It’s important to model your career after those who have successfully navigated the landscape before you. Whether you’re running your own business and you’re the sole salesperson, or you’re employed by another company, your career is a marathon, and you’re going to face a number of hurdles. Sales is one thing; you also have to deal with customer service issues and questions, customers who call you instead of the right department, and more.

Thankfully, there are many great salespeople who have been where you are and were able to find success. Learn from them and mimic some of their decisions and actions to help get you to the top.

Careers of 12 Famous Salespeople and What You Can Learn

Consider the career paths and traits of these salespeople. Learn from their mistakes and successes to make your career in sales more successful.

Joe Girard

Lesson: Spend time with your clients and treat them well.

Joe Girard is known for selling 13,001 vehicles in a 15-year period, once selling 18 cars in a single workday. He first learned the ins and outs of sales by selling the Detroit Free Press door to door; he realized he could make the most money by visiting the most houses. According to a Thank You For Selling article, his secret is simple: He spends time on his clients and gets to know them. He best demonstrates this idea by sending approximately 13,000 greeting cards each month.

Erica Feidner

Lesson: Don’t give up on a hard sale.

Plain and simple, Feidner was a force to be reckoned with when it came to her sales process. In a very unlikely industry, she was able to sell pianos to people who had never even played. She brought out the passion in people, and despite the expensive nature of pianos, she found success and sold over $40 million worth of them during her career. She currently holds the world record in piano sales, and no other salesperson comes close. According to a SPi-Global article, in so many words, “Feidner’s story tells us not to give up on unsold clients.”

Joy Mangano

Lesson: Learn how to appeal to everyone.

Mangano is an inventor who became successful thanks to her sales skills setting her apart and giving her a chance. Her journey started when she was a child—she imagined a special dog collar that would help keep pets safe, only to see it sell millions the very next year by Hartz Mountain. She decided she would start bringing her ideas to the market, which is when she came up with the Miracle Self-Wringing Mop. It wasn’t until QVC allowed her to sell the mop herself on TV that her idea really took off, and 18,000 mops sold in less than a half hour. Her trick to selling? You have to know how to appeal to the masses and put yourself in their shoes.

Alfred Fuller

Lesson: Ask customers for their feedback on your products and services.

Fuller created a household brush and took the sales approach of asking customers for their views instead of simply trying to sell the product. Like Mangano, Fuller tried to connect with people, especially his customers, to make himself a better salesman. He talked with maids and housewives to see what they liked in a household brush, and eventually came up with a product that practically sold itself.

Zig Ziglar

Lesson: Keep learning and visualize success.

As if his name wasn’t catchy enough, his words about sales are what make him one of the most famous salespeople known outside the industry. He “helped shape the modern vocabulary of sales” by becoming one of the top motivational speakers in the industry. Ziglar spent his life as a successful salesman; he attributes his career to his desire to continually learn new things and visualize success. That helped give him motivation. He also discusses the importance of being wise when setting goals: You want to make sure your goals are attainable, and then you want to beat them.

David McConnell

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to try something new.

McConnell passed away in 1937, but his sales expertise is still talked about today. He began as a salesman for a New York City book-selling agency, and eventually became the Union Publishing Company’s book salesman for the southern territory. Because selling books wasn’t providing enough income, he started adding perfume samples, which he made himself, to the books. He got good feedback from women who liked the perfume, and he decided that if books could be sold door-to-door, then perfume could, too. With that idea, McConnell created the company Avon Products. It was his innovative way of thinking about sales that brought him to the top.

Ralph Lauren

Lesson: Sell in an industry you love.

He owns a billion dollar business and is a brilliant entrepreneur, but what many don’t realize is that Ralph Lauren’s background is in sales. He started out by working at two glove companies as a salesman, and then for a tie manufacturer. He was a successful salesman because he sold what he loved; he has said that he’s always loved fashion, and his sales jobs helped him realize this was the industry in which he wanted to work.

Napoleon Barragan

Lesson: Pay attention to the big picture.

Barragan is in the mattress selling business, but his first job was selling beer and soda from the back of a burro. His determination drove him to build his own business, and he has been quoted as saying he doesn’t care about individual sales quite as much as he does the big picture. He believes salespeople should be focused on building something big.

Barry Maher

Lesson: Work hard and don’t give up.

Maher is impressive because of his list of high-powered clients: Blue Cross, Canon, the Department of Homeland Security, Hewlett-Packard, McDonald’s, IBM, Wells Fargo, Verizon, and more. Of course, you earn these clients with a lot of hard work.

Believe it or not, Maher was broke at age 37. He started selling greeting cards door-to-door and then created a business selling advertising products. He sold the company to new owners who would fail in running the business and pay him little in royalties. He got a break working at GTE as a salesman, and became the Fortune 500 company’s top salesman. Like many on this list, he’s now a motivational speaker and author who teaches other salespeople how to succeed.

John H. Patterson

Lesson: Make training a priority.

Founder and CEO of the National Cash Register Company, Patterson started his career in 1870 and is known as the “father of modern sales training.” He is considered one of the first entrepreneurs to organize and execute an official sales training program. This program included scripts, lessons on the sales cycle, and a four-stage process—initial approach, the proposition, the product demonstration, and the closing deal—to help salespeople succeed at certain milestones of the sales process.

David Ogilvy

Lesson: Document your best practices.

In Ogilvy’s portfolio you’ll see iconic campaigns for Hathaway, Dove, Schweppes, Shell, and Rolls Royce. However, he is a man from humble beginnings. He started his career selling stoves door-to-door, and he sold so many that the company asked him to write an instruction manual for other salesmen to use in the future. This manual eventually made its way to other companies and became an important part of sales training that is still used today. Fortune Magazine called it the “finest sales instruction manual ever written.” Ogilvy famously said, "In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”

Mary Kay Ash

Lesson: Expand your network and incentivize sales.

Ash is the woman behind the Mary Kay Cosmetics Company. Her sales tactic was to persuade other women to throw parties and then sell to their friends; the idea is that people are more likely to buy from their friends. She paved the way for this type of sales strategy, now called multilevel marketing, and her business is now 50 years old. According to an Inc. Magazine article, she also pioneered the use of sales incentives, turning her company’s signature pink Cadillacs into a sign of women’s economic self-sufficiency.

Learn From the Greats

Your sales career will take hard work and perseverance for you to succeed. Fortunately, this career path is well tread, and you can learn from those who have come before you. With the lessons learned from the 12 capable salespeople in this article, you’ll be able to take your career to the next level and find even more success.

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