Shying Away From Sales

By Martha Rush; Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips From the Front

I grew up with a negative stereotype of salespeople.

The telemarketer trying to keep me on the phone. The used car salesman making false claims. The cigarette companies promoting the “health benefits” of smoking. 

Hang up. Don’t listen. Send them away. That was my dad’s message.

I’m sure I’m not alone here, especially among educators, who are mostly insulated from commercial pressures. It wasn’t until my marketing class in grad school that I started to understand why sales is not just a necessary evil—it’s vital to any venture

Unfortunately, I think too many teenagers (and their teachers) maintain this negative perception, which makes it difficult for them to get out of the building and sell their products. It feels so much more civil to do thought experiments with your team and keep talking about how great and transformative your product is going to be, rather than to actually hawk merchandise. 

How do we get our student entrepreneurs to overcome their distaste for sales—not to mention their reluctance to talk to strangers (discussed in blog posts #5 and #6 of this series)—so that they will get out there and hustle?

First of all, start surfacing student attitudes when you first introduce sales strategies. Ask simple questions: 

  • What is your stereotype of a salesperson?

  • When is the last time a salesperson tried to convince you to buy something?

  • What was your response?

They may not even realize why they instinctively shy away from sales.

Then, remind students: You are not going out to sell lemons (bad used cars), unhealthy food or “oceanfront property in Arizona.” You are not con artists. You are trying to sell something valuable, a new good or service designed to solve problems for customers.

Think of your favorite shoes, restaurants, video games. If it weren’t for salespeople, how would you have ever learned about them? Even the best products don’t sell themselves.

If you believe in your venture’s product—and you have evidence to support that belief—then you should be willing to tell people about it.

Once you have built students’ confidence that sales is valuable, then help them develop strategies that make the process less intimidating. 

Here are some ideas to help:

Emphasize information.

You want prospective customers to think about the problem they experience and how your product will solve this problem for them. So talk to them about the problem. Explain and demonstrate how your solution works. Don’t rely on catchy slogans or gimmicks — let the facts tell the story.

Let customers try before they buy.

Give out free samples, or use a “freemium” model, where customers can try your product with limited features without paying. If your product is awesome, they’ll come back for more.

Build relationships, not one-time sales.

When your students are talking to customers, emphasize listening to the customer and building trust, not pushing for a quick sale. Tell the customers: We want you to like our product so much that you’ll buy it again. And mean it.

Make sales fun.

Send students out in teams, and have them keep a log of their best conversation, their most awkward conversation, their quickest sale, their most time-consuming sale, etc. Emphasize enjoying the process — not just getting the results.

Sales may be the most challenging aspect of “talking to strangers”—something that’s already difficult for most teenagers. But once they’ve done it a few times, it’s much less intimidating. Best of all, students who have learned “how to sell” will have an advantage when they need to sell themselves to investors, colleges and employers. This is not just about creating entrepreneurs; it’s about building skills for life.


Martha Rush

Martha, founder and CEO of NeverBore Education Consulting and author of Beat Boredom (Stenhouse, 2018), is a nationally recognized teacher with 25 years of classroom experience. She has worked as a professional curriculum writer since 2011 and a workshop consultant since 2013. She founded NeverBore in 2015 with a mission to provide teachers nationwide with hands-on strategies to overcome boredom and improve student engagement and motivation. She now serves as Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero and has compiled the QØ Teen Startup Handbook.