Selling for a living is a tough game. Well, it depends really. Small sales or the average salesperson working for the big firm, all right, not so tough. Big sales where you make big commissions, now that’s entirely different. I’ve met a ton of salespeople in my career. Many are average. Some, the best ones, the multi-millionaires, now those are some of the most persuasive people I’ve ever met. As you get into multi-million dollar sales the stakes go up and the game gets tougher. If you want to close big deals, make big money, you’ve got to be better than the best. You’ve got to study, know your product and industry better than everyone else, you’ve got to learn the angles and work every strength you have. Know your stuff. Learn your trade. Prepare, be disciplined, call high, and never “wing” a sales call. My favorite sales movie: Glengarry Glen Ross. ABC: Always Be Closing.
I landed my first sales job when I was seventeen and from then on I was hooked. Sales is in my blood. It’s what I do and I’ve been doing it for a long time. That first sales job I sold vinyl windows, roofing, and siding door-to-door. We went to rich neighborhoods, middle class, and poor. The poor ones were the toughest and dangerous. I was young, foolish, and I should have been scared. I thought I was invincible, maybe because I was mostly a loaner. At thirteen, I’d spent much time away from home. I’d experienced hours in bars and pubs in Europe, unfortunately, at too young of an age. By seventeen I’d already had the great fortune and opportunity to have lived and traveled around Europe, Turkey, Greece, and other parts of the world mostly with just one other friend. So, I guess I felt, whether naïve or not, old enough to handle an American city.
Those early days selling on the streets were my first encounters with capitalism and business. It was an unbelievable experience. I witnessed people making money and those without money. I witnessed the inequalities that exist in America, the stark division between rich and poor that is the inevitable result of our capitalist system. In Germany, when I was a boy, they had three schools that students were required to test into at a young age. If you tested well, you were put on the University bound professional track. If you scored mediocre you were placed into schooling for craftsman and specialized labor. If you scored low, you were placed in the remedial schooling. Their paths were chosen at a grade school age and once in the track it was very hard to get out of. Another example, and even more extreme, is the Caste system in India.
Not in America. In America you have the chance, regardless of your background, to rise above and achieve. I was fortunate enough to be an American citizen at the American schools in Germany so I didn’t have to conform to those rigid European standards. In fact, much of grade school was very difficult for me and I was riddled with learning disabilities. I was fortunate, again, to have a German born mother who wouldn’t stop home schooling and tutoring until I got it right. I remember many summers stuck in the kitchen reciting grammar and math exercises with my mother while the other kids were outside playing. I hated it at the time, but I realize how blessed I was now to have someone teach me and instill discipline when I was young.
At seventeen, though, I was selling on the means streets. I was the young tin man. “Hello sir or maam,” I said, “have you ever considered an estimate for home improvements regarding your windows, roofing, or siding?” I got the door slammed in my face. That was a common objection. I got all kinds of objections selling. My favorite objection was the very polite “do you have some literature you can drop off? If I’m interested I’ll get back to you.” I should have carried For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sound and The Fury, or The Great Gatsby in my back pocket and handed it over to them: “here’s some literature.”
One day I was really upset. I’d been hit with a million objections and I’d probably been threatened once or twice as well. When I went back to the office I mustered up enough courage to ask my boss why the hell he’d sent us, yet again, into the ghetto. “That’s my old neighborhood and where I grew up……fool,” he told me irritated. “I used to live there and you want to complain to me about visiting? Maybe you aren’t tough enough to handle this job and I got a million kids to replace you if you can’t.” That about summed it up. What was I going to say? In reality, if my mother had known about the visits to dangerous neighborhoods she would never have allowed me to continue the job, but I was up for the challenge. I was independent, strong, and I had to prove myself!
Dave was a young successful business owner that had worked a number of years in home improvements, learned the business, and then started up on his own. He was a shining example of a young black man succeeding in America despite his background of adversity and severe challenges. Dave was a few years older and a great role model for me. I was impressionable and I didn’t want to let him down. Not only was he managing his own business and putting himself through school, but he was also providing assistance for his parents as well. Unfortunately his brother was shot and killed in a drug related incident years prior and that, he shared with me, was his motivation to get out. Dave was the ultimate salesman. He could talk the talk. He could convince anyone to do anything and he was smooth as silk. It seemed like a different beautiful woman was walking in and out of our office every week. Always asking for Dave. Dave would smile and off they would go. Dave was the boss, he knew it, everyone knew it. He was the ultimate player, the big time baller, the boss.
Dave hired a pit bull as his lead salesperson. Tim was a huge guy, a body builder, and most likely used steroids or various drugs to boost his physique. He was aggressive, in his early twenties, and when he charged into the office barking orders at the rookies that set meetings for him I wanted to hide under my desk. You didn’t want to set a non-legit appointment for Tim. Our job was to generate enough interest and set an appointment so the senior salespeople could meet with the homeowners and discuss the home improvement offerings we provided. Once, a rookie set a bogus meeting for Tim. Tim came back, with his fresh crew cut, bright red face, and veins bulging. “Your lead was crap, rookie,” he screamed as he confronted one of my co-workers. I thought for sure he was going to grab him by the neck, but Dave caught him right before it got out of hand. Dave and Tim would often go at it in the office. Egos were big and our office was diverse, to say the least, and the yelling, ribbing, and verbal assaults were part of the norm. It was a relatively young start up company so it wasn’t the most professional environment.
Those were my first experiences with sales. A bunch of men stuck in a small office filled with bravado and testosterone and an aggressive commission only environment. If you weren’t closing you were out. If you didn’t sell you were out. I learned the ropes quickly and it didn’t take long for me to set quality meetings and close deals. Soon I was making more money in high school than I knew what to do with. Like I said, I was hooked.