'Shark Tank' investor Robert Herjavec says there was a major upside to his unglamorous first job as a debt collector

Robert herjavecIlya S. Savenok/Getty ImagesRobert Herjavec visits LinkedIn’s New York offices in April 2016.

Long before he founded the global cybersecurity firm Herjavec Group or became a celebrity investor through “Shark Tank,” Robert Herjavec was a young guy with an English degree calling people to pay their bills.

When he graduated from the University of Toronto in 1984, he had no idea where he wanted to take his life.

But because he wanted to avoid getting berated by his father, who had fled the Communist regime of Yugoslavia to provide his family with a better life, Herjavec worked at the first job that would take him. A newspaper Wanted ad for a bad-debt collector didn’t require experience, and that was enough to catch his interest.

“If you’re thinking that being a bad-debt collector was not the best way to launch a business career, you’re wrong,” Herjavec writes in his new book “You Don’t Have to Be a Shark.” “I learned a lot from the job, and some lessons — valuable lessons — stay with me today.”

Here are the two fundamental insights that allow him to look back fondly on the six months spent at his unglamorous first job.

Great salespeople focus energy only on serious prospects

Herjavec’s job entailed eight-hour days of calling people from a debtors list and convincing them to pay back even a portion of the money they owed. After struggling at the outset, Herjavec writes, he did some industry research and discovered that roughly 20% of the people on each list would never pay any of their debt.

He decided to avoid the “tire kickers and window shoppers” of that 20% he writes. “True, many of these people can be converted into buyers with a lot of skill and effort,” he explains, but that would be a waste of his time. He found cues that indicated whether someone was willing to have a conversation or not, and would immediately move on from those who he knew would stonewall him.

Empathy is often more effective than aggression when it comes to making a sale

When the other side is in a position of power, whether they’re a potential client, your boss, or a debtor, aggressively exerting yourself to convince them to make a decision in your favour is usually perceived as a threat and compels the other side to defend themselves, Herjavec argues.

At the collection agency, he quickly learned that “threats and anger produced nothing.” Instead, “I wanted to learn whatever I could about their lifestyle, get a sense of their values, and judge their expectations. In other words, I was looking to build a relationship between us just deep enough for them to respond to an offer I might make.”

By easing the tension between salesman and prospect by getting the other side to talk about themself, he was able to toss aside the “sheriff-versus-outlaw scenario,” he writes, and then make them an offer — where he would stop calling if they paid half the debt owed, for example — that made both sides happy.

After a very successful six months, Herjavec was ready to move on. When he started his first business in 1990, the lessons he learned calling up people to pay their bills proved to be an invaluable training ground for learning the art of the sale, whether he was selling his services or even himself as someone to invest in.

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