I occasionally help out as a substitute teacher at my local school, teaching science subjects and mathematics to middle school and high school students (secondary school and sixth form college in UK terms), and I’m struck with the similarities between teaching and selling.

A skeptical audience

Bored and disinterested too. Thinking about issues at home, the boy/girl next to them, the inherent unfairness of life, anything in fact other than the topic at hand. And that’s just in business – at school it’s even worse.

No ones going to just accept what you say.

Subject matter matters

Students love to pounce on an unprepared teacher. It’s difficult to earn respect if you fail in your primary purpose of being there – that is to know more than the students. I’m sure everyone has experienced the irritation of trying to buy a complex product from a clueless shop assistant.

A certain gravitas

It always used to be the case (I can’t speak for today) that no one could complete IBM sales training until typically their late-20’s. It’s not that fresh-faced graduates would not have the basic ability to learn and master the skills. It’s simply that no one is going to sign over a check for several million dollars to a kid with spots.

More generally, a salesperson needs to be accepted by the customer as a viable business partner, someone they can rely upon when the inevitable issues arise: Someone who has been around the block and knows the ropes.

When I was at school myself, we were in the middle of a program to bring people from other careers into teaching. It was noticeable that these late entrants had far tighter control of their classes than the traditional “straight from college” teachers. The kids had more respect and had more to learn from them – perhaps not on academic subjects, but certainly on general life skills.

Look the part

Whilst in principle you may be standing up in class purely to talk about trigonometry, you are implicitly also a role model. Your every move and slightest tick is closely analysed by a highly discriminating audience. Pass that test, and you can carry them with you.  Children, business people, everybody, judges what a person says based on what they think about them, rightly or wrongly.

It’s also why sales people dress up – both demonstrating respect to the customer, and commanding respect in turn. Tom Watson Senior, was a salesman at NCR, when he discovered that customers respected sales people more when they wore suits. In those days (1920’s), sales had a particularly lowly status, and Tom Watson wanted to change all that when he became head of CTR and turned it into IBM. This was the origin of the dark suit/white shirt uniform that became synonymous with IBM.

As part of Maria Montessori’s eponymous philosophy of teaching, she said “…the teacher also must be attractive, pleasing in appearance, tidy and clean, calm and dignified…The teacher’s appearance is the first step to gaining the child’s confidence and respect…”

Tom Watson and Maria Montessori were basically making the same point.

Sales people today don’t always wear suits, and teachers seldom wear gowns, being replaced by a universal chinos/open-necked shirt combination, but that doesn’t mean people don’t scrutinize the details, even if the underlying uniform has changed with the times. Taking effort over your personal appearance pays dividends.

Career opportunities

Of course, there are multiple differences between Sales and Teaching. Maybe the most obvious one is qualification. Unless you are lucky enough to work in a selective school, you can’t walk out from teaching a non-responsive pupil in the same way that you can qualify out a non-responsive prospect. But given the overlap in skill sets, perhaps the most surprising difference is how as a society we value and compensate these respective professions.

Should we really pay teachers so much less than sales people?


Image: CC-BY-3.0 by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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