The 3 Types of Salespeople: Surf, Turf and Amphibian


The 3 Types of Salespeople

“Sales isn’t for everybody. Sorry, we don’t think you are cut out for sales.”

Have you ever been on the receiving end of such a statement? Most sales managers will emphatically state that a salesperson who is not meeting his or her sales quota simply doesn’t have the “Right Stuff.” Unfortunately, their judgment is based upon a major false assumption: A “good” salesperson can sell anything. The product or service is irrelevant, and in fact, a good salesperson should be able to sell “ice to an Eskimo.”


An Antiquated One Size Fits All Concept

In traditional sales training, all salespersons are lumped together without regard to the different approaches to life and temperaments required to best represent a product or service. A typical sales seminar delivered to a room full of participants will use general sales terms and cannot afford to focus on any single separate industry. In addition, most trainers believe (falsely) that sales techniques are the same from industry to industry.  In the end, what is delivered is a “cookie-cutter” seminar that fails to address any ones individual needs or concerns.

Sales people are not created equal just as the products and services they sell. Also what is sold is not done in equal environments: selling cattle in a barn auction and selling a private jets on a tarmac to corporate executives are not the same as selling skin care products at a home party in spite of what your sales manager may say.

In fact the Wharton Scholl of Business stated that…..

We are unique people selling to unique people who buy for their own unique reasons, which have been falsely given general social categories of similarity from which advertising and marketing are based.

That means that people most often are not buying what the manufacturer or sales rep believe they are selling them.

Sales People Are Born

It is true that selling comes naturally to some and not to others. Why? We also tend to think that either someone can sell or they can’t but is that true? Maybe there are factors that are being missed by Western science and the sales training industry. Maybe the European approaches can open doors that are closed here.

Imagine Harry was a very good beer salesman calling on the local bars and restaurants and he was happy with his job. If you are like most of us, we picture the beer salesman as strong with having to move cases of beer from his truck to the customer’s walk in cooler. He will dress comfortable with short sleeves, work shoes, and might wear shorts in the summer, easily blending in at the bar with the locals.

Now imagine Paul was a very good salesman selling pharmaceuticals to doctors. He was happy with his job. Here physical strength is not relevant having only to carry pamphlets and samples of drugs. However, his language skills must be on par with his highly educated customers and product knowledge must be impeccable and diverse. He must also exude confidence.  There is a good chance he might be wearing a suit and tie but if not at least slacks, a nice shirt, and sport jacket with polished shoes.

When the product, service and environment, conforms to the Life Theme of the salesperson, success becomes likely. If not, it is very difficult.

Studies show that Paul would most likely not be very good as selling beer to bars nor would he be happy doing so. Harry would most likely not be very good at selling pharmaceuticals to doctors. It would be unfair to tell Paul the beer sales rep, he lacked confidence and need additional sales classes any more than telling Harry the drug rep to do the same.  There is a conformity issue that we can all see is missing.

The Law of Harmonic Conformity: The Life Theme, Product/Service, and the environment in which it is sold, must all be in harmonic conformity for success to occur.

The three selling environments are:

1.    Surf (outside sales)

2.    Turf (inside sales)

3.    Amphibious (both)

These are not rigid categories, but rather each environment has a core set of attributes that conforms very well to some people and not to others.

The Surf Sales Domain

Surf Sales representatives do not have a single physical location. They lack a home base in the traditional sense and must seek out their prospects by phone, email or in person. They must cold-call meeting strangers, and warm-call, meeting acquaintances and friends daily to survive. They usually lack the comfort of a draw or base wage and rely 100% on commission. In cold-calling, they must create “needs, values, and benefits.

The sales rep may also need to “find” and “justify” the money spent on the product to the satisfaction of the prospect. And even with warm calls, where there is a pre-existing relationship, cold-call skills are required to some extent to take the process to a close. Surf selling truly starts from nothing.

Examples of surf sales include Amway, Mary Kay, Cutco Cutlery or any other “door-to-door” or party style cold call selling.

Surf Sales are also for those who have greater drive and assertiveness. This type of salesperson is usually of high energy and self-motivation. He or she cannot afford to sit around and wait for the phone to ring, because they are self-employed and must generate prospects and clients solely based on individual determination.

The only limiting factor in obtaining clients is the world population. It is the drive and need for freedom that offsets the lack of security, health benefits or other advantages that come with our next category, Turf Sales.

The Turf Sales Domain

In Turf Sales, the representative has a single physical location acting as a home base or turf. Prospects are familiar and aware of the business location and seek out the sales representative. For this reason, the sales rep faces a “warm market” as opposed to a “cold one.” This is common in many retail environments such as auto sales.

There may be other staff members present to provide assistance, emotional support, advice and often friendship. Management is also present for additional authoritative guidance. Expectations are clearly defined to motivate and offer a sense of security. These people often prefer working in a structured environment where there are no surprises. Most importantly, they escape or only get slightly grazed by the bullet of rejection. There is comfort in having prospects seek them, rather than having to cold-call to find prospects.

With prospects being interested in what is being sold, the sales rep’s self-confidence is immediately bolstered. The prospect is aware of “needs, values, and benefits,” along with estimated cost. This eliminates the need for the sales representative to create that which is already present.

Turf sales are for those who have a patient disposition. They may stand or sit for hours waiting for a prospect. They are willing to see prospects several times before the sale is made. It may take weeks or months working on a lead and in the end a deal may or may not be closed. Turf Sales representatives are usually given a minimum wage or draw against commission that they can count on which provides further convenience and security.

The Amphibious Sales Domain

The amphibious style of selling is the “catch-all” category having both Turf and Surf core attributes.  For example, in real estate, a sales representative may have to work under a broker and be accountable to him or her. Yet, the realtor is working on commission only, and has a great deal of freedom. As long as he or she is producing, management will not attempt to micromanage them. Often the sales rep just uses the office as a place to maintain periodic contact with associates and clients.

Core Issues

Studies show that people will consistently express different levels of 1) job performance 2) job satisfaction, 3) job motivation, 4) learning rates based on the how we interact with people and other factors.

These consistencies demonstrate that we are not always dealing with choice preferences but the presence of several differing and essential human motivating systems.

Each system is impacted by different physical and mental environments and can either enhance or diminish what motivates us. We all sense life enhancement as forms of happiness and diminishment as forms of unhappiness.

If you are not meeting your quota, the sales manager will simply point to your lack of self-esteem, and lack of motivation, all from your lack of self-confidence, as reasons for you failing their expectations. As shown earlier, we are self-motivated if we are given the right environment. However, there is another major challenge running through all sales environments.

The Law of Interpretive Needs: The greater the interpretive need of the prospect, the less a salesperson is needed. The less the interpretive need of the prospect, the greater the need for a salesperson.

In Surf sales, the salesperson must create the need in the individual prospect. In Turf sales, the interpretive need is inferred by the prospect simply entering the place of business. In Amphibious sales it is a combination of both.

Where the Fault Lies

As you can see, if you feel you are less than successful in your current sales environment, the fault may not be you (in spite of what your sales manager may say). There are many factors that contribute to success and failure. Most often, those who are struggling in sales have just simply failed to find their proper environment for a successful sales career. In my experience I have never observed those suited for “Turf”, find success in ” Surf” or vice versa. If you find yourself unfulfilled in your current sales environment, a change of venue is in order.

Does selling ice to an Eskimo really prove you are a good salesperson?

Does sales success only come to those with “natural” sales abilities?

Is what your sales manager saying about you really true?

Which do you prefer: Surf, Turf or Frog Legs?

In my experience, rather than telling my trainees that they are not cut out for sales, I suggest products, services and environments that I believe conforms best to their individual style. The result is a huge savings in training costs, and the individuals find the best sales niche suited to their natural motivations.


About the author

CEO of Authentic Systems, Degree in Philosophy from University of California, Berkeley.

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