I admit, being raised in a proselytizing, doomsday cult wasn’t the easiest of upbringings. But the sales training I received is one of the few positive aspects I took away from that experience.
By age four, I was accompanying my parents as we went door-to-door handing out pamphlets to strangers.
By age seven, I was giving 5-minute prepared sermons to the entire congregation.
By the time I was in my early twenties, I was giving hour-long sermons every month.
Eventually I woke up and left the cult for good.
The intent of this post isn’t to get into the hot, sticky topic of religion. Instead, it’s about finding the silver lining in experiences that shape who we are as people. We all come from different walks of life. We may see the world through different lenses, but we’re all working to build a better future for ourselves, and our families.
Here are the skills I learned from my ultra-religious upbringing and how I apply them to lead a much richer, more fulfilling life as an entrepreneur.
1. Get over rejection
We go through so much of our life avoiding scenarios where we might get stung with the pain of rejection. That fear keeps a lot of people from even starting a business in the first place.
No one wants to fail.
No one wants to hear the words, “I’m not interested.”
I still remember the anxiety I felt as a child walking up to a stranger’s front door. My suit was too tight in the waist, and too long in the sleeves. My presentation was rehearsed but not well enough, and I was afraid I’d forget what to say.
I hoped that no one answered the door.
Occasionally people would scoff at me, swear, or slam the door in my face. Once a man held a broom up as if he was going to hit me with it. That was kind of funny. Kind of.
Most people just didn’t answer the door. Or they would say they didn’t have time, or simply weren’t interested.
The important thing I learned was this: It wasn’t personal. I was just a kid in an ill-fitting suit, trying to leave pamphlets full of propaganda in their hands. I usually let it roll off me like water off a duck.
While I still feel a visceral dread when knocking on strangers doors now, even if it’s just to tell them their car lights are on, one thing I don’t fear as much is rejection when selling.
Rejection is a part of life. A landing page will never convert at 100%, and not everyone you talk to about your business is going to want to buy from you.
All rejection means is that what you are selling is of no value to the person you’re talking to right now. It could mean you either need to change what you’re selling (build a better product), or who you’re selling it to (go after a different market).
Remember, it’s not about you. It’s not personal. Take the rejection, learn from it, and move on.
2. Public speaking is as essential as reading and writing
I remember when I was in school watching other kids get up and read in front of the class. They were audibly shaking, swaying back and forth, not making eye contact. They were terrified.
Why? Because I was already speaking in front of big groups at my church and then was graded afterwards by an adult in front of that audience.
Like most of my religious experiences as a child, it was awkward, but it sure helped me when it came time to present to the school. Part of my weekly training included learning concepts like “sense stress”, “modulation”, “emphasis”, and “extemporaneous delivery”.
Points were deducted from my score if I didn’t make enough eye contact with the audience, or my hand gestures weren’t natural enough, or I exhibited any distracting habits like swaying, gripping the podium, or saying “um” between phrases.
This might sound like too much pressure to place on a kid, but I actually liked giving talks. The skills I learned serve me even now whether I’m pitching to investors, talking to a customer over the phone or hosting a podcast, even if I’m still not the speaker I would like to be some day.
Speaking is an art, and doing it well is as important a skill as being able to read and write. It’s like a muscle you exercise that gets better the more you use it. If you objectively work to improve your speaking it can have a major impact on your effectiveness when selling what you do.
Coming up: A future post will walk through some specific speaking tips that can help you in this way.
3. Teaching and sales go hand-in-hand
The official cult training materials never used the word “sales” to describe our proselytizing activity. Instead it was called “teaching”.
While I can readily admit that what we were teaching was ultimately of little value to people, the methods and strategies of teaching I learned were invaluable.
- Asking questions to get people thinking
- Use clear, simple metaphors and examples
- The power of using opposites ( what to do, what not to do)
These concepts were imprinted on me at a young age, and have been helpful in situations like creating training materials or training employees. I’ll break down these concepts into more detail in a future post.
Selling effectively is not accomplished by being pushy, smarmy, or by employing any other negative quality people often associate with sales. It’s done by knowing your subject and being able to effectively communicate its value to someone who will benefit from it.
If someone can learn from you, they will likely buy from you.
4. Organize your sales process
This might sound a bit creepy, but the religion I was raised in had a very tightly defined process for trying to convert people.
- Every neighborhood in the city was divided up and grouped into territories. The group of people going out on a particular day was divided into car groups to work a territory, and we would cover the territory in pairs of two.
- After giving our sales pitch to a lead (which we called “householders”), we would aim to leave something with them, like a pamphlet, book or magazine depending on their level of interest. We’d ask their first name and tell them we would follow up again to get their thoughts on what they read.
- Leaving their door step, we would write down the person’s first name, address, and any other details, like what we left, what we spoke about, and the date.
- That lead or “return visit”, as the householder was then called, would be followed up repeatedly, until they either agreed to a sit-down study or they asked us not to come back.
- If a return visit became a “bible study”, we would study a book with them that was designed to move them down the funnel to officially convert them.
Yeah, it’s pretty icky.
Our sales process was drilled into us at weekly meetings until it became second nature. We were so well brainwashed that we could be trained to brainwash others without even knowing what we were doing.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that you should use any manipulative, mind-control tactics when selling to leads. But having a process works, and it’s the only way to grow your business.
At some point, you aren’t going to be able to rely just on yourself to bring in clients.
Many entrepreneurs hire a salesperson, thinking they will automatically bring in new leads. But in actual fact, it’s your job as the owner to write the playbook and train the salespeople you hire to execute on a tightly defined process — a process you created by knowing what works.
A future post will outline tools and processes for growing your sales team, and how to write a playbook to train your salespeople on.
5. Be truly pumped about what you’re selling
You know how I learned this truth in my years in the door-to-door cult?
Because I hated preaching door-to-door. Hated it.
Outwardly I may have believed the message, but inside I wrestled with nagging doubts. Not surprisingly, and quite thankfully, I was completely ineffective at recruiting people. I never converted a single person.
All the processes and strategies and techniques and years of training couldn’t make up for the fact that I was selling garbage that I didn’t really believe in, and so could rarely ever convince anyone else to believe it.
I noticed a huge difference once I began selling things I was passionate about — design, technology, and marketing.
Good salespeople are not people who can sell ice to Inuit. Those are scam artists.
Good salespeople have something of value to offer and know how to communicate it to those who will benefit from it. Step one is to find something worth selling.
This same principle applies no matter what business you’re in.
So while growing up in the cult had many, many challenges, I’m happy that I’m able to look back and extract positive aspects that have helped me move forward in my new life. Which is another important business lesson: you will inevitably get knocked down, experience setbacks, or maybe even failure but the critical thing is to learn from each of those experiences and use those lessons to keep on keepin’ on. Cuz that’s what entrepreneurs do.
What to expect next
The aim of this blog is all about what we’ve learned as agency owners, business owners, employees, employers, salespeople, entrepreneurs, and humans trying to make a living doing something we love while paying the bills. The posts will be written primarily by me, and Jennifer Faulkner, who is our marketing manager at Proposify, and someone I’ve known and worked with for over ten years.
Neither Jennifer or I can rightly be called “sales gurus”, but between us both, we have bought, started, grown, and sold businesses successfully. We’ve learned about business from unexpected sources, like the one I discussed here, and by trying, taking risks, and asking questions.
We’ve also both learned a lot over the years working with Kevin Springer, the other co-founder of Proposify, and while Kevin doesn’t fancy himself a writer, he’s got decades of entrepreneurial experience we’ll draw from. Kevin and I chat with entrepreneurs every week in our podcast, Agencies Drinking Beer, and always come away with incredible insights from people smarter than us.
Maybe you’re on your first, or third, or twenty-second business. Maybe you work at someone else’s company but are looking to make the leap yourself, or you want to excel in your current role.
Either way, I hope you’ll join us on this ride and I’d love it if you shared your thoughts below.