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?

45 comments to This American Life’s Ode to Sales

  • Mrs. Pop I’ve worked in sales for the last 15 years. When I started as a rep we basically get judged within our unit. Now that I got promoted and responsible for Hawaii now I can’t hide because I’m responsible for my reps whose number is reflected in mine. I do love sales especially when a business plan that I put together is going to help them make money.
    Charles@Gettingarichlife recently posted..Top 5 Dividend Stocks For 2014My Profile

  • I’ve never worked in sales but I imagine it can be a pretty crazy environment. I’ve never heard it described like you have where your sales numbers influence you place in the social hierarchy, but that definitely adds a whole other layer to the pressure! Sounds like a job for some and maybe not others.
    Matt Becker recently posted..Traditional vs. Roth IRA: Some Unconventional Wisdom on Which is Better for Young InvestorsMy Profile

  • I have never worked in sales but I think I would enjoy the income peaks and valleys. I’m pretty money motivated!

    My husband tried sales earlier this year and did not like it. But, I think it had more to do with what he was selling which was mostly whole life insurance. He couldn’t get behind a product that he actually thought was wrong for people.
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..Hey Guys, it’s 2014: Saving on WirelessMy Profile

    • Mama PoP

      I think that the product really should be matched with the salesman as well as the circumstances. My dad (Mr. PoP’s grandfather) was a pretty good salesman but at one point failed when he was trying to sell hail insurance in Indiana. The crops had already been harvested so naturally the farmers weren’t in the mood to hear about hail storms. Dad personally agreed with them and just couldn’t make himself push something that he didn’t think they needed at the time.

  • It’s great to hear your thoughts on sales Mr, Pop. I distrust all salesmen, but I’ve come to trust your open and honest opinion. So it’s comforting that the consumer is getting screwed less with the advent of widely available research. Sales does sound like quite a thrill ride!
    Cash Rebel recently posted..2013, a year for progressMy Profile

  • I listened to that episode too and my one big thought was, “I NEVER EVER want to work in sales!”

    “The Customer Is (Probably) Not Getting Screwed”

    In that episode, they kept on saying that the dealership isn’t making that much off of the sale. True, but this has been the case with auto sales for years. All of the money is made back in the service department.

    I still don’t trust the sales-people. I’ve heard it all:
    -> “I’m new here.” No you aren’t, you’re just trying to get me to let my guard down.
    -> “We’re selling you this car for invoice.” This may be true, but what about the holdback?
    -> “You should get the fabric protector!” NO!

    I’m glad that I won’t be buying another car for at least a decade. Well, maybe the NSX bug will bite me…
    Mr. 1500 recently posted..Performance Update 12/50: December and 2013My Profile

  • I know my personality is so not cut out for sales. Freelancing is a hard and scary enough ride for me…I crave more stability to keep me balanced. I’m so impressed with people who can though!
    Tonya@Budget and the Beach recently posted..Adventures Around the World: Life as a Travel Club OrganizerMy Profile

  • One of my favorite TAL episodes, ever. I get a weird high about hearing the negotiations go back and forth, as the deals get close to closing. The one salesman who at first refuses to talk to the reporter, and then bonds over The Art of War: what a character. I also liked hearing about their top salesman, who was way more driven by his own goals than by the competition with other salesmen. Great stuff!
    Done by Forty recently posted..What’s it Like in America?My Profile

  • I don’t have the personality for sales. I can answer the technical questions, make the customer happy once they’re a customer, but initial sales are not my bag. I know some folks that love it though – to each his (or her) own!
    Mom @ Three is Plenty recently posted..Detailed Financial Picture – January 2014My Profile

  • Anne

    I like dealing with my industrial sales guys (pumps, process equipment) at work since they’re things I need to get to make our company money it feels like a win for everyone. I can’t stand car shopping and bought my last car through Costco’s program with pre-negotiated member prices which was nice. I remember asking how they could sell them for so little over dealer invoice (I think I paid $100 over invoice) and the answer was ALL about volume of sales and bonuses from the manufacturer based on that.

    • Luckily I think most of Mr PoP’s clients feel about him the way that you do about your industrial sales guys =) and not so much like the car salesmen.

  • I think sales jobs are some of the hardest. Never say never, but I could NEVER be a sales rep. I had an ex who worked in sales and I was just not envious at all. I would hate having to pitch people to buy my stuff–and yet it seems like such an important part of capitalism.

  • Sue

    I trust sales folks for the most part, but the service department at the dealership has to be the worst at ripping people off. Wish they would do a documentary on that side of the dealership.

    Great post! Enjoy reading about your insight.

  • I’m going to listen to this right now. My husband just started a sales job (selling cars no less) – the competitive aspect is definitely interesting! Although a lot of the guys once they make bonus for the month just coast on their laurels. I’m also going to write a post soon about some of the other interesting aspect of the job.
    eemusings recently posted..Wordless Wednesday: Coasting down California, complete with elephant sealsMy Profile

  • lisa

    Last truck I bought I got screwed. It was a lemon money pit.

  • Great post!! It probably wasn’t the kind of pressure you’re used to, but I worked in mortgage sales for a highly successful office manager for 5 years back in the heyday of the mortgage boom. The stress level was incredible, the high of hitting or exceeding your goals, also incredible. Sales work can be like a drug. It was an absolutely awesome job, one where we all made (and promptly blew) tons of money, but I’m not sure I’d go back.
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted..Work From Home or Stay at Home: How to Balance the TasksMy Profile

    • I imagine mortgage sales were quite a ride there for a while. A few folks from Mr PoP’s office sold mortgages before moving to tech sales…

  • My mom worked in sales for 15 years and the pressure was insane, especially around the holidays. She was always an amazing leader and was the best in the state at what she sold, but there were months where she didn’t make it and threats would be handed to her by her bosses. I just cannot imagine that life.
    Michelle @fitisthenewpoor recently posted..Underemployment: Big Issue or Just Ego?My Profile

  • This was a thought provoker, and one that I enjoy. It’s great to hear the experiences of someone who has been working in sales, and the perceptions of other readers. I’ve spent a good amount of time selling used cars and electronics on Craigslist. Like you, I love it. I enjoy the negotiating and selling both actually.

    I’ll likely own a wealth management business in the future and that will be 100% selling myself. We’ll see how I like it then! :)
    Cash Cow Couple recently posted..Scottrade Review: A Client Centered BrokerageMy Profile

    • Selling yourself is tough because you’ve also got to focus on delivery and follow-through. Depending on the sale, Mr PoP doesn’t always have to worry about that in what he does since the clients get handed off to someone else after he closes.

  • Oh my goodness. You are so right! I work for a large hotel, and I handle the financial side of sales – putting together and invoices and collecting payment. I could seriously never be a salesperson. While I respect what they do, I do not understand how they can be so disorganized and hardworking at the same time. It seems like every day, my mind is blown…I am not outgoing, so the sales life is not for me at all!
    Retired By 40 recently posted..2014 Budget!My Profile

    • Mr PoP’s not outgoing at all, but he makes it work in his favor. He’s really good at listening to the client and understanding what they want rather than dominating the conversation and telling them what they need.

  • I hate sales. I didn’t directly do them, but obviously my optometry practice was dependent upon people buying products. I was always fine promoting things I know work and would add value, but I never could try to sell someone something they didn’t need. I think in our industry and in the area where we live, it worked well because people tended to respect you and were repeat customers. If we were more heavily oriented in hard sell tactics, I think people would run. I would have never made it if I’d had to meet a quota, though.
    Kim@Eyesonthedollar recently posted..Should You Support a Lazy Kid?My Profile

    • “I was always fine promoting things I know work and would add value”

      This is a big process of Mr PoP’s sales process. He’s always sold things that are “best in class”, so he was pretty confident he wasn’t selling something worthless to the customer.

  • […] out Pennies wrote about an Ode to Sales by a radio […]

  • I heard that episode driving home from Long Island so it was meant to be, lol. My mom works in short term auto financing for auto auctions for dealers. She worked in Ford Financing for 7 years prior so I told her she had to listen to that episode. It is kind of sad how hard it is for folks in sales. I think in that episode they said that new car dealers profit margins are the 2nd lowest in the country–the only thing with lower profit margins is grocery stores. That really resonated with me as we all have this view that car dealers are rolling in the dough.

    Sales is definitely not for me. I hated being a waitress for the same reason… having my paycheck directly dependent on customers was not something I wanted.
    Tara @ Streets Ahead Living recently posted..Materialistic Envy is So Easy to CatchMy Profile

  • Good post. I’m in sales and I love it. I love getting the deal. It’s definitely an adrenaline rush for me. I am motivated by my next commission check both for me and for providing for my family.

    I am careful on what I advise people to purchase as we are in a small town and I will likely see them in the grocery store. I’m not under the type of pressure to sell that makes it a miserable job or makes me question my ethics. It us a good balance for me of doing what’s right for the client while also making a good living doing it

    • “I’m not under the type of pressure to sell that makes it a miserable job or makes me question my ethics”

      That’s definitely a good thing. While Mr PoP’s job gets stressful at times, I don’t think it’s ethically questionable in the least.