How Sales Learning Shaped One Rep Into a Top Seller

John Dao’s rising sales career is not something that he carefully plotted. A former top seller at IBM and a winner of Grubhub’s Silver Platter award — which honors a handful of the company’s highest performers — Dao said he’s often amazed by how far he’s come. “Thirteen years ago, I was on the verge of failing college, with no clue where my life was headed,” he said.

How did he get from there to here? These are the sales learning moments that have made Dao into a seller at the top of his game.

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1. He didn’t let failure determine his future

“Someone believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Dao said. “That’s how I found sales.”

It was another disastrous semester at college, and Dao often went to his grandma’s barbershop to hide from his parents. One day, a man stopped by to introduce himself; he owned the used cell phone store next door. They started chatting and the man asked Dao: “Have you ever thought about sales?” 

“Yes,” said Dao. (The answer was no.) He was hired on the spot.

His first hour on the job, a customer walked in to buy a cell phone case. After chatting with Dao, she ended up picking up headphones, too. Dao had upsold her. It was love at first sale.

2. He committed to sales learning

Dao dove in head first, dropping out of college to pursue sales full-time. He was experiencing something new: the joy of learning. He started reading business books at the kitchen table. “My parents walked in on me reading and wondered if they should take my temperature. I just wanted to improve and grow.”

Less than a year later, he had a new role as sales manager at a corporate AT&T store. Dao knew it would take more than library books to get ahead. He turned to his community and reached out to every sales professional he could find: the used cell phone store owner, a former co-worker, even friends’ parents. “I’d call someone up and say, ‘Hey. They’ve got me doing an inventory sheet. How do I do that?’ Then I followed through, taking their advice and letting them know how it went.”

Today, Dao takes advantage of every learning opportunity he can find. In fact, he recently discovered free courses on Trailhead, which he’s using to round out his skill set and learn more about subjects like presenting, leadership, and AI.

3. He built and lifted his team, leading by example

Part of Dao’s responsibility as a new AT&T store manager was building a strong team. He didn’t have to look further than the shopping center where he worked to find some of his best talent. There was the guy from Best Buy who was so knowledgeable about headphones that Dao asked him to sell cell phones instead. There was the guy from the McDonald’s drive-through who was so magnetic and chipper that Dao brought him in, too. 

Eventually, Dao was managing a team of six sales reps, with a mission to triple the store’s revenue. One day, he asked his team to gather ’round and told them it was time to make some money. Once the student, now the teacher, Dao told them to sit back and observe while he walked the floor himself. 

Soon, his team was ready. Dao fondly recalls “the McDonald’s guy’s” first sale. “A family came in to buy iPhones and leave. Before the mother walked out, he tapped her on the shoulder, and asked her if she’d ever held an iPad. He unboxed one and placed it in her hands, just like I taught him. Then he told her a story. They’d been chatting about reading on the beach. He asked her to imagine holding this out there instead of a book, with her feet in the sand.” She was in the checkout line even before they’d finished speaking. 

Within months, Dao and his motley crew had achieved their goal of 3x revenue growth. 

4. He never stopped asking questions

Dao figured that if he could sell used cell phones, he could sell software. After dozens of rejections, IBM gave him a shot. 

Early on, he attended a sales kickoff. As he walked into the crowded meeting room, he knew he was the least educated person there. But it didn’t matter because he knew something those 500 people didn’t: His humble background was not his weakness but his strength.

“I learned everything I know from other sellers,” he said. “That’s given me a superpower that would pave the way for my success: the confidence to ask dumb questions when I need to know the answer. And in those days I had a lot of questions. Luckily, I had enough people by my side that I could spread them out.”

He had some not-so-dumb questions, too: how to plan his day in the morning, how to get to the right decision-makers, how to close faster. That’s how he blew past his onboarding stage in just a few weeks and got to selling.

‘Community is how I got here’

“I think about the magic moments that got me here,” Dao said. The moment he was hired in his grandma’s barbershop. The moment he saw a drive-through worker turn into a shark. The moment IBM said yes. They all depended on the support and advice of others.

If there’s one sales-learning takeaway Dao would share with up-and-coming sellers, it’s this: Find your community. It can make the difference between a career of struggle and one of success.

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