shifts at Slimeball and Pleasant conflicted with each other, but neither was offering more than 4-5 shifts a week anyway, so I chose to work for both to hedge my bets. I didn't really have a plan beyond that.
It was clear from the get-go that the two companies had very different organization and culture. Here's a little chart I made for comparison.
|Pleasant Painters||Slimeball Solar|
|Started and run by young ex College Pro painters who knew they could do it better||Started by an ex financier and run by a professional salesman|
|Sales reps are like independent contractors. They are trained to hire and manage their own marketing team||Sales reps have absolutely no control over the marketing division of the company|
|Marketing training took 2 - 3 hours and focused on practicing a simple pitch||Marketing training involved a worthless Powerpoint presentation before field training|
|Sales training took one day and focused on identifying the customers' needs and fully understanding the product||Sales training took 4 days. Some of it was useful, but they wanted us to manipulate customers' emotions and said we didn't need to understand the product|
|My bosses seemed trustworthy and down-to-earth. Maybe a bit too relaxed at times||The managers were more intense, but I got creepy vibes|
I did pretty well generating leads for both companies and promotions seemed likely within a month!
Mistakes #2 and #3: I didn't plan ahead and I lost sight of the big picture.
Even when I knew both companies were about to give me a full-time offer, I didn't start planning. Rather than comparing the pros and cons of the companies in order to make a logical choice ASAP, keeping in mind the fact that I probably wouldn't be staying in the state, I just strung both companies along for as long as I could.
I wasn't upfront enough with Slimeball or Pleasant about the fact that I had to make a choice soon.
Also, I was getting attached to the idea of being in sales and living "the life" in Fort Collins and Denver, so I was in denial about leaving. I tended to ignore this fact when I thought about work, and to say things like "I'm not sure I'm going anywhere" when my family asked about my plans. It was weird.
The fatal decision
Anyway, within 2 months, I had gotten myself promoted to sales rep at Pleasant Painters. Their training was a one-day affair that included sales training, paint tech training, and a free lunch. I liked the relaxed atmosphere at Pleasant and I trusted my two bosses, so I told them I'd quit my job at Slimeball, and they were very excited.
So I called up Slimeball and quit. But the next day, I received an email from the Director of Sales and Marketing at Slimeball promoting me to sales rep. He was out of town and didn't know I had just quit!
Suddenly I regretted my decision to work for Pleasant Painters. The job at Slimeball included a little starting salary plus commission, and it seemed more glamorous. The commissions were bigger for solar panels than for paint. The company was larger and people dressed better. When I thought about it, I realized this sounded more fun than doing paint estimates of peoples' houses.
Mistake #4: I changed my mind, quit the paint job, and rejoined the solar company, leaving my bosses at Pleasant high and dry. They had wasted their time and money training me. I was more important to them than I was to Slimeball (which, it turned out, didn't value their employees at all), but I didn't understand this.
At Pleasant, they were just getting into commercial painting and wanted me to be the head of commercial sales. And I still turned them down in favor of the solar company.
A friend had gotten me promoted at Slimeball. I thought this person was egotistical and condescending at first, but convinced myself otherwise because he had a lot of ambition and good business ideas. By picking Slimeball, I was choosing to work with him and and Slimeball's crazy Director of Sales and Marketing over the guys at the paint company.
Mistake #5: I chose the WRONG people to work with.
Good vs. bad sales
What was so awful about this solar company, you ask? The chart above doesn't begin to describe what went on there. It was BAD.
During the sales training I got from Pleasant Painters, the manager drew a line down the middle of the whiteboard and labeled one side "good sales" and the other "bad sales." He proceeded to ask us what words described bad salesmen, and we came up with things like
- they don't listen to the customer
- douchey (this was my comment)
Ironically, what we wrote was a perfect portrait of the Director of Sales and Marketing at Slimeball. Weekly sales training there consisted of him talking a mile a minute about how proud he was that he had sold people so many worthless mortgages and timeshares in his career.
He was extremely authoritarian and would not support any employees' efforts to generate leads in new ways. Sales reps spent their own money to advertise and succeeded in getting new business, and then he wouldn't pay them back for the advertising materials.
He and the Sales Manager insisted that the sales reps should not know how solar panels work! They refused to tell me details like where they got the panels, even though I had some potential customers who were scientists and engineers and kept asking.
During one sales training, he said "Tell them this discount ends next month. It's not true, but you should say it anyway." I wish I had a recording of this.
The company generated a pdf for each potential customer, supposedly showing the costs and benefits of buying solar panels for the roof. Their projected increase in the cost of electricity and their estimates of what customers were currently paying for their utilities were exaggerated, and the entire thing was based on these false numbers.
I figured this out pretty quickly, and they told me not to focus on the numbers. Instead, I was expected to rehearse the sales pitch 100 times until I could trick people into making an irrational decision.
Needless to say, I didn't have this job for very long. I left after less than 2 months and made less than $8000. If I had stuck with Pleasant Painters, I could have easily have made $40-60k in my remaining time in Colorado.
After I left, I heard that another employee had quit because the company was lying to customers about the Federal tax credits on solar panels.
A 30% credit is available, but not every homeowner is eligible. This other employee, who was also a respected realtor in the area, said that she had sold solar panels to a couple who made their decision assuming they'd get the tax credit. They found out after signing the contract that they weren't eligible for the credit and couldn't afford the panels!
This was an accident on her part, because our sleazy Director of Sales and Marketing wanted to close deals at all costs and didn't give her enough information.
Trust your instincts when deciding whom to work with!
This is by far the most important thing I learned. If someone creeps you out on a deep level, then working closely with them is probably not a good idea. Don't overthink the situation or let them convince you that they're actually OK by showing their goo qualities or promising success.
Make sure you understand and believe in the product you're selling.
It's really hard to identify customers' needs and pitch a product as a solution if you don't understand the product! If your company won't tell you about the product, that's a bad sign.
Unless you're a psychopath, sales is much harder when you're trying to sell something you don't believe in. I was not confident enough at my sales appointments because I didn't believe in the company I worked for, and didn't even trust the numbers I was showing.
Never let greed or your ego take over.
Don't make decisions based on the desire to feel important and show off! In the long run, these are not good motivators and are going to hurt you.
I had a strong desire to impress my family, some of my new friends (whom I ended up not even liking), and my coworkers. I literally got caught up in the fast-paced, glamorous lifestyle of driving around in fancy clothes and sunglasses trying to close deals. Close family members said I sounded deluded or grandiose on the phone, and of course I wouldn't listen to them.
I can't help laughing at this ridiculousness now, but it wasn't that long ago. People change quickly.