How an Air Traffic Controller Transitioned to Sales

After 12 years as an air traffic controller, I was looking at alternative fields for professional stimulation and excitement. Fortunately for me, the pressure and discipline required to be successful as a controller were attributes that were, unknown to me at the time, particular qualities that would provide me with a competitive advantage when I accepted my first role in commercial sales. With a resume showing some tertiary qualifications and a description of the air traffic controller (ATC) roles fulfilled over the previous decade or so, I was fortunate enough to secure an initial role and I quickly settled into the daily rigours of life in sales.

After some early success, some real magic happened for me in the form of an exceptional Sales Manager who took me under his wing in an IT sector Account Manager role. What that Sales Director recognised in me was more than my energy and passion for success; it was my ATC related disposition for analysing situations and framing up tactics and strategies to ensure that I was ready for any eventuality that my new boss observed. After all, in my work as an ATC Plan A was always being enacted, but Plan B and Plan C were never far from mind (or from being quickly enacted) as I observed, monitored and analysed individual situations as they unfolded.

What my superstar Sales Manager knew is that sales is not dissimilar to any other science; there are things that are fundamentally predictable, in “sales” case driven by “laws” of need and behaviour, both buyer and seller behaviour that is. So whilst I was now operating in a completely different and new professional environment, it was becoming really clear to me, as it was already patently clear to my Sales Manager, that success could be orchestrated by planning, anticipating, observing, utilising knowledge and executing utilising specific skills and selling tools at the right time. Now this didn’t of course always mean that a sale was going to be made, but it did mean I could recognise where a sale was more likely, why that was so and what the things I most needed to do were, based on my observations on my sales “radar screen” – importantly I could work out where I was completely wasting my time. This last thing quickly appeared to be something that even some of the most experienced old “sales dogs” just could not seem to do. (What this ended up meaning for me was more sales from less opportunities and thus a greater success rate, even in larger opportunities. Later, when I became a Sales Manager myself, I learned that a significant percentage of sales people don’t really have much idea at all about what they are doing – they simply call on people, tell them about their products and services and hope that they ucover a need.

So without making it all too complicated, it did appear to me that just as it was in ATC, there was a system and a process that I could follow, that needed to be supported by a set of skills, that pretty consistently predicted success. There were also a whole host of people who had written books about “their take” on the process, and the point here was that in reading twenty or thirty of these books over 5 or so of my early years in sales, the sales systems that they had all developed and that were described in their books and explained and demonstrated on their videotapes were largely variations on a theme that centred around consistent core “laws” or principles.

After the sales calls the Sales Manager and I made together, we would sit in the car and carefully analyse our notes detailing who said and did what in response to the buyers we called on – and what worked and what didn’t; and in a funny sort of way, every call became an opportunity to experiment, to have some fun and to try a variety of selling techniques – very much like my sessions in the simulator as an air traffic controller. This just gave me the chance to “practice” if you like in every sales call. How good is this I began to think, a well paid job, with no previous experience required, where you could practice at any chosen opportunity, with a boss who could help you analyse things and who could provide me with blisteringly clear observations on what I was doing well and what not – and therefore where and how I could improve – on a call by call basis. Oh, and by the way, there seemed to be virtually no limits on the amount of prospects I could find out there and the financial rewards were therefore virtually unlimited. At the same time, being out there in the commercial world, meeting and mixing with the leaders of business and learning about the myriads of industry sectors I was selling into, sure was way more fun than sitting in the tower or in a semi-darkened radar control centre with a bunch of grumpy and cynical air traffic controllers.

It wasn’t long before I was promoted higher and higher and soon I was reporting direct to the CEO of one of Australia’s icon companies, I was travelling to wide and wonderful places and had the opportunity to develop my own sales organisation, which I founded simply on the immutable laws and identified skills that together ensure sales is more science than art.

But management was more difficult. Competing priorities, politics, agendas and all too often, people who didn’t want to, or couldn’t see, that sales went way beyond “building relationships” getting in the way of developing best practice teams. To return to my air traffic control analogy, in ATC it took me three years to get my licence to operate in just the base role function. In sales, there were hundreds of people around, many working for major companies, who had never done the training, who didn’t understand the “laws” and who couldn’t demonstrate the skills – yet they had a “licence” to sell. This, to me, appeared remarkable. And unfortunately today, I still have occasions when I feel the same way.

What my three year ATC apprenticeship delivered to me, my employer and the aviation industry was the base level of competence on which to build advanced ATC skill and capability over time. Unfortunately, today’s organisational thinking around sales still fails to treat sales like the majority of other professional disciplines that are represented in their workforce. As a simple example, a base level of sales capability cannot, in the case of most organisations, even be described. Whilst role descriptions may exist (some may be competency based) and sales outcomes are invariably set out, what selling should look like in a variety of sales role functions is not clear.

I am writing this article whilst the annual Wimbledon tennis tournament is in progress in London – whether it be women’s, men’s, doubles or singles, most people would know what good tennis looks like. In air traffic control, good ATC looks like something specific from a skill and technique perspective. Professional selling is no different – it looks a certain way and can be repeated with practice. It may not be a life or death discipline like air traffic control; but the revenue and margin it does or does not produce for you is the lifeblood of your business. What if 80% of your sales force were “playing good tennis” 80% of the time? What difference would that make to your top and bottom line?

2 Responses to “How an Air Traffic Controller Transitioned to Sales”

  1. Kylie Gillespie says:

    Hello Wayne.
    I have read your story with interest. Congratulations on your successes.

    My name is Kylie, and your name crossed my desk on oDesk. Judging by the date of your oDesk post and since the position has been removed, I am guessing you’ve probably hired already.

    However, please consider me too, or for other work that you may need. I am perfectly qualified for all the requirements you listed, with design and content development, in documents, forms, presentation including PowerPoint, and website development; in many varied programs including Word. My signature look is clean and professional! However, my design adapts to any concept or theme the client and their product dictate.

    My experience includes development and presentation of a complete two year, multi-cultural clinical education program, including all materials, forms, educational handouts, translated materials, assessments, reports, and much more.

    I did a redesign of the PowerPoint presentation you posted (Cheetham Salt), and took a screen capture of the new design cover and slides, which I will send if you respond to this message. I also took liberty of editing and reformatting the content.

    I work from home in our IT and web design business and am very interested in moving more into a corporate support situation. I hope to hear from you.
    Kylie Gillespie

  2. Un blog fortalece la visibilidad de su p

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