5 lessons students can learn from sales

Hello! My name is Tabitha Chua, and I’m currently a first-year university student. Before this, I was a salesperson.

Let’s start from the beginning.

I’m sure many of you can relate when I say that I was trained to be academic, especially given the whole ‘educational institution system’. After the ‘normal’ routine of primary school, secondary school, and junior college, I was waiting for university to start.

But I got bored. Very quickly.

You see, the eight months from January to August are, in my opinion, the most boring months ever. There’s nothing productive for you to do. You sit in your room and watch YouTube, or binge Netflix all day. And after doing that for a while, I decided that enough was enough. So, I created a resume, made a LinkedIn profile, and began applying.

The first company that got back to me was a sales company—Vieworks Organization. Initially, I was excited about the job prospects, and hadn’t yet realized how difficult it would be. Throughout my three months in the company, I was pushed to the limits of my comfort zone (and beyond), and was physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged. But I came out of the experience with valuable skills, a renewed mindset, and a determination to carry all I learnt forward with me into my university life.

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Since I am fortunate enough to be a writer on this platform, I have decided to share these lessons with all of you, in the hopes that you too can expand your perspectives and broaden your minds beyond the confines of papers and grades, especially since I now strongly believe there are some lessons institutions can never teach.

But I digress: without further ado, here are the five lessons.

Lesson #1: Develop a Mindset for Rejection

In sales, you get rejected. Every day. Over and over and over again. In fact, I used to joke about getting rejected more times in two weeks on the job than in 19 years of my life! In all honesty, however, there is truth in that ‘joke’. I remember trying and failing to count the number of times I got rejected per day. There are too many ‘no’s to even measure!

And after a while, you know what? That’s ok! People can reject you for many different reasons — maybe they were having a bad day, or maybe they just happen to dislike the product you’re selling because of one bad experience. Regardless of the reason, a no is still a no, so just move on! For every 100 ‘no’s, there will always be one ‘yes’—so just move on to the next prospect.

When I returned to university, this lesson stayed with me. Previously, I was applying for universities overseas and got rejected by my first choice. I was devastated. Then, I got rejected from the USP program after entering NUS. This time, instead of going into a full-on breakdown, I just shrugged my shoulders and carried on with life. I’m still in NUS, after all, and many other opportunities await me. Why should one rejection get to me?

Lesson #2: Always Find Solutions, Not Problems

Before sales, I was a ‘typical Singaporean’: I love hawker food, I like to sing K, and I love complaining. A teacher hasn’t marked my essay even though it’s been a week? I complain. My school implements a lot of useless systems that don’t help me study in any way? I complain. There seems to be a lot of drama and gossip around me that I find useless? I complain. It wasn’t a conscious act, but it was simply the ‘default’ action, both among students and my friends.

When I went into sales, this tendency got eradicated. I used to complain that I was tired in my early days on the job. My direct mentor pulled me aside during one-to-one training and said: ‘I heard you complain about being tired on the field. But what if you’re tired? I mean, do you need to rest for five minutes, or do you need to sit down on the stairs? Instead of repeating the problem over and over again, why don’t you offer a solution?’

From that day forward, I have always taught myself to look for the solution. Stuck in a boring lecture that lasts for two hours? Eat a snack while you type your notes. Feeling the effects of ‘zoom fatigue’? Read a book or do your chores, then come back and stare at the screen again. Tired of academic readings? Switch to answering emails from professors. No matter what, there will always be a solution. Find the solution instead of fixating on the problem.

Lesson #3: Always Give 100%, but No Expectations

As a student, I was often hard on myself. I’m sure many of you can relate. We study so hard, hoping to get a scholarship, enter a world-renowned university like Cambridge, or get on the Dean’s list. But when we fail to meet our expectations, disappointment, bitterness, and despair become constant companions.

This all changed when I went into sales. As a salesperson, the most important thing isn’t the results (although, of course, good results are celebrated). The most important thing on the field is to give your 100% at all times. There are so many factors out of your control — the person had a bad day, they wanted to say yes but their parents say no instead, they have no money to pay for the product… All these are things one cannot control. And so, the best mindset is to give every customer 100% without expecting a yes. If they say yes, congrats! If not, you’ve given it your best and it’s time to move on.

Now, even when applying for CCAs like the NUS Entrepreneurship Society, I tell myself: just do your best in the forms and interviews, but don’t expect anything. Just give 100%, and go from there.

Lesson #4: Always Focus on the Positives

It is natural for us human beings to fixate on the negatives. There’s an interesting ‘experiment’ of sorts on Facebook[1], where a teacher writes down ten simple equations and purposely gets one wrong. The students immediately point it out and begin laughing. The teacher calmly turns around and says, ‘let this be a lesson—you succeed nine times, but people will always remember the one time you failed.’

In sales, there is a lot one can be negative about. And I mean a lot. The rejection, the exhaustion, bad customers…the list goes on and on. But they taught me a lesson.

One day, the head of our department had us all stand in a circle, and asked us, “Am I a good and civilized person?”

One by one, we gave our answers—many jokingly said no, others said yes, some said yes and no. By the end of it, he said to us, ‘the point of this exercise was to show you that negativity will be everywhere—all you have to do is focus on the positives’ (in this case, the people who said yes).

Nowadays, whenever something bad happens unexpectedly, and I get frustrated, I tell myself to list five positive things that happened over the course of the week – for example, I met a friend, or I found a new song I like, or I didn’t have to leave the house. After that exercise, I find myself much calmer and happier than before.

Lesson #5: Grades Do Not Define You

Now, this might sound obvious. But a lot of us struggle with internalising it. We fail one exam, and we define ourselves as failures. We struggle to reconcile our identity with the grade we received, especially if it’s not a good one.

I used to do that. For me, my confidence was based entirely on my academics, and the moment I stepped out of that field and went into something completely different (like sales), I found I had no confidence in myself. The only way I defined myself was through my grades.

But in that company, I met people who were the best leaders and mentors I ever had. They were so confident being themselves, and they were so good at making me feel included. They could make me laugh, even though they didn’t understand half the words I used because they were ‘too complicated’. And most, if not all were very unstudious, especially according to conventional standards.

They were capable of doing things that students were not, and they were the ones who finally pushed me to have confidence in myself, and to recognize that my identity is not merely a student. I am not merely one thing, and I will never again be defined by an ‘A’ on a paper.

And that’s my take on the five lessons students can learn from sales! There are, of course, many other lessons they taught me, like leadership and communication and breaking out of my comfort zone. These are the ones I deem most practical, and perhaps most important for just ‘general advice’.

Hope this helped!

[1] Facebook. (2016). Retrieved 24 August 2021, from https://m.facebook.com/AmericanEnglishatState/posts/one-day-a-school-teacher-wrote-on-the-board-the-following91792189327943695459654/10154772194289123/

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