Everyone has that picture in their head of the prototypical sales rep. I am not talking about the used car salesman image, but the one of the über successful salesperson. Tall and good looking, outgoing, and probably athletic. Of course, having known many sales people over the years, the reality is that great sales professionals come in all shapes and sizes and personalities and athletic prowess. The only commonality that ties salespeople together is an unhealthy appetite for accepting rejection and an incredible well of persistence.

A while back ago, Jason Lemkin of SaaStr fame swung by NYC to spend some time with startup founders. He also gave a talk which I had the opportunity to attend. One of the recurring themes I honed in on from his talk was the idea of hiring athletes whether to manage product or to run sales.

Now you might think that hiring athletes seems like a bit of stretch. Let’s face it, many folks in tech, even in sales, do not exactly hue to the ideal of being athletic. Besides what does being an “athlete” have to do with closing long and complex deals for nascent solutions offered by startups? Well, not much, because if experience is any guide, one’s ability to do triathlons or bench press stacks of weights does not translate to quota killing, sales comp smashing performance.

However, it is not so much about the physical attributes of the body, but the mental acuity of the mind. The athlete has intense focus and discipline. The athlete has clear and specific objectives. The athlete is results driven. The athlete is relentless in improving and iterating and practicing. The athlete does not back down from the challenge, but instead tackles it head on.

That is the model of the modern sales rep. In a day and age when building chummy relationships and getting by purely from one’s network are gone, there needs to be a better way for salespeople to succeed. It is not by being the classic relationship builder.  Simply working hard only goes so far because many sales reps can and do work hard. Running purely on gut feel is too high risk in high stakes sales opportunities. On the other hand, being too data oriented and detailed can stifle the innovation and creativity needed to forge new accounts.

The new model of sales is the idea of being a “challenger.” The concept is nothing particularly new having been introduced by the CEB several years ago.  That being said, I have seen many badly implemented programs focused more on the “challenge” part and less on the value to customers or advancing of the sales cycle.

Simply put, the Challenger Sale is not about confrontation. It’s a way of introducing new ideas that changes the perspective of the prospective client. Those new ideas are novel and contrary to industry currents, are pertinent to the audience being pitched, and are always tied back to value. In short, the salesperson needs to be well prepared long before introducing herself to the potential customer.

What is responsible for spawning this newer approach to sales? It is mostly a function of greater information available to customers through analysts and Internet sources as well as the growing complexity of enterprises themselves. This has created better educated customers that are both in control of the sales process and have higher expectations of the vendor sales teams.

So the type of salespeople you need are athletes, but the mentally tough kind that have the discipline and perseverance to succeed. Sales is the toughest of jobs in a company which is why it is the highest paid position, but also the one with greatest turnover. It is no mistake that many famous quotes by athletes work so well in a sales context, like this one from Michael Jordan:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

That could be any sales rep prospecting, hitting the streets, and banging on doors. It is drudgery and thankless and often humiliating. It is not a job for you if you need instant gratification or to be always liked. You wear rejection nearly every single day and it is enough to wear out the most seasoned professional. And that it why it is so crucial to hire the “athletes,” the ones that have the heart to push through the down periods and stretch towards the high points.

One note before closing however on the physical side of being an athlete. Many salespeople forget that they not only have a sales quota to smash, but they also have their bodies to care for. Steak dinners, fast food joints, constant travel, lack of sleep little sleep, events with booze, and no exercise all take their toll. This is something that I have personally been negligent of over the years. Unlike money or relationships, your health is not something you can ever get back.

The best athletes recognize the importance of balance between pushing hard and rest. The best salespeople understand the need for hard work interspersed with down time in order to rest and rejuvenate. If it is good enough for world-class athletes, then it is good enough for any sales professional.  Stay sharp mentally and keep healthy physically and go win those deals!


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