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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bean counting with vacuums

Charles Herriott, who is helping us out with cash flow mapping and strategizing in preparation for our bi-annual meeting, just emailed me a story that shows some of the roots of sales orientation and experience.

It's a good story -- especially for those "cowboys" out there who want to go door-to-door canvassing or enjoy the hard-rock sales models practiced by some contractors.

The last time I lived at home was when I was 15. That wasn’t because I left home, but “home left me” in that my parents moved to China for a few years. (My dad’s company paid to send me to a private boarding school for my last year of high school.)

Anyway, when I was going to be spending some time going to university I decided that it would be a good thing to earn some money to pay for it. My dad was already supporting my brother through university and I already knew that I wasn’t going to be happy living on my dad’s frugal standards. Both of my parents were highly paid professionals so the cost was never the issue..they were just frugal in a demented Sotsman kind of way. (My Ma is 84 years aog and still saves effin’ plastic milk bags. “You never know,” she says. And who knows what I’ll ever do with the ten million plastic milk bags she must have stashed somewhere in their house.) Anyway, I read an ad in the paper that Saskatchewan potash mines were so desperate for labour that they were will to pay enormous hourly rates to anyone who showed up for work. (They were the equivalent of what Fort McMurray is today…where even the McDonalds workers get $37. an hour and a housing allowance.

So I took the train out to Saskatoon. And I took a bus out to the potash mine, ready to start earning my $10 an hour, or whatever it was back then. There at the entrance was a long picket line. All the mines were shut down and there was no work.

Since I was already in Saskatoon, I figured I’d look in the want ads and see if there was some kind of work, if only to earn enough to recover the train ticket cost. I saw one of those “Do you sincerely want to be rich?” type ads that were ubiquitous and were the standard fare for direct marketing companies. I guess you can still see the equivalents in today’s paper but they probably say “Earn $3,000 per week. Work at home.” Etc.

Anyway, I phoned up one of the companies and I was told to come over the next day. I was barely in the door when this guy waves a wad of $20 bills in my face and promises that I can earn that much in a day. In fact, he generously tells me that he is willing to pay me for a whole week just to stay for the “introductory session” which lasted all week.

He asked me where I was from and I told him “FlinFlon, Manitoba” which is technically true because I really was born there…but my parents left as soon as I was 3 weeks old. But I’d already heard several earfuls about “eastern Bastards” this and “eastern Bastards” that referring to the swine who lived in Ontario, so I wasn’t about to admit that I was one of those dreaded Eastern Bastards myself. I told him honestly that I’d just gotten in to town by train.

He said “Ya’ll show up at 7am tomorrow and we’re gonna make you glad you took that train ride and we’re gonna make you rich.” He peeled off two twenties from his bill clip and stuffed them in my pocket while saying “You go on and have yourself a good supper and don’t go out whoring tonight because 8am arrives earlier than you think.”

I didn’t know then that every direct sales operation runs through an ENORMOUS number of potentials before they retain even a few warm bodies who stick it out.

Anyway, I showed up the next day and just could not believe what was happening. A bunch of grown men were singing company songs and whooping and hollering and cheering whenever someone got up to chock their sales onto the big sales board. And the manager waves a handful of $20 bills in the air an says he’s going to give one of them to whichever side of the room that sings the loudest. It was the funniest thing I could ever have imagined and could hardly wait for a break when I could quietly tell the manager that I wasn’t interested.

And of course, the manager convinced me to stay and I sat through the whole week where the whole sales pitch was explained to me and we watched Zig Ziegler movies and sang songs.

And then he told me to show up the next day at the office because “he was taking me out to make some money.”

I showed up and I was standing there all spiffied up in my suit, vest and tie, and my shiny black shoes. And the manager looks at me and he says “You have got to be kidding. You are gonna that to go make a sale.” (I should mention here that I was wearing a tailored suit that I’d paid almost $1,500 for…I was kinda proud of that suit. It was probably the only suit, before or since that ever fit me correctly.) The Manager squinted at me again and looked at my shiny black shoes and my suit. He looked at me shoes again. All this time, he’s shaking his head and effecting a mighty scowl.

And then he thunders (and geez, he could thunder) “Real salesmen wear cowboy boots, boy. Don’t you ever forget that. C’mon, we got us some serious hopping to do.”

Off we went to a boot store and we bought a pair of boots that I thought looked ridiculous with a tailored suit. The boot store was in a mall. As soon as I’d paid for the boots and was about to put them back in the box he said: Put them boots on boy. We got some walkin’ to do first.”

I thought he was demented as he marched me up and down the mall with me feeling initially ridiculous in cowboy boots. But he kept explaining that we were “gonna go do us some serious gun slinging sales which, boy, lemmie tell ya. You ain’t gonna do no sales in them pansy assed black ballet shoes you was wearing.”

Naturally, what I wore on my feet was really irrelevant. But this guy was brilliant because he knew that they were just a prop but they were such an obvious reminder that it created a marketing mind set. It was a “belief” that he had changed and reinforced with the whole deal about boots.

He took me out and sold a pair of vacuum cleaners. (Yep, vacuum cleaners. $2,975 with all the attachments…including the real convenient coin slot on the hollow handle where “the little woman” could put the “pennies a day that her new purchase was really going to cost her.”)

The next day, he took me out again. Before knocking on doors he’d bellow “Real salesmen wear cowboy boots boy. Don’t you never forget it. Lemmie hear them boots as we march up this here sidewalk to make our first sale of the day.”

Naturally, we made the sale. And the next one where he let me do the whole pitch and closing. And the one after that. After every one as we walked back to the car with a sales contract. He’d bellow again” What’d I tell you boy. Real salesmen wear cowboy boots.”

Whether he understood the root cause or not didn’t much matter. What mattered is that salesmen who BELIEVE that they will make a sale, are going to be more successful than those who equivocate and merely think they “might” make a sale.

I wore those dumbassed cowboy boots all over Saskatchewan and I went home with $15,000 in my wallet…and this was AFTER one memorable day when he took me out for breakfast and stopped at a car lot. He showed me a brand new gleaming MG sports car and said. “We need you to be drivin’ this car.” We took it for a test drive and he said “Boy, in two weeks we’re coming back and you’re buyin’ this car with all the money you’re gonna make.” I did buy the car, with money I had earned from sales.

After my first year at university was over, I rode the train to Saskatchewan again. I sold a lot of vacuum cleaners in my dumb-assed cowboy boots. The manager never stopped reminding me that “real salesmen wear cowboy boots.”

I must have been a goldmine for his distributorship as well. By the second year I had my own sales crew. I made a lot of money and I had a teenager’s determination to spend a lot of it living well, which I did. They sent me twice for all expense paid weekends to Las Vegas for achieving top North American monthly sales (in an organization that had 1,700 salesmen.)

That manager taught me a lot of things about selling.

In later years, I leased more commercial real estate than any of the professional real estate agents who were trying to lease our properties. The market and the sales approach are entirely different but I never forgot to wear my dumbassed cowboy boots when I went to lease space that I BELIEVED that I was going to lease. Belief is a powerful force in sales. It applies as equally to leasing real estate, selling vacuum cleaners, or selling advertising. It makes the difference whether you are going to make another ten calls on a feature list or take a bus across town to visit one more potential customer, or whether you will be on a job site a 6am to meet the GC company owner who is never in an office to take a leisurely mid-afternoon call.

Anyway, this long boring anecdote has rambled on long enough….
Is this the only way to be successful at sales? Maybe not. I've been my disarmingly best when I get down to journalism and writing, and the closest you will find me to a hard-rock canvassing or vacuum cleaning selling environment is observing the process from a safe (but close) distance. But when push comes to shove, I can bring in an order or two. Can you?

P.S. The picture here is from and is not the real Charles Herriott.

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