I sold military jet fighters to our foreign allies. We regularly competed either against our in-country rivals (F/A-18 (Boeing) vs F-16 (Lockheed)) or against offerings by the French (Mirage), the Russians (MiG), or the Sweden/UK (Gripen).
A year after closing this large complex sale I was asked to take over the role as Program Manager. This entailed ensuring the execution of this project to deliver 25 jets, spare parts, training, support equipment, and a software development facility to this foreign Government.
One particular day as I was taking my early morning status walk through the vast production line an older mechanic in the F-15 wing shop stopped me and introduced himself. He said he wanted to shake my hand. I humbly accepted his handshake. But I was puzzled and asked him why. He said he had learned I was the salesperson responsible for the F-15 jet he was building. He wanted to thank me for the win. I was taken aback. He went on to say that because of that win and the resultant backlog to the F-15 production line he would have a job until retirement and that he would also have the means to finish putting his two kids through college. For this he was grateful and wanted to personally thank me for the effort it took to win that competition.
I’ll admit that meeting shook me up - deeply. It wasn’t until that very encounter that I began to fully appreciate the number of lives impacted by a sales win, or worse, a loss. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized these highly trained men and women had no say in the strategy choices we made, the thousands of presentations we gave, the consultants we hired, or the demonstrations we conducted. They had no voice at all. Yet they were the most vulnerable if we failed at our job.
The thing is, we routinely used job figures to explain to Congress the impact of their domestic military aircraft buying decisions. I guess I just never connected the figures on the page with real people, like this man from the wing shop or my job for that matter. Not until this one very personal encounter.
At that time there were roughly 100 people who were directly involved in some way with the military aircraft sales process. Yet the engineers, manufacturing personnel, buyers of material, parts and supplies, building maintenance, security, and test pilots represented thousands of lives whose jobs depended on that small sales team. The number of lives impacted grows to tens of thousands if you consider their families and the direct impact their salaries have on the local economy (grocery stores, auto dealers, restaurant, etc...). The figures get even more significant when you roll in the jobs of those who do sub-contracting work (engine manufacturers, etc...) and those who are impacted by the company’s stock price (retirees, investors, etc...). But not one of these folks gets to make an input on how we approach a sales campaign, or challenge us to work harder, or fire us if we are incompetent in our jobs. But they will most certainly lose their job at worse or feel considerable financial impact if we fail in ours.
Whether selling a software solution to a manufacturing company or something huge like being the construction company of a new baseball stadium, real people’s lives are impacted by how well you perform your role in sales - by how well know your customers, by how well you understand their problems, by how creatively you deploy all company resources to devise solutions, and by how respectful you are of the skill and intelligence of your competitors.
If after reading this you still seek the excitement, pressure and prestige that comes with accepting a role in sales for any company then take the discipline of sales seriously. Learn your craft. Become a servant to your customer. Earn his/her business by solving their problems. And if you need additional motivation, know that what you do affects lives ... lots of lives.