Harvard Man Finds Out How Tough Selling Can Be

The latest issue of Harvard Business Review contains several fine articles on sales, and it’s nice to see that magazine spending more time on such an important topic.

Jim Koch, the founder of Boston Beer Company, tells the story of how he had to learn how tough selling can be. When he founded the company in 1984, he already had three degrees from Harvard and seven years of consulting experience. After all, that was what you did when you had that background. As he puts it, “No self-respecting Ivy League graduate aspired to be a salesman.”

He quickly found out that distributors had no interest in taking on a new brand, so he had to go bar to bar selling his beer. (The demos were the best part of the sale, I’m sure.) When he made his first sale, he was so excited he left without taking the order. As any self-taught salesperson does, he begn by buying a book and then proceeded to learn the hard way. Boston Beer now has 320 salespeople and over half a billion dollars in revenue, but Koch still spends more time on sales calls than anything else except brewing.

What has he learned in the past 28 years? Three points stand out, in his own words:

  • “I’ve come to see making a sales call as one of the most challenging intellectual activities there is—certainly more immediately challenging than anything I did at BCG.”
  • “The essence of selling is figuring out how what you’re offering will help customers accomplish their objectives—not your objective, their objectives.”
  • “But even if Ivy Leaguers prefer to talk about marketing and management, sales remains the core function of every company. Without sales, there is no business to manage.”

I’ll drink to that!

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