I Don't Want to be a Sleazy Salesperson

by Seth Moulton


“The most important class you will take at HBS is marketing,” a successful entrepreneur once told me. After my RC year, I found this hard to believe. Yet it’s a theme that I’ve heard from a wide variety of people. Another friend started a small apparel company with no business experience whatsoever. Although it’s plodding along, much of his experience might fall in the category of “learning from failures.” He too tells me, with a certain disdain for my “classroom experience” of the past two years, that I need to get out and hit the pavement as a salesman if I ever want to succeed in business. The number one takeaway from one of our first case protagonists in Founders’ Dilemmas was, “Get a job in sales—carry a bag, and learn to hear ‘No,’ because you need to start with your customers.

But despite all this encouragement, I still don’t like to believe that sales and marketing are all that important—at least not as much so as developing a great product, or managing well, etc. For me, I think the issue comes back to one of David Skok’s primary points: people don’t like being sold to.
I don’t like being sold to! And it makes me feel just a little dirty to be selling something to someone else. (Now before you stop here and say I’m in the wrong school or profession, let me explain.) My dream has always been to found a company with a product that sells itself because it is so good. I do not want to be convincing people that my blue widget is so much better than my competitor’s red widget that they simply have to own my blue widget. When I think about my personal goals of adding value to society through whatever work I do in the business world, achieving success purely based upon my sales ability is the last thing I want to do. I want to contribute something tangible and good to my customers and their prosperity, and in turn, to the society in which they live.

My particular passionate business interest is high-speed rail, and it is something that does, in many respects, sell itself. Focus on running the railroad well, and people will ride your trains. (Note that the Acelas might have more success if Amtrak could achieve step 1.) And despite the conservative political rhetoric you’ll here in Washington about cost, there’s little downside to high-speed rail, which is why it is gaining in favor all across the world, so it fits my need for doing something good for society. But as I’ve studied high-speed railroads, and thought quite a bit about their opportunities in the U.S., I’ve realized that most Americans (certainly today’s Congressional budget cutters) don’t get what their missing. This is why David Skok’s emphasis on the role of
education in sales hit home for me. Educating your customer about your product and, hopefully as part of that process, developing a sense of trust with your customer is critical to closing future sales. Certain tools, such as blogs, he says, should only be used for education. I imagine a blog posts from travelers who enjoy taking trains to downtown stations so they don’t have to rent cars, or feel good about the carbon they’ve saved from their trip, rather than blogs that emphasize the latest fare deals.

Perhaps I’m fooling myself, and my vision of “education” is simply a euphemism for a savvy kind of marketing. If so, I’m ok with that, because I still feel better about
selling in this way, and in turn, I expect my customers will feel better about being sold to if it doesn’t feel so much like, well, exactly that.

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