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I got a company car with my first sales job.  It was a generic Pontiac J6000 with gray cloth interior and all-plastic dashboard — but I loved it.  I  used it to drive around New England from Stamford Connecticut to Bangor Maine as I met with clients throughout my territory.  I worked for a paper company.   No, it wasn’t like Dunder Mifflin.  I was a mill rep.  The clients I called on were the Dunder Mifflins of the northeast.  I also handled direct sales to envelope manufacturers and large web printers (in paper sales, the term “web” means massive presses that print continuous rolls of paper for magazines and newspapers).

I was responsible for over $20 million in annual sales.  Each day truckloads of paper would be dispatched from our mills in North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Alabama with my name on the orders.  It was big business.

I made it a point to visit with our largest clients in person at least once per month and I’d fit in smaller clients when I happened to be in the area.    I took them to dinner, bought lunch, presented awards, played tennis, and we even had a client get-away “camp” in the hills of North Carolina with a lake stocked with easy-to-catch Rainbow Trout.

After a year of selling, I had a review with the regional manager and the other sales reps in the office.  I was asked to fill out a form with several questions about our territory.  One of the questions was “What do you see as your primary goals?”  I itemized a long list of things that I were vitally important to the success of the company:

– I make sure customers are happy
– I address complaints about deliveries and quality
– I provide quotes for special orders
– I establish personal relationships
– I communicate information about new products (yes, even paper had product innovation)
– I gather competitive information
– I convey pricing changes

I read this list to the senior rep in my office and I watched him nod his head with each point.  When I was done he paused for a moment and then looked at me and asked “What about increasing sales?

I was dumbstruck. Or more accurately, I just felt dumb.  How could I have missed the primary objective of being a sales rep?  Of course the items that I listed are part of a sales activities, but the whole point of sales is to sell more.   In all my driving from place to place, sharing meals, fielding phone calls, escalating questions I had served as an ambassador, not a sales person.

Not long after that I moved from the from the old-school world of selling paper to working with cutting-edge technology.  I’ll never forget that lesson though:  ambassadors don’t sell.

(photo credit:  Tayete on Flickr)