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Surprisingly, I’m a good saleman. I have complained about sales and marketing people since my induction into the mainstream corporate world in 1995. They used catchphrases and contrived lingo, lied and guessed to customers, made empty promises, and got a clothing allowance to boot. The only corporate animal that comes close to that level of evil is the tech consultant. A tech consultant is paid by my company to visit a customer’s site, then call customer service to fix the problem the customer is having. They too get a clothing allowance.

My opinion of this striking similarity? As Thoreau said, “Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.”

As fate would have it, though, I sell well when I have confidence. The one good use I’ve put that to in my life so far has been fundraising for my daughter’s school. She is now 5, and in Kindergarten. I recently discovered in her bookbag, one Monday morning ten minutes before leaving for school, a couple of T-shirt catalogs and a sales form all in a large white envelope with the stereotypical see-through front. “Ah, the good ol’ days,” I didn’t say to myself, but the site brought back memories of the door-to-door candy and “Boy Scout Jamboree” tickets I had sold, and miscelleneous other hijinks of my youth. As a kid, it was a boring as hell waste of an afternoon, but I dutifully knocked on unsuspecting residents’ doors, costumed in Cub Scout uniform, or just endeavoring to look cute enough to buy from.

I always seemed to come in second place in those contests, and the first place winner always seemed to have gone way overboard to secure their position, with lots of help from eager family members. I didn’t know it then, but what I was seeing was early “soccer mom” syndrome.

Noticeably absent was an instruction form saying who to make checks out to, when to collect, and when everything was due. So, I left the form at home and called the school to find out what the skinny was. “I don’t know, I’m new here…can someone call you back?” “Sure. I’m at 555-6614.” Later that day, someone called me back and said that I had to collect up front, and everything was due Friday.

“What the hell?!” thought I. Not only was today a waste and only four to go, but I had to convince people that they needed to give me money up front. Since, according to the instructions, terrorists and crackheads will kill you or kidnap you if you solicit them door to door, I decided to try to sell the T-shirts to the people I worked with. If you aren’t aware, tech people pay with plastic everywhere they go, and are notoriously absent-minded. “No prob, bub, I’ll bring a check in tomorrow.” Sure.

Accepting failure ahead of time, I left the order form and catalogs on my desk and forgot about them. Towards the end of the day someone noticed them on my desk and flipped through them. She didn’t buy anything, but she told someone else, who came over and bought two items.

At this new change of events, I went around showing the catalogs to people, and before the end of the day I had filled in 14 of the 15 open slots. I was pretty excited, and decided to go hard core and see what I could do. The next day I stopped by Stacey’s school to pick up more forms. I dropped two off at my mother’s work (nothing is in-your-face like a grandmother doing something for her grandchild), and I took two with me. By the end of the week, I had filled in 2 forms plus three line items, and my mother had about half of a form. Combining everything, the total bill came to $550, most of which I actually managed to collect. I wrote a check for the remainder to the school, and I’ll be collecting lunch money for the next couple of weeks from the offending few who didn’t pay.

So, other than dad-makes-good, what is interesting about this? It’s what people asked me when I tried to sell to them. They all had similar questions, which can be broken down as follows :
1) What does the money go to?
{Answer : Stacey’s school, and some to the company that makes the shirts}
2) Where does Stacey go to school?
{Answer : None of the reader’s business, but I told them where.}
3) Is there any tax?
{Answer : No. Of course, that probably isn’t true, but the buyer didn’t pay tax.}

That was the order that the questions always came in. 3 is understandable, you want to know how much to pay. 1 surprised me a little. I wouldn’t think the geeks I work with would care if I was funding a local bordello with the money, but I guess I was wrong. 2 seems like a natural question to ask after you find out the money is going to a school. I wonder if I had said the name of a school that was their school’s rival back in the day if it would have made a difference. Or maybe they were politically savvy on a local level and one city’s performance over another weighed on their decision. I’m leaning a little more towards the footbal rivalry, though.

Even more interesting, by the end of the week I was fleshing out my answers a lot more. There was a fine line of complexity that made the listener disinterested, and if I kept under it, I was more likely to get a good response. Also, I didn’t get the impression that anyone would check anything I was saying before making a purchasing decision.

It ocurred to me then that real sales people must deal with these issues every day. How much can I lie about things without getting caught? How much extra info do I give what kind of person? A lot of guesswork and stereotyping must be done. Because of those two things, a sales person is likely to build up a bad reputation over time if he keeps to the same stereotypes and the same copy. I got an appreciation for how hard it would be to do that for a living, even though I sold a lot very easily in a short period of time. I sold to people who have known me for 5 years, and trust me. And I still got turned down by a lot of them. Working with people I didn’t know and selling products I knew little about (unlike T-shirts, I know enough about them, aparrently) or had no confidence in would have been much harder. No wonder sales and marketing people either burn out or hop from job to job. It’s just in the nature of things.

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