You're Never Too Young to Sell

Here are 12 ways to develop your skills and overcome prospective customers' concerns when you're starting out in sales

A young rep for a well-known investment firm rang my doorbell recently, trying to drum up a new customer in the age-old tradition of door-to-door salesmen. I wasn't surprised he had come to my door—I was taken aback that he was only in his early 20s and asking me to entrust my finances to him.

Ignore my initial reaction—if you're young and in sales, congratulations! I remember when I started selling in my early 20s. People used to suggest I wait 10 years and then start my sales career so I would have more credibility. I didn't listen to their well-meaning advice and kept selling. You should, too.

To get some fresh perspectives on overcoming a customer's concern about a salesperson's youthfulness, I spoke with Cassie Pruett, a 22-year-old employee of Reach Group Consulting, a marketing firm based in Eugene, Ore. She graduated from the University of Oregon this past June, started working for the Reach Group in July, and scored her first big client project with Nike (NKE) in October, so listen up. Our 12 suggestions are organized in the order of the sales cycle.

1. Find a mentor. Seek out someone you connect with who's experienced in your field and is willing to invest in you. Many successful people had mentors who aided in their achievement, and now they may want to return the favor.

Don't assume your mentor has to be your gender. A young woman could learn a lot from a mature woman mentor and she could also learn a lot from a mature man. Remember that your mentor will probably learn some new ideas from you, too.

2. Dress to impress. Make sure your clothes, accessories, and sales tools are high-quality and conservative, but do have a touch of youthfulness. For example, this could mean a navy suit with a conservatively cut lime-green shirt or eye-catching shoes. You don't want to look dowdy, but you don't want to look risky either.

And unless you sell body piercings, leave this type of jewelry at home, except for a maximum of two earrings per ear for women. If you ignore this advice, success will be difficult.

3. Invest in well-designed sales materials. Quality business cards, letterhead, Web sites, and other materials have a significant impact on the client's initial perceived value of you and your offerings. Good design gives you a chance to stand out and breeds confidence for both you and your clients.

4. Remember who the customer is. You have probably been a customer your whole life. Your college valued your happiness because it wanted your continued patronage. Now the tables have turned. The people you call on these days are the customers, and they don't care about how you feel. All they care about is how you can make them better off, so that's where to keep your focus.

5. Make your youthfulness beneficial. No matter what you sell, find a benefit for customers to buy from someone your age. For example, if you sell investments, your edge could be that you understand the latest technologies and can advise your clients on stocks in a way that many 50-plus-year-old advisers might not be able to.

6. Be authentic. Find one unique aspect or interest of yours to share with your potential clients. Perhaps you're from New York City, love Irish dancing, or raise chinchillas for a hobby. Share this with your clients, perhaps through a funny pin you wear or a small gift you give them. You will stand out from the generic, cookie-cutter masses.

7. Perfect your patter. Practice your presentation and stories so you sound confident and don't stumble when you speak (see, 1/5/06, "Proving Your Worth as a Speaker"). Share examples and information that show your guidance is thoughtful and valuable.

8. Develop a client portfolio. Get practical experience to build your skills and a portfolio of clients, even if you initially work at a greatly reduced cost to them.

Those initial clients can also refer you to their friends for more experience—and sales.

9. Connect with your connections. The young man at my door had been a leader in his fraternity and contacted its alumni. That way, he knew he wasn't calling complete strangers—after all, they both know the same secret handshake—and could find willing buyers or get leads on prospects.

10. Ask smart questions. Good questions put the focus on the client's needs, demonstrate competence, and clarify understanding. Questioning is an undervalued skill that may hide some of your knowledge gaps and help you better understand your client's needs and desires, too. Example questions to start the conversation: How will you be measuring success? What will a good outcome look like for you?

11. Create and offer free information. Give materials—both printed and online—that provide information of value to your potential and existing clients. This will help position you as a resource and a legitimate expert in your field.

These materials also give you a reason to follow up. You can ask if customers and prospects had a chance to review them and if you could answer any questions or provide them with any further information—then find out if they're ready to buy.

12. Listen and learn. Even though your formal education has ended, your informal education has just begun. See the world as your university. Read, observe, research—and learn. Pay attention to what clients, other professionals, and trusted resources are saying. Look for common complaints, compliments, fears, and areas of confusion to focus on. You may also uncover new niches to serve, materials to develop, and jargon to familiarize yourself with.

Let's face it—selling when you're young is tough work. However, the only way 45-year-old salespeople gain 20 years of experience is by starting when they're in their early 20s—just like this young man on my doorstep. So if you're a young salesperson, don't get discouraged. Apply these ideas and get going. Happy selling!

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