A Conversation with Harvey Mackay

From bouncing back from rejection to finding inspiration, Harvey Mackay, author of The Mackay MBA of Selling in the Real World, talks about becoming the best salesperson you can be. Learn how to hone your strengths and amp up your drive — while staying genuine and true — to provide the best customer service possible to your real estate clients.

What makes a good salesperson?

Mackay: There are many traits, but if I had to name only three that make a great sales representative, they would be: hungry fighter, hungry fighter and hungry fighter. That’s how much I think of this trait. Every good salesperson I’ve ever encountered is driven. They have a strong work ethic and a high energy level. They work harder and longer than their peers. When the economy is poor, they are still out there pounding the pavement, making calls.

The stereotype of a good salesman is a smooth talker. Is this true?

Mackay: Believe it or not, being a good listener is more important in sales than being a good talker.

You can’t learn anything with your mouth open. For too many people, good listening means, “I talk, you listen.” Listening is a two-way process. Yes, you need to be heard. You also need to hear the other person’s ideas, questions and objections. If you talk at people instead of with them, they’re not buying in—they’re caving in.

What job taught you the most lessons?

Mackay: The job that taught me a lot was the paper route that my father, who headed the Associated Press Bureau in St. Paul, Minnesota, encouraged me to sign up for at age 10. I learned about hard work, promptness, focus, persistence, customer service, and accountability. Now, after 40-plus years of working with another kind of paper, I can honestly say that the job that launched my career was pivotal. Everyone has to start somewhere. You never forget your first job.



Why should everyone with jobs act more like entrepreneurs?

Mackay: No matter where you go to work, you are not an employee—you are a business with one employee…you. Nobody owes you a career. You own it, as a sole proprietor. You must compete with millions of individuals every day of your career. You must enhance your value every day, hone your competitive advantage, learn, adapt, move jobs and industries—retrench so you can advance and learn new skills.

What does our down economy demand of salespeople more than anything else?

Mackay: Resilience. The new economy demands the ability to claw back from sometimes head-spinning setbacks. That’s true for everyone. For no segment is it truer than salespeople. Because, you know, resilience—if you think of it in terms of the Gold Rush, then you’d be pretty depressed right now because the last nugget of gold would be gone. But the good thing is, with innovation, there isn’t a last nugget. Every new thing creates two new questions and two new opportunities.

How can a salesperson bounce back from rejection?


Mackay: If you really have a deep-down burning desire to improve, you need to go back to the people who said “no” to you in their offices. Beg if you must, but ask for a few minutes of their very valuable time to find out where you messed up. Ask first about your company and your products, and make note of any objections to what you’re selling. The tough question—what is it your (potential) customers don’t like about you? Then, move to how you’re selling. Give them a few leads, if they are reluctant to be critical. Was I too arrogant? Too pushy? Too condescending? Too obnoxious? Did I listen to your needs? Did I waste your time? Did I do my homework? Is there someone else I should be talking to? What are you looking for in a supplier? May I call on you again in a few months? Is there another reason you won’t do business with my company or me? Pay attention to the answers. And even if you never get a nickel’s worth of business out of your tough calls, you will have information that is far more valuable. I call that constant, immediate, unfiltered feedback. Remember it…but more importantly, use it.

What’s your advice to salesperson who might not have great looks, sparkle, or suave?

Mackay: Call attention to your strengths, recognize where you fit in the team, and you’re guaranteed to shine. When actor Karl Malden died in 2009, the New York Times hailed him as “the uncommon everyman.” His birth name was Mladen Sekulovich, and Malden frequently shared the credits with the likes of Marlon Brando and George C. Scott. With an epic schnoz, Malden knew he could never command center stage; but he swore he would run the last mile “to be No. 1 in the No. 2 parts I was destined to get.” So it was On the Waterfront and Patton . . . and he was second to no one in a string of high-credibility endorsement ads for American Express. Decide where your psyche fits in the cast and shine. That may mean: Be known for your reliability and steadiness of vision. Remain the unflappable source of judgment in crisis and turmoil. Execute the impossible when logistics degenerate into spaghetti.

What can salespeople learn from Sean Penn and Kate Winslet about humility?

Mackay: Hollywood stars with staying power understand exactly how reliant they are on the support of others. Two of the most memorable lines during the 2008 Oscar ceremonies came from Best Actor and Best Actress, Sean Penn and Kate Winslet.“I want to be very clear,” Sean Penn admitted, “I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me.” While few have referred to Penn as humble, that has to be the understatement of the year! Kate Winslet was disarmingly honest: “I’d be lying if I hadn’t made a version of this speech before. I was probably eight years old staring into the bathroom mirror, and this would have been a shampoo bottle,” as she held up her Oscar. Danny Boyle, who won Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire, came up on stage and started jumping up and down. The movie was originally slated to be released only on DVD, and he said he promised his kids that if he ever won an Oscar, he would accept it in the joyous spirit of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. Never forget that winning moments are also made of keeping promises to the people who helped get you there.

We all know there’s nothing worse than a phony sales rep so how do you be yourself?

Mackay: Being yourself is hardly as easy as it sounds. For salespeople, sounding phony is a career kiss-of-death. Learn who your real self is and let it shine in the best possible light.There are two myths about being yourself that deserve to be vaporized:

  1. I can like everyone, if I set my mind to it. No you can’t. And not everyone you meet will like you, either. For every person you meet who says, “There are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met,” there’s another who says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” There will be people who just never warm up to you, and there will be people you won’t want to get to know no matter how pleasant or charming they seem. The wise salesperson knows the difference between being friendly and polite to everyone versus sensing when there is real chemistry.
  2. People who like each other are more likely to agree. If only that were true. You can pick up many business magazines and find stories about how two friends went into business together and wound up mortal enemies. Good friends will either learn to discuss only those things they agree about, or else they’ll just agree to disagree when they have differences. U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch and the late Ted Kennedy were good friends, but you never heard either one praising the other’s political beliefs during senate debates.

The doorway to being yourself is liking yourself. It is hard to have confidence in a salesperson who doesn’t like herself or himself.

What should a salesperson do if they’re feeling uninspired?

Mackay: If your switch is off more than on, it’s time to examine what’s making you less than motivated. Is it the job itself? Find something to love about it, or find a different line of work. Is it the fear of failure? Then you haven’t been paying attention: Failure is an opportunity to learn and improve—and boost your enthusiasm. Are you bored? Burned out? Ready for a different challenge? Jump at the chance to try something new. Life’s too short to hate what you are doing! Find something you can be passionate about, and work at it until you can’t imagine doing anything else.

What’s the best way to overcome the fear of “no”?

Mackay: Rejection is a part of life. You can’t avoid it, whether you’re a salesperson with a tough quota or a shy nerd hoping for a date with a supermodel. But you can’t let the fear of rejection paralyze you from the start or you’ll never get any sales—or any dates.

Don’t let negative self-talk sabotage your attitude. Focus on the moment. Treat the situation as a practice session, regardless of the stakes. And be more assertive. Most fears of rejection rest on the desire for approval from other people. Don’t base your self-esteem on their opinions. Learn to express your own needs (appropriately), and say no to requests when you genuinely can’t help. People respect peers who stand up for themselves.




With so many transactions managed today via mobile, does this require a different sort of preparation and presence of mind?


Mackay: Technology is frequently one-sided interaction. It’s too easy to assume everything can be done using technology. Executives shine if they retain that personal accountability and communication effectiveness required in face-to-face and voice-to-voice. If the senior sales officer loses the reality of touch-contact skills with partners, it won’t work. You have to be in command of the technical arsenal, but you can’t let it intrude in your personal style. You certainly can’t lean on gadgetry as a substitute for human warmth. Sole reliance on technology diminishes a person and becomes a distraction.

How do you overcome a sales slump?

Mackay: If you’re in a sales slump, get back to the basics. Look at your goals and see if you have been really following your plan to achieve them. If you haven’t been completely true to plan, fix it. If you have, then you need a new action plan. Have you been prospecting enough? Are you delivering what your customers need and want? Are you over-promising and disappointing?

Slumps are usually caused by not doing the simple things well. Look at your own performance before you place the blame elsewhere. Any slump is your slump, not something you stumbled into. You may have to work a little harder—or a lot harder—until you figure out how to turn things around.


About the Author: Harvey Mackay is the founder and chairman of the $100 million MackayMitchell Envelope Company, which he founded at age 26.  His nationally syndicated weekly business column for United Feature Syndicate runs in 100 newspapers across the country.  He has written six New York Times bestselling books (three #1s), including Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive and Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt. Both books were New York Times #1 bestsellers and are included on the Times’ list of the top 15 inspirational business books of all time. His books have sold 10 million copies. He has been inducted into the Sales and Marketing Executives International Academy of Achievement Hall of Fame. He lives in Minneapolis and Phoenix. For more details, visit www.harveymackay.com.