I always wanted to be a salesman from as far back as I can remember. When I was a teenager I used to read comic books telling stories of sailors and pirates who travel around the world and live amazing adventures.
Years went by before I figured out that being a salesman was the closest thing I could find to being a pirate. I started my career in direct sales, knocking on the doors of strangers and being hung up on over the phone first thing Monday morning.
Being a sales foot soldier was a total blast. It was better than being the richest man on the planet or a famous rock star. I could meet hundreds of people, make friends, and listen to their incredible stories while living enriching adventures. Sales allowed me to be a modern pirate and my black Fiat Punto was the perfect sailing boat.
I was still “young and reckless” when my brother Almerindo asked me to help him develop his young consultancy practice. He was a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, England, in the field of information security. My job, as the first employee of the company, was to sell his services to large corporations and government agencies.
Eventually we decided to open an office in Nairobi, Kenya, since we read somewhere on the internet that Kenya was the present-day land of business dreams. Ten years later, moving to Kenya ended up being the best decision we ever made. Today we serve clients in 21 countries worldwide from our African office. It was one hell of a ride that broke me both spiritually and financially, and taught me more than any self-help book I ever read.
In 5 years, I had cold-called every single bank, telecommunication company and national agency from Nairobi to Ghana, across eleven countries and three regions in Africa.
Nothing I had read or done before back in Europe could have prepared me for the challenges I faced in those years. Since we had limited resources, for years I travelled by bus from Kenya to its neighbouring countries in East Africa. It was affordable, necessary and huge fun. The bus fare was ten times cheaper than the equivalent flight ticket. But one hour on a plane could translate to 26 uncomfortable hours on a bus! I often had to travel without knowing where I would sleep at the end of the journey.
Luckily enough, during my long trips I met other dreamers who were travelling to sell stuff on the other side. They gave me a bunch of survival tips. I learnt that I could sleep, eat and stay safe with less than $10 per day in most places I visited in Africa. I was a regular guest at local roadhouses offering a single fee for both hourly and daily rates. For years I was fed by the local mama mbogas in Dar es Salaam cooking omena fish and rice, by the bread sellers in Kinshasa serving omelettes and peanut butter on a wooden board, or by any roadside eating place I could find in my sales adventures around the continent.
Regrettably, my business journey was full of mistakes, especially in my position as a sales manager. As the company grew in size we had to employ more people to help us run the business, and I was forced to lead long before I had learnt to “live life”. I spent most of my time fighting fires started by others, micromanaging, hijacking meetings, hiring the wrong people and doing much worse.
My personal life was a mess too. The lack of self-discipline in dealing with my emotions led me to fall into the usual bad habits of a road warrior. In a few years I found myself unconscious in a hospital bed with second-degree obesity. I was eating, smoking and drinking way too much. Back then I was still mistaking pleasure for happiness.
I still remember going back home for the holiday season. My mother opened the door and for the first time, she could not smile. She was worried about my health. My father told me: “Enzo, you are dying. You should come back home and find a sales job here.” But I did not go back home and find another job. Instead, I climbed out of hell, built a company and took my health back. It was a long and painful process that taught me more about life than it did about sales and business.
Even though I spent my professional coaching career reading books, the street was my true sales coach. I always felt more emotionally connected to the taxi drivers, the plumbers, the street vendors, the small entrepreneurs and all those dreamers I had met on my bus trips. I felt more inspired by the attitude of these beautiful sales foot soldiers. They were real, battered by life and somehow remarkable in ways the world had not yet discovered — just like me.
They taught me the power of storytelling!
Storytelling is more powerful than sales. Social media and technology have turned chronic boredom and time poverty into global epidemics. Nothing shocks or entertains us anymore. We are over-stimulated by the toys of the “digital age” and exposed to the mesmerizing pool of choices before us. Technology has killed our patience and made us more self-conscious and informed than ever before. At present you are no longer competing with other salespeople; you are competing with YouTube.
I have dedicated the last eleven years of my life to studying the way the street tells stories, four of which I used to carry out research on the same topic. Today I teach storytelling and body language to salespeople from a score of different industries. It's funny that I am paid to bring the sales lessons of the street into the corporate world. Hunger and Founder mentality are two of them.
But it's not storytelling that lifted me from the pit of life. I strongly believe that my breakthrough in both life and business came when I decided to develop a relationship with God.
Reading the Bible reminded me the one truth my father used to tell me, and that I had forgotten: life is pain. No harder truth was ever told. Pain is more powerful than knowledge, lasts longer than success, and will always feel more real than facts.
I have spent years reading about research after research reporting the percentages of companies that fail after two, five or ten years just as I was going through the same time marks. The reasons they list for failure are all quite credible and predictable. I might not be able to prove it but after interviewing thousands of decision makers around the world, I strongly believe that most companies fail due to their unwillingness to feel pain. Let me clarify what I mean by that.
They often tell you that companies die when they run out of cash and can no longer pay salaries and bills. If I had to close my company each time I did not have enough cash to pay my rent, let alone my salaries, well, I would have closed multiple times in one bad year.
You close your company, quit your job or give up on anything in life when you say to yourself: “It's been five years and I am still in pain. Something must be wrong. My idea must be wrong. I must be wrong”.
The only mistake people ever make is to think that at one point life gets easier. Motivational speakers keep saying that “pain is temporary”. All you need to do is feel pain for a month, a year or five years and then you will be happy, right? They are wrong. Happiness is temporary. Happiness is victory and victory is just a moment. Then you have to kill success and go back to life and pain.
The best salespeople often share the story of how they worked day and night to close the deal of the year. They are not bragging about the money they made. They are bragging about the pain. Sales stars are proud of their pain. Every day!
The bottom line is simple: you have to embrace pain as a lifestyle. Life is not supposed to be easy, even when you have more money than you need. Dreaming of an easy life will kill both your business and happiness, sometimes even your health. I have met countless salespeople who are hungry and motivated today. But once they get into their comfort zone they stop delivering. They have bought into the lie that pain is temporary.
The most powerful training programme we run today is called “The Gift of Pain”. The idea is to teach businesses to turn “painful tasks” into a compass to follow with discipline and joy. You must pitch your tent on pain and learn to live your life right there.
We don't have to be scared of the pain in our life. We have to embrace it. Be proud of it. In fact, we cannot even dare to dream of a life without it. Pain humbles us and connects us to God. Pain earns us the respect of the people we lead. They respect us because we walked in their shoes, sometimes for decades, not because we pay them a salary.
The forgotten life ingredient that turns our pain into joy is called compassion. Compassion is what we must practise to lift people from their pain. Our suffering can be used as a testimony to heal others, and in the process we spiritually grow stronger.
Pain is not a price before the blessing. Pain is the blessing. A blessing you give yourself. Enjoy the gift, because whether you like it or not that gift will never go away.
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