It’s A Numbers Game

Audio Blog, 10:42

My Sales Manager Bob McCleod was a tall, twenty-seven year old blond haired fellow who graduated from Virginia Tech. He had tremendous credibility with the salesforce, because Bob had broken most of the region’s records for selling copiers and fax machines. His performance propelled him to the position of sales manager. Bob’s morning meeting was always intended to motivate and train the young salesforce for the daily challenges of working on full commission.

“It’s a numbers game, guys. If you knock on enough doors, and do enough product demonstrations, you are going to sell fax machines and make money. Every time a person tells you no today, you are that much closer to hearing a yes!”

In 1989, office products were sold door-to-door by professionally dressed sales representatives. The internet distribution channel had not yet evolved, and large retailers such as Staples, CostCo and Target did not sell these products. In fact, it was in the late 1980s that we first introduced the plain paper fax machine, a significant improvement over the curly roll, thermal paper machines.

In 1986, I sustained a catastrophic knee injury playing college football in my junior year, and this disrupted my scheduled Army training for the summer of 1987. Upon graduation in 1988, I made up the mandatory training at Fort Bragg, and I was then assigned to a National Guard unit as a weekend warrior.  So, I needed a normal job to earn money to support myself until I went on active duty.

My company, Harris/3M, was an industry leader, and preferred to hire former college athletes who still had the mental toughness, competitiveness and energy level that was ideal for full-commission sales jobs. We traded in our athletic uniforms for dark suits, white shirts and power ties, and the firm released us on the business community.

The tough part of the job was that a typical day included being rejected 30-50 times, with just a small possibility of selling a fax machine.  Each sales rep was assigned a dedicated geographic territory, and mine was the Northern Virginia Tyson’s Corner area just outside of the nation’s capital. Every day I would select a tall office building, take a deep breath, smile, and walk into the offices and introduce myself.

“Good morning, I’m Frank Van Buren with Harris/3M. How are you today? Is the office manager available for a brief moment?”

Most times, I was shot down before I even got through with saying my name…

“Don’t you see the NO SOLICITING sign on the door? Get out!”

It was brutal. In the event that I was able to get beyond the gatekeeper to the decision maker, the goal was to conduct a “Customer Needs Assessment”, then get them to watch a product demonstration (I would hurry down to the car and retrieve the fax machine).

Then came the coup-de-grace: Closing.

This was the high stakes part of the job, because I could taste the victory, yet one mistake could turn off the customer. However, it required me to convince them to take action today. After I ensured that I was talking with the decision maker, I was trained to float a brief qualifier question.

“Have you seen all the features you need to see to make a decision, and are you comfortable with my firm?”

Then, it was time to close hard. Bob had prepped us with an arsenal of counter-attacks meant to overcome objections and the human inclination to procrastinate. Respectfully, we applied subtle pressure and compliments to influence the recipient to take action.

“I really enjoy dealing with important people like you that have the authority to make decisions. Since you like the product and are comfortable with Harris/3M, I’m asking for your business right now. I can get this paperwork written up quickly.”

If he hesitated, I was trained to politely apply a different tactic until the sale was made. The best salespeople were the most tenacious at closing, sort of like a Matador killing with a clean “coup-de-grace” to the bull.

Of course, if Bob learned that a sales rep made it to the closing phase of the presentation, but couldn’t finish, he was very disappointed. It also guaranteed a “ride-along” the following day, where we watched the amazing way that Bob closed. Bob had a counter argument prepared for every conceivable objection that a customer could muster. He was relentless, like the T2 version of the android in the movie Terminator 2, and he demonstrated how to overcome the natural fear of rejection.

However, if the customer was satisfied with the service and product, and I influenced him to sign the paperwork, it was a true rush of adrenaline! After a long day of rejection on my feet, there was no greater feeling than to return to the office with a prize! We all would head over to Happy Hour, and the successful salesperson was lionized as the pleasure of the kill erased the pain of the hunt.

I learned many life lessons from that one year experience as a door-to-door salesman, but the three most memorable are as follows:

Tenacity is more important than Talent.
Talent is over-rated. I would select tenacity over talent, any day. There are so many talented people that never actually accomplish very much. The missing ingredient is tenacity, or mental toughness. The ability to endure long moments of displeasure, challenges and discomfort in order to accomplish your goals. The daily experience of rejection in that sales job fortified my resolve to succeed, and it carried over to other parts of my life.

Of course, the military develops this attribute by forcing service people to experience highs and lows.  However, the military experience is very rare with approximately1% of the population serving. As a parent of fortunate children without consistent daily struggles, I often think about how to help them develop this critical ingredient of success. It seems to me that the best training ground to develop this attribute, for most young Americans, is through participation in sports. In sports, a child will experience disappointment, challenge and failure, while enjoying success and exhilaration.

Ask for what you want.
Whether it is closing a business deal, applying for college, asking for a hand in marriage, or seeking assistance from a mentor to achieve your goals, it can only happen if you have the courage to ask for it. The difference between the new reps on Harris/3M’s salesforce, and the old bulls like Bob, was that the rookies were fearful of asking for the business because they didn’t want to hear “no!”. They preferred to not ask, and hope the customer would volunteer to move forward.

The old bulls knew that time was important, and humans needed some prompting to overcome their fear of making a bad decision or missing a better deal tomorrow. If you can develop a habit to ask for what you want, you will achieve your goals quicker and at a much higher success rate, in any endeavor.

Once the sale is made…just stop talking.
Over-selling is just as bad as reluctant underselling.  Once you have demonstrated that the customer’s needs are being addressed, he/she is comfortable with you (and your firm), just stop talking. Allow the person enough time to actually say “yes”!  When they say “yes”, cease all small talk and focus on closing the deal.  As we say on the trading floor, “time kills trades”.

One day, I was in a lawyer’s office talking to the lead partner, and he was impressed with Harris/3M and the product. I closed, and he said yes. I wrote up the paperwork, but made the mistake of engaging him in a new, irrelevant conversation (about sports I believe) just as he was about to sign. He redirected his focus away from the paperwork, and we engaged in a sports conversation for about 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, towards the end of the conversation, his phone rang, and I quickly sensed that he was talking to a close friend. I remember him telling the person that he was about to buy a fax machine, and then he said “Really? I didn’t know he was involved in that business.”‘

He hung up the phone, and proceeded to tell me that his friend’s brother sold fax machines through Cannon, a competitor, and he simply needed to take a few days to talk to that guy out of respect for his friend. He told me, “Not a big deal, I just need to give him a fair shot.”

Of course, he never bought a fax from me. If the sale is already made, just stop talking. There is no need to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Regardless of how painful the endeavor, you can learn quite a bit with an open mind.  The key is to stick around long enough to benefit from the experience by taking away some valuable life lessons.


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