Everything I Learned About Sales, I Learned From High School

The following article was written by Mark Graham and originally featured on the CommonSku blog

NapDIf you want to master sales, take yourself back to high school.

Yes, high school. Think about it for a moment. You're a sales rep and you're looking to bring your product/service to market. Within that market, there are all sorts of buyers, each with different behaviours, biases and attitudes. Or, as Seth Godin says, worldviews. Selling is hard, but it doesn't have to be if you take a walk down memory lane and revisit your high school days.

This may be cringeworthy for some, but bear with me. In my high school, I came across these characters:

  • The cool kids
  • The pretty people
  • The jocks
  • The nerds
  • The artsy kids
  • The weirdos
  • The mainstream

Now, let's imagine you were trying to sell a product or service to each of these customer segments.  Here's how you do it.

The cool kids

The cool kids need to feel like they're in the know, that they're the first ones to discover something. Call them the early adopters if you will. They derive value from a product knowing they're amongst the first to get their hands on it. To sell to a cool kid, you need to appeal to their desire to be the first. You also need to appeal to their tastemaker sensibility and how your product will continue to enhance their carefully crafted image as the cool kid.

Bonus points if you can make the cool kid feel the idea was theirs in the first place.

The pretty people

Similar to the cool kids, the pretty people like to be in the know, but I would argue that they derive their value from their image and looks more than anything. As such, a pretty person will usually buy from another pretty person or someone that they perceive to have credibility within their space. Pretty people like pretty things that make them prettier. If you can be the deliverer of something that will enhance their image and make them look good, then you are set.

The jocks

These are your alpha male/females. Type A, visionary types that will quickly dismiss you if you can't help them be part of something big. To sell to a jock, your product or service needs to help them win that championship ring. Details are less important than the end result. Bonus points if your product/service helps them vanquish the competition.

The nerds

I was in high school in the late 80s/early 90s. These were the kids in computer science, the A/V club or in advanced mathematics and they were definitely on the margins (Silicon Valley had not yet been fetishized in popular culture and it wasn't "cool" to be a nerd/geek at the time). To sell to the nerds, you need to speak their language. You need to be super passionate about some narrow field of study. They also need to trust you and feel like you're not a member of the mainstream coming to crush their spirits ... Or stuff them inside their lockers.

Bonus: nerds love features and a deep understanding of how your product works will set their hearts aflutter.

The artsy kids

Similar to the other groups, the artsy group lives inside their own world. The artsy kids define themselves around the instrument they play, the brushes they paint with or the photos they take. To sell to the artsy kids, you need to demonstrate that your product or service fits into their view of the world as a beautiful, creative, interesting place. If you are a crass peddler of mainstream mediocrity, then you won't make it with this group.

The weirdos

These are the kids at the complete margins in high school. They might look funny, have bizarre hair and march to the beat of their own drum. They are the opposite of the pretty people and the jocks. Their weirdness springs from not fitting into mainstream culture and they can be deeply skeptical. To sell to a weirdo, you need to throw yourself into their world and look at mainstream culture from the outside. They ask a lot of challenging questions. A weirdo will be your customer for life if your product/service enhances their weirdness.

The mainstream

These are the kids who just want to fit in and take their cues from the fringe groups about what's popular. They are the followers who don't want to take risks on new haircuts, clothing or music. They fall in line fairly easily and are pretty easy to sell to if you can just make it simple and affordable for them to buy. Mainstream kids want the validation that a lot of other people are using your product/service before they'll commit. Derisk it for them and you have a customer.


1. There are two types are spectacular salespeople:

  • The chameleon that can sell effectively across all groups. In high school, were you cliquey or did you have an every person appeal?
  • The niche seller. You can't relate to anyone outside your narrow target demographic. You may be a weirdo and could care less about the jocks. You are the undisputed king or queen of the weirdos and you attack that market mercilessly.

2. All groups share one common characteristic: they accept people they trust. Do you care about their world? If you don't, you won't be successful at selling to this group.

3. All groups are defined by their view of who they aren't. Like a Hollywood movie, contrast is what creates a compelling story. Kids in high school - like adults later in life - love to tell stories about themselves as this helps them navigate the complex world. Does your product/service fit inside their story?

4. There is plenty of overlap between these groups so please accept my generalizations as just that. However, I believe that all customers have a dominant strain that is well represented by one of these groups. Ignore this at your peril.

I'd love to hear from you. Who were you in high school? Are you the same now? Can you see the customers you sell to today as part of any of these groups? Have I missed any major group?