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Can Sales Ability Really Be Taught?

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Can sales ability really be taught? Or is it a natural talent that you are born with? I now know the answer after observing many real-life experiments in nature vs. nurture during our family’s tradition of participating in Lemonade Day.

The big day came around again last May—the perfect time to run a lemonade stand—and my kids opened for business with one objective in mind: get more experience running a business. They were excited to get into the business stuff of figuring out their profit margin, dealing with financing, and developing a marketing plan. For me, it was more about watching another mini morality play about sales talent (or the lack thereof).

My older daughter was already a veteran of Lemonade Day. Since it was now her third year of running the stand, she took pride in the fact that she could discuss location, profit margin, perceived value, and sales/marketing with the best of them. “Scary smart,” and with a reading level that is literally off the chart for her age, she is also a full grade ahead in math. She can count back change in her sleep and greatly enjoyed figuring out how to quadruple the fractions in both her cookie and lemonade recipes as she measured out her ingredients flawlessly. What she couldn’t do was sell. Period. 

Despite reading lots of information on selling, discussing at length how to approach a customer, and practicing over and over, she simply wasn’t comfortable with selling. And it showed. She lacked enthusiasm and confidence because she lacked the innate talents for selling.

I see this in my job all the time. I often interview sales candidates who are earnest and hard working, but lack much of what it takes to be great at sales. They can talk about sales with the best of them, and they may give it their all, but they simply are not naturally able to interact with people and convince them to buy a product. We frequently hear from hiring managers, “But they are so nice,” or “They come across as very knowledgeable about sales.” But, even with sales training, that simply isn’t enough.

My six-year-old, on the other hand, is a natural. She was four years old the first year that her older sister opened the lemonade stand for business. Too young to take an active role, she was still considered an “employee” and was generously paid in cookies by her entrepreneurial sister. (It’s amazing what a four-year-old will do for cookies!) Fired up with excitement, she marched up and down the sidewalk in front of their stand yelling “cookies and lemonade” in her megaphone (what was grandma thinking?!) to all of the cars driving by. She was relentlessly persistent, running as far as the sidewalk (and Mommy) would let her go, in order to chase people down. One man did a U-turn, drove back, bought a cookie and a glass of lemonade, and then gave her a great big tip. We won’t even get into what her big sister thought of that. 

Somehow, this little person, at the age of four, already had that combination of charm, energy, and assertiveness that we see in great salespeople. This year, a full-fledged partner in the business, she stood in front of their stand in her hot pink “Cooking Diva” apron and continued to persuade and convince her many customers to hear the benefits of her product. With her missing tooth and her cry of “homemade cookies and lemonade,” she charmed one lady with a “sample” of lemonade and reeled in a $5 gift card from her.

Now, she can’t make change or even read the “how to sell” booklet that came with this project yet, but SHE CAN SELL. And she loves it! She is an expert in initiating conversations, handshakes, eye contact, earning the trust of others, and drawing them out. As any natural born seller would tell you, these strengthsmake people feel comfortable with her. And like all great sellers, she wants to win. She has to be on the top. Looks for the next challenge. Hungers for the next sale.

I often discuss the fact that sales is an innate ability that you can develop with practice—but only if it is there in the first place. Watching this lesson play out in real life with my young children really drove it home. No amount of training or intelligence will make a person without ability into a superstar. And nothing is going to make them enjoy it if it’s not their gift. When someone with that natural sales ability has the opportunity to use their strengths in their job, they feel fulfilled and happy.

Recognizing an individual’s strengths and natural abilities can be the best gift that we can give to another person. As a parent, manager, mentor, friend, or coworker, consider how you might help someone to recognize their true calling and further develop those skills. It might be a natural talent for selling. Or it might be a gift for handling the details and running the business!

Talent is only a strength when the fit is right.

Topics: developing strengths, sales performance, Talent, Sales