This American Life’s Ode to Sales

I love listening to This American Life.  So when Mrs. PoP told me they were doing a segment dedicated to the ups and downs of sales team at a Jeep dealership in New York, I had to tune in.

Here’s the teaser for the episode… so give the player a shot and listen.

“Episode 513: 129 Cars
We spend a month at a Jeep dealership on Long Island as they try to make their monthly sales goal: 129 cars. If they make it, they’ll get a huge bonus from the manufacturer, possibly as high as $85,000 – enough to put them in the black for the month. If they don’t make it, it’ll be the second month in a row. So they pull out all the stops.”

Have a listen, and take a look at pictures of the sales team here:

Honestly, when this piece came out in December, I was still on the bubble at work and some of the content hit a little too close to home! (Mrs PoP – After Mr PoP locked himself in his office man cave one night to listen to this episode I asked him what he thought of it. “I don’t really want to talk about it yet,” was the response.)

But now that the year has come to a successful close, I gave it another listen and was surprised at the parallels between B2B tech sales and slinging cars to consumers.

Sales Is A Messy Business

I work for one of the most professional and high performing tech-sales organizations in the world, and sometimes it still looks like a goat rodeo. Blown deals, misplaced contracts and last minute miracles are not just for dealerships – it occurs in every sales organization I’ve been a part of. As one of my (female) managers tells her team, “Sales isn’t for sissies!”

The Pressure Is Real

In commission sales you would think that you would be worried the most about the financial aspects of failure – lower pay, not being able to pay the bills, save for your 401k, etc. Not entirely true! (Mrs PoP – For us, I think the variability of Mr PoP’s pay is a nice incentive to save even more. Because the income is more uncertain we never want to have to rely on it, and it ends up mostly going towards savings.)

But there’s another source of pressure, too. Your sales numbers are public and the entire sales floor gets ranked by performance. What this means is that not only is your place in the social hierarchy within the sales group a reflection of your performance, but your performance can also start to become a reflection of your standing within the social hierarchy. So just when you can’t pay your bills and your social standing at work is falling apart, the pressure causes your mindset to fall apart and you start to put internal pressure on yourself…if you can’t handle the pressure it can feed on itself.

The Customer Is (Probably) Not Getting Screwed

This was probably the thing that surprised me the most about commission sales. There is a caricature of a commission sales person as being a predator, taking advantage of the innocent consumer (and if nothing else, you’ve got to listen to the clip of salesman Manny Rosales explaining the connections he has made between selling cars and Sun Tzu’s ancient Chinese military treatise, The Art of War (Link to Amazon).

But the reality is that it’s just not that way. Because of the internet, and the nature of our ever-more interconnected world, the balance of power is really on the side of the consumer. What this means is that the salesperson is really just hustling to stay alive.

The Camaraderie Is Amazing

When the pressure is on, the camaraderie within the sales force becomes evident – there are late night parties, chip switching, wild characters, best friends, and even a few worst enemies. But most sales people aren’t out to hurt one another. Their successes are not found in the failures of others. In the Jeep dealership we hear about one salesman, Mike, having the sale of his “15th car” fall through – the 15th car being the point at which commissions accelerate and the real money is made. When a fellow salesman, Scott, realizes it was Mike’s “clutch sale” that fell through, Scott suggests they process the paperwork for one of Scott’s sales under Mike’s name to ensure Mike hits 15 for the month.

All in all, working in sales is a helluva ride. I don’t think I’ll ever have a gambling addiction, but I’ll probably never leave sales. It has the highest highs, the lowest lows, and when you are on a run there is nothing like it in the world.


Have you ever worked in sales? How does this compare to what you thought working in a competitive sales environment would be like?

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