Sales professionals command respect. You must have it for yourself, before you can earn it from others.  “Respect yourself” was the title and message of a song by The Staple Singers. “Pops” Staple was the lead vocal in the self-empowerment themed song that hit the R&B and Pop charts in 1971. The chorus was a simple, but powerful refrain: 

“Respect yourself.  Respect yourself.  If you don’t respect yourself, ain’t nobody gonna give a good ca-hoot na na na oh oh.  Respect yourself.” 

Since my first column  for Electrical Wholesaling, I have offered the conviction that too much sales training today relies upon gimmickry and manipulation and not enough on common sense.  Common sense would lead you to believe that every salesperson has self-respect, but do they?  In sales management, I worked with many great sales professionals, but one sales rep stands out for his lack of respect for himself and his profession.

He had most of the proper tools to be successful.  He was sharply dressed, intelligent, understood the business and knew the products.  He was memorable however, for one unfortunate trait.  Often, he referred to himself, as well as other salespeople as “peddlers.”  Synonyms for “peddler” include “hawker” and “pusher.”  Unfortunately, his general attitude projected not only a lack of respect for his own profession; it similarly projected a lack of respect for his customers.  If he was a “peddler,” then his customers were his “pigeons,” or “marks.”  His language betrayed a destructive cynicism about the nature of the relationship between a sales representative and his customers. Successful salespeople see their job as an obvious benefit to the customer and their relationship as one that’s mutually beneficial. It’s not surprising that this sales representative was unsuccessful and ultimately forced to make a career change. 

Successful salespeople project pride, a sense of self-worth, self-respect and recognize the real value they bring to the supply chain. Respect for yourself is evident in your work ethic, grooming, professional appearance, what you say and how you say it. You don’t have to dress like a Wall Street banker, but you should always dress in such a way that your appearance is appropriate for your surroundings.  

I’ve addressed language in previous columns, but it bears repeating, here.  As “Pops” Staples sang; “You cuss around women folk.  You don’t even know their name. Then you’re dumb enough to think that it makes you a big ol’ man.”  A well-spoken, articulate approach, free of obscenities is always the best way to present yourself! 

This brings us to an issue that is a little more complex and nuanced.  What should you do if your customer berates you or your employees in an unprofessional manner? This could be a good topic for discussion at your next sales meeting. As a branch manager, I was faced with just that situation.

One day, one of my inside salespeople came into my doorway and asked how much abuse he had to take from a local contractor’s project manager, who was known for his temper. The inside salesperson explained that he was being vehemently cursed because our branch was out of 500MCM bare copper wire. Rather than trying to handle it through the inside salesperson, I picked up his phone and asked the project manager what the problem was.  When he began to shout obscenities, I interrupted him to tell him that if he could not speak in a calm and business-like manner, I would prefer he did not call. He responded loudly that if we had the %$#@&% bare copper, he wouldn’t have to scream!  I repeated my message. He hung up. It wasn’t long before he began calling back, but we never had that problem again.

To be clear, this is not to say that if you or your company makes a mistake with a customer that he doesn’t have the right and responsibility to make his displeasure known, but it should never be in an unprofessional, personally abusive manner. To me, it was not fair to my employees to expect them to be treated that way and I would rather lose a vulgar, abusive customer than an employee. 

My perspective on respect took on an interesting twist when I went from being a branch manager of an electrical distributor to being the director of purchasing for a large national electrical contractor. I was fortunate that the management of the company I went to work for had the same philosophy and approach to working relationships that I did.  They were tough negotiators, but knew that the most effective way to achieve the most favorable terms was to be honorable, fair and operate in an atmosphere of mutual respect. When I became involved in a dispute between a project manager or contractor employee who treated the supplier in a disrespectful or dishonest way, my esteem for the supplier was always enhanced when they stood up for themselves in a professional manner. They were sales pros who had respect for themselves.  In doing so, they commanded respect from others.