No matter your field, there's plenty of selling in the job search, with prospective employers as buyers for the products, which are the applicants themselves. As a result, sales skills matter, and they get a lot of attention. But they're mostly thought of as the skills you need to bring to the interview, a place where your performance is akin to a sales pitch. That perspective is far too limited, however, because knowing how to sell is critical to many other parts of the search. Nowhere is that more true than in the way you handle your resume.
That seemingly cut-and-dried piece of paper can actually be a powerful sales tool if you give it half a chance. To do that, though, you have to understand something that the best salespeople, the true pros, know, and you have to be willing to apply that knowledge to your resume. With that, your resume can really do its job. In Martin Scorsese's 2013 film "The Wolf of Wall Street," Leonardo DiCaprio, as stock-promoter Jordan Belfort, issues a similar challenge to his would-be associates in boiler-room shenanigans: "Sell me this pen!"
Editor's note: You can find the clip here. We'd embed it, but it, like much of the rest of the movie, is NSFW.
The point of the exercise is to show them, despite the high opinions they hold of their own sales skills, that they don't really know how to sell. They make all the rookie mistakes. They talk about how wonderful the pen is. They extol its beauty. They focus on its features.
We don't need to detail all the ways they get it wrong. We don't even need to elaborate on what it means to get it right, because getting it right comes down to one very simple principle: Start with the customer, not the pen.
In other words, a good salesman needs to know who's buying what he wants to sell. Features are nice, but they may be completely irrelevant to a given customer. Benefits, as the word itself suggests, are things worth getting, but we don't all seek the same benefits. Before selling benefits, you need to know your prospect and the benefits that actually matter.
That's the method – call it the "buyer-first approach" – and it's often pressed into service as a good way to manage the job interview for sales and non-sales jobs alike. In that context, it works, and it does so because it's invariably helpful to know your interviewer.
Without that knowledge, you're liable to rattle off accomplishments and experiences that don't really matter. With it, you can target the things that do, the ones the interviewer sees as important. What is she looking for from an applicant? What is this job about? What qualities suit that job, and, it follows, what qualities should you emphasize? Which of your accomplishments translate well to this new position? Which won't matter at all? What does she want to see, and how can you make her see it in you?
The buyer-first approach is really just a matter of learning to see things through the other party's eyes, and the interview is the most obvious use case for its implementation. After all, it's the one place you might be called on to sell an actual pen to that actual person on the other side of the desk. It happens in real life, not just in the movies.
However, if the interview is the obvious place for the buyer-first approach, it's not the only place. In fact, the approach can be profitably applied throughout the job search.
Take resumes, for example. You may have put a lot of effort into crafting a resume that looks great. It conveys loads of positive information in a beautifully organized and highly readable form, and that's quite an accomplishment. It's as close to perfect as can be, and it should make a wonderful impression on anyone who receives it. The world trembles in anticipation.
Before you unleash this creature on that trembling world, take a step back. There's every chance that the document you've created, beautiful though it may be, is a document that, first and foremost, looks good to you. That's to be expected, but now it's time to apply the buyer-first approach. It's time to look at it through the eyes of the people who'll be on the receiving end.
First of all, those people are not all the same. Even in the same industry, or in the same field within that industry, different companies and different jobs call for different qualities. Sometimes, those qualities are spelled out in a job posting, and the applicant needs to simply hit the marks explicitly laid out. At other times, you have to dig deeper to find what's on a hiring manager's mind. You have to interpret what the "buyer" wants, using any clues you can find. Again, you need to see things through his eyes.
To complicate matters, it may be that no human eyes are involved at all. Then, it's not a hiring manager you need to impress. Instead, it's an algorithm, an automated system that scans your resume for the right keywords. Without those keywords, no hiring manager will ever know how good you could have been. You can still use the buyer-first approach here by looking through the system's eyes and giving it the keywords it wants to find.
There's a catch, of course, to adopting the buyer-first approach, but it's a catch worth tolerating if you want your resume to have maximum impact.
Simply put, the catch is that there's more work to do. You have to tailor your resume to the needs of a particular employer. You have to highlight the achievements that really seem to matter to this company. You have to spell out the skills that matter in this specific job. You may have to emphasize experience or education in slightly different ways. In essence, you sell the pen differently to different buyers, and that means revising the resume you worked so hard to perfect.
In the end, though, it's worth it. When you're in the job market, you're the pen, and putting extra effort into your sales pitch will seem like a small price to have paid if it helped you make this one very big sale.
Paul Freiberger is President of Shimmering Resumes and author of When Can You Start? Ace the Job Interview and Get Hired. For career help and resume writing and LinkedIn profiles, contact him at Paul@ShimmeringResumes.com.
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