Avis Yates Rivers began her career at Exxon Corporation in the 1970s. She rapidly rose through the ranks of the company, moving from an administrative position to HR and training, and then into sales – which is where she really began to shine. When the company launched a new technology division (Exxon Office Systems Corporation), she took a role selling early technology in downtown Manhattan.
For Yates Rivers, part of the reason she enjoyed her job so much was the sense of adventure. “I realized how much I loved sales,” she recalled. “How much I loved walking into a door and not knowing who was going to be on the other side, and just feeling happy.”
After five successful years in technology sales at Exxon, she learned the division was going to be sold. “I began thinking seriously that I should be doing this for myself,” Yates Rivers explained. “This was after several years of overachieving my sales goals. It was something I liked and something I was good at. To me, the most reasonable step was to start my own business. This was 1985.”
Yates Rivers went on to found her own technology company, and today, she is the CEO of Technology Concepts Group International, a business that delivers critical IT asset management and leasing solutions to corporations, across many industries. A successful entrepreneur for 27 years, Yates Rivers is also on the board of the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT), and she participates in other groups such as the National Minority Supplier Development Council and the Women Presidents’ Educational Organization.
She shared her advice on the most important sales skills women should learn. Whether you’re working in sales or not, understanding the building blocks of a successful sales career can help you build your own.
Sales Skills to Learn
“By far, the most important skill you can have in sales is the ability to listen,” Yates Rivers said. “Many people have a misconception about sales people – that we’re fast talkers. But the best sales people are those who have the ability to listen, to hear what the customer is saying and identify what they have pain around.”
Another lesson she learned is that closing a deal requires more than a good relationship with clients. She said, “For me, being in sales from an early age, I always felt I had the support of people – that I was well liked. And at first, I felt that should translate into sales. But what I’ve learned is that it’s not about me.”
She explained, “At the end of the day, if you’re not solving critical problems or helping generate revenue for your clients, they can like you all they want. But it’s not enough to close the sale.”
This advice can translate to your career as well – advancing to the next level means more than just doing a good job (although you have to do that too) and being well-liked in the office. It means listening to supervisors, and figuring out what they need and what skills are required for that next-level position. And then communicating your own abilities effectively.
For many women, the self-promotion piece can seem daunting. “We’ve found that to be true in research NCWIT has done,” Yates Rivers said. “Women will often give their team credit as opposed to just taking the credit personally. It’s just not how we’re wired.”
But talking about your achievements is important in gaining support from the top and getting raises and promotions, she continued. “What can help women do it more effectively is talking from the perspective of how they’ve helped a customer or someone else. That means talking about outcomes and how they have positively impacted someone else.”
Finally, Yates Rivers shared, success is all about tenacity. “It boils down to persistence,” she said. “No matter what’s happening, you have to persist. If you’re not generating new business or if your expenses are getting out of hand, no matter what, you just have to keep going and working through the challenges.”
No matter what life throws at you, success means sticking to it.
Confidence and Imagination
Yates Rivers believes her imagination enabled her success. “I’ve always had confidence and the ability to connect with people, and the ability to talk. And I think that comes from being an avid reader early in life.”
“There were six of us growing up in New York City, and there wasn’t a lot of room and there was always a lot of noise. So my escape was the library. I would go to the library and bring home an armful of books and read under the bed or in my closet with a flashlight,” she continued. “And that developed in me an imagination, the ability to dream, and a good vocabulary.”
That imagination, along with praise from the adults around her, gave her a lot of confidence in her own skills. “All of that, undergirded by confidence – I was always supported or applauded for my abilities – helped me later on.”
When she took her initial leap into sales, which meant leaving a stable salary, and then eventually when she founded her own company, her ability to dream gave her the confidence and strength to try something new. She now calls it vision.
“I just felt I could always get another job – I knew that if things didn’t work out, it wasn’t the end of my story,” Yates Rivers explained. “I had always been comfortable with taking risks because of that, and it worked for me. I knew I was only limited by my own abilities.”