Cover Letters: 3 Lessons from Sales
In my first column, I talked about the contents of your cover letter: what to include and exclude. This time, let’s talk about the principle underpinning your submissions package, cover letter, and résumé alike: salesmanship.
Sales is a traditional profession in my family, and I spent many years in the game myself. Perhaps that’s why I’m predisposed to see job hunting primarily in transactional terms. As psychologist Abraham Maslow put it, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Selling yourself, though, is the way of the hunt. It may seem reductive, even unsavory, to think of oneself as a commodity. But employment is by nature a sales transaction. You agree to sell your labor, and, to do so effectively, you need to be guided by three fundamental rules of salesmanship.
#1. Focus on the Customer
Finding a job is a momentous change in your life. It will occupy your time, provide a new social circle, and even help define your identity. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what these changes will mean for you. But effective selling means staying focused on the needs of the customer, in this case, your potential employer. When making any hiring decision, the employer is guided by only one question: What’s in it for me?
Many applicants forget this rule. I’ve seen cover letters that spend multiple paragraphs on the applicants’ aspirations for the job, including visions of their career paths over the next ten years, but scarcely a word about their qualifications. I’ve seen other letters containing litanies of hardship, unemployment, and family illnesses with a desperate, screaming subtext: I need this job.
The former are amusing; the latter are often heartbreaking. But neither is appropriate for a submissions package. However deserving you may be, an employer is not primarily interested in rewarding you; she’s interested in exploiting your labor. Stay focused on her needs, not yours. Concentrate on what you have to offer.
#2. Know the Product
Despite what you may have heard, a high-quality product does not “sell itself.” Salespeople go through the same process to sell any product. But when they believe in the product they’re selling, the process feels effortless because they have confidence.
You can sell any product if you believe in it. Belief comes from knowledge. Good salespeople know their product inside and out and can vouch for its capabilities.
The product you can vouch for with full confidence is yourself. You know your own abilities and qualities better than anyone. Be honest with yourself when applying for jobs, and be honest with the recruiter.
#3. Make It Easy to Say “Yes”
The first lesson in sales training is that “No” is a default position. We are all barraged with demands for our time and attention, most of which we refuse simply to avoid being overwhelmed. Salespeople persist in the face of reflexive refusal by anticipating objections and providing reassurances. Job hunters must do the same.
As I mentioned last time, cover letters are primarily a tool to eliminate inappropriate candidates; the recruiter’s default position is “No.” You make the cut by making it easy for him to say “Yes” by highlighting where your qualifications intersect with the employer’s needs. When your skills don’t quite align with those requirements, that’s when salesmanship comes in.
Say you’re applying for a computer programming job. They’re looking for someone skilled in a programming language you do not yet know. You are confident, though, that you can do the job and get up to speed as you go along. How should you disclose this?
Here’s a losing approach:
Although I have not worked with Linux before, I have extensive experience with Java, Unix, Ruby, and Python, and look forward to learning on the job.
Remember, the recruiter is actively looking for reasons to say “No.” By leading with your lack of qualification, you trigger that default response and land in the discard pile.
Let’s frame it another way:
I have extensive programming experience with Java, Unix, Ruby, and Python and look forward to learning Linux on the job.
It’s the same information, but the rephrasing subtly alters the emphasis. Your skill with other programming languages no longer comes off as a consolation prize. Instead, it shows that you’re a good risk. You’ve accomplished this by anticipating the recruiter’s needs and providing an honest self-assessment, pulling him toward “Yes.”
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