How I got into Sales via the interview from hell

In May 1999 I was studying for my final exams at university. I’d been studying for a degree in Rural Land Management — essentially agriculture.

As I neared the end of my education and was about to embark on the world of employment the one field I knew I didn’t want to work in was….agriculture.

I really didn’t know what I was going to be doing in a few weeks time.

To get me through university I’d been working in a local pub, and to get to that pub from my student accommodation I used to drive through the small industrial estate in the college town.

One day on my way to work, as I swung around the mini roundabout through that industrial estate there was a nondescript office on the corner, darkened glass windows, company name board, some visitor parking out front. No different to a hundred other office buildings.

But as I drove further up the road, the car park behind revealed hidden treasures. A Ferrari 355, a Lamborghini Diablo, and a host of other premium cars.

Now we weren’t in the centre of London or San Francisco — this was rural England — and something told me I needed to find out what was going on in this building.

I had a few minutes before I needed to get to the pub so I pulled into the car park and walked back around to the reception door. I pressed the buzzer, the receptionist hit the button on her desk and I was allowed in.

“Hi there, I was just wondering if I could ask what you do here?” I asked the receptionist.

“We are a Business only ISP” the receptionist replied. I had absolutely no idea what that meant.

“Could I apply for a job?” I asked. I had no idea what job I was applying for. In fact I had no idea what jobs were possible in a ‘normal’ business.

“If you let me know your details I’ll pass them on” said the receptionist and I wrote down my name and mobile number before jumping back in my car and heading off to work.

I thought little more of it until I received a call a couple of days later to invite me in to meet Jonny, the Sales Director.

I ironed a shirt, put on the smartest trousers I had and headed back into the office. By this time I’d been able to research what an ISP was and knew that this company was right at the forefront of plugging companies into the fast growing internet.

Our conversation was quick — Jonny asked me why I wanted to work at the company, and I replied that I wanted a big television.

A few days later I was invited back to an assessment day that included around 30 candidates. It appeared the timing of my walk through the front door was excellent — I’d stumbled right into an active recruitment process for the fast growing sales team.

The assessment ran over the course of an evening (an evening before one of my final exams — but I decided this was a better use of my time!).

All 30 candidates lined up on rows of desks in the main training room on the first floor of the office. A sales trainer stood at the front and passed round a box of pipecleaners — the type you would use in arts and crafts.

“OK, who can sell me this pipecleaner?”

I knew that in this group situation if there was ever a time to shine this was it. No prizes for keeping quiet.

I rattled off a few ways that you could use the pipecleaner around the home — a cable tidy, cleaning in tight spots, hanging things up.

Once I’d spoken I was happy that I’d put my head above the parapet and hoped that someone somewhere had written my name down.

A couple of days passed and I was once again invited back into the building for a further interview. This time I was to meet Paul, a Sales Manager with a thick Northern Irish accent.

I walked up the stairs of the office to another first floor room and sat down. Paul flicked through my notes and clarified a few details before yelling “Get Out!”

Suddenly this interview had taken an extremely unsettling turn. “Excuse me?” I questioned.

“Get out, and then come in and interview me for this job.” he replied.

Riiiiiiight… I unsteadily stood up from my chair and headed to the door. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins. This had not been something I had prepared for!

I walked out the door and closed it behind me, before breathing deeply and walking back into the room.

I sat down. “Hi Paul, so tell me — why do you want this job?”

“I don’t!” he replied curtly and then turned back to his notes and it appeared we were onto the next topic. This was bizarre.

“Right!” he exclaimed in his strong Northern Irish accent, pointing at the whiteboard next to us. “Draw five ships on the wall.”

“Sorry?” I queried.

“Draw five ships on the wall!” he repeated.

OK…..I picked up one of the markers and started to draw. First I drew a very crude speed boat. Then I started to draw a sail and a mast……

“What are you doing?” he screamed

“I’m drawing five ships.” I replied.

“No — shapes not ships! a circle, a square…”

I returned to my student accommodation and updated my flatmate that it had not gone well. I didn’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t that. I got on with revising my last set of exams — I might need that degree after all.

But two hours later my phone rang. It was Jonny the Sales Director. I had the job and could I start in two weeks time. Three others from the assessment day had also been offered positions and we’d start together.

So that was my journey into sales. No agencies. No plan. Just knocking on the right door at the right time and having a go.

If you enjoyed this story Follow Me On Twitter where I’m sharing more of my sales experience to help those starting their careers.



20 years of technology sales experience and now sharing to help those starting their sales careers.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Charlie Cowan

20 years of technology sales experience and now sharing to help those starting their sales careers.