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Interview with Chris Gardner ("Pursuit of Happyness")

Earlier today I spent a half hour chatting with Chris Gardner, the sales professional portrayed by Will Smith in the movie "Pursuit of Happyness." As anyone who's seen the movie knows, he's an inspiring role model, but the movie only documents his early years. He's now involved in numerous media and public speaking projects, such as the Take Control Of Your Life tour, where he'll be appearing on January 16th. He's also got two excellent books out The Pursuit of Happyness and Start Where You Are, which are available as signed copies on his website.

Readers, I have interviewed over a hundred assorted gurus and motivation speakers. This brief conversation was one of the most enjoyable and enlightening interview I've ever had the pleasure of conducting. So it is with great joy that post it as a holiday present for all of you. And now... the interview with Chris:

  • Geoffrey James: Chris, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Let's start with a subject that's really important to Sales Machine readers. Why aren't people in sales always considered professional?
  • Chris Gardner: Let me explain something to you. Salespeople are the most important people in any organization. Until a salesperson gets an order nobody in the company has a job. The guys in production can't produce until a salesperson sells something. The guys in compliance don't have anything to measure until a salesperson sells something. I've never considered selling anything other than profession, but it's more than that. It's one of the highest callings that you can aspire to. Not everyone can do it.
  • GJ: With that in mind, why don't business schools treat sales seriously?
  • CG: Business school professors don't take selling seriously because they don't know how to sell. It's easy to talk about business theory and production time and just-in-time development. Selling is much more difficult. I was blessed to have the guys a Bear Stearns as mentors. They taught me a lot, but most of all they taught me that there's nothing wrong with selling if you're selling the right product to the right person. Now, we might argue about the price... but that's another issue entirely!
  • GJ: What's required of a person to be good at selling?
  • CG: You've got to love selling in order to be good at it. You've got to be good at creating relationships, good at lining things up, good at understanding what it takes to make something happen. It's like one of the old "connect the dots" games - the connections aren't always linear. In business schools they treat deal making as if it's A-B-C-1-2-3. But it's not. One of the greatest challenges in this world is to make something happen, and one of the greatest feelings in the world is to be the exact right person who knows how to make it happen. Next to raising children, it's the most important thing that anybody can do.
  • GJ: Both the book and the movie "Pursuit of Happyness" emphasize the relationship between a father and son. What the key to making both family relationships and business relationships work at the same time?
  • CG: The key is balance and, when there's a tie, the family always wins. You can always reschedule that sales pitch, but you can't reschedule your son's baseball game or your daughters dance recital. You have to choose your family first. And that's the way it should be. There's only one thing in life that's better than being a father. And that's being a grandfather. Hopefully that's something you'll get to experience some day.
  • GJ: You started your career in cold calling environment. Is that still a valuable skill?
  • CG: Back when I started in sales, it was a numbers game. You made x number of calls, landed x number of prospects, and won x number of customers. Today, I don't do much cold calling, so it's not a big part of my business. When a billion people know your name, you don't have to do much prospecting.
  • GJ: But it's still a required skill?
  • CG: It depends. Right now, so many people have been wiped out in the stock market that nobody's got any money. Who the heck you gonna call? What's more important today is being able to develop a strong relationship, which might involve 100 calls to the same person - creating a relationship and nurturing that relationship to add value. It's a lot of work, but when it pays off, you can win big time.
  • GJ: What advice do you have for people entering the job market in sales positions.
  • CG: If you don't love it, don't do it. You can't fake the funk. The hard part of the question is that, right now, so many people are willing to do anything and have got to do anything, simply to have a job. So you've got people saying, "I'll sell until something 'better' comes along." That's unfortunate because it erodes the sales profession. Today it's just a tough environment to be selling anything, so you'd better be selling something you believe in. And that means making sure you're selling the right thing to the right person.
  • GJ: Do you think that the image of the sales professional in pop culture is growing more positive as the result of the movie?
  • CG: I cannot comment on anything dealing with pop culture because pop culture sucks. Everyone is so negative now. One of the most important things I did in my career was when I informed my team early last year that WE WILL NOT PARTICIPATE IN THIS RECESSION. What that means is that we'll turn off the TV and stop listening to people talk about a business environment that nobody alive has ever experience before. All those smart people on TV have no idea what's going on. Instead, we've taken this opportunity to invest in adding talent ot our team. Today, I've got guys working for me who would even talk to me before because they were hot shots on Wall Street.
  • GJ: How do you think the recession will impact the financial services sector?
  • CG: I think the complexion of Wall Street is changed forever. The big firms that try to do anything, they're the past. People are going to want to do more business with small firms and small business that say: "I can help you right here in this area." The more narrowly defined, the better that business is likely to be at matching up with the customer's real needs.
  • GJ: How did you decide to get into Motivational speaking?
  • CG: It just kinda happened. A billion people around the world saw the movie and the book has been published in 26 languages. The message of the book - that you can break the cycle that pulls you down and become alive to new opportuntiies - has connected with people around the world. It wasn't as if I expected this to happen. If I had told you 3 years ago that the #1 movie star in the world would be playing me in a film and be nominated for an Oscar for that role, you'd have asked me "what kind of **** are you smoking?" So it happened because people wanted to hear what I had to say.
  • GJ: What's the best part of being famous?
  • CG: Knowing that I'm helping people. My office is a standalone, fully windowed building in Chicago. Around 5,000 people a day walk past my window and many of them look up and wave. Some of the come in - people from all over the world - and they all say the same thing: "Thank you for sharing your story because I saw what you did and I now I know that I can overcome the challenges in my own life."
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