Dearth of a Salesman

Dearth of a Salesman


What is it about good salespeople that makes them good? Is it possessing a golden tongue, thinking three moves ahead of your customer, knowing when to sweeten a deal, when to talk up a product, when to just plain shut up? Is it knowing more about your product than the person who invented it?

Beats the crap out of me. Whatever it is that makes those people tick: I ain't got it.

My first exposure to salesmanship came working concessions as a teenager in the Bronx.

I was hired, along with thousands of other kids my age, to sell food or merchandise at Yankee Stadium. They paid us service-industry wages, plus a percentage on our receipts, and they gave us a nice smock to wear, and a big button advertising the prices of our wares, and if you were lucky enough to work in the stands, you could watch your favorite baseball player, Don Mattingly, lead the team to another penant.

Of course, being new, I got to sell hot dogs on the concourse approaching one of the entrances. A bit disappointing, but I was sort of happy. What could be more American than selling red-hots during a baseball game?

It was cold. It rained. And I made something like $12.75, which even in 1987 dollars was hardly enough to pay for my comic book habit.

But what ultimately discouraged me from returning to the job after one day's work was watching an older kid ply his trade. He sold souvenir baseball bats, about 1/3 the length of a regular bat and vaguely reminiscent of something you'd use to club a fish you've just pulled out of the sea.

"Get your souvenir baseball bats," my colleaugue barked. "Authentic bats, here. Just like the one Don Mattingly uses to beat his wife."

I'm not sure what kind of money that kid made, but if salesmanship encompassed crass and tasteless humor, I didn't think I wanted any part of it. I saved my crass and tasteless humor for only special occasions.

A couple years later, I landed a summer job selling subscriptions to the New York Times over the telephone at night. This was still before the Interent and we worked off marketing lists one neighborhood at a time, offering a promotional discount on home delivery. My very first call was to an older gentleman who remained silent through my entire script. When I was finished, he started crying. "Why can't you people just leave me alone?" he said. "Don't you know my wife just died. I just buried my wife."

"So," I said, "I take it this means you're not interested in home delivery of the New York Times?"

For some reason, he hung up. (OK, that last part I made up. You see, only for special occasions.)

Anyway, I never sold or tried to sell anything again after that summer. And, over the proceeding years, thinking back on those two experiences, I came to the conclusion that a salesperson is, first and foremost, a jerk. Even if a likable jerk. Like the character Richard Roma, from David Mamet's play Glenngary Glen Ross (played by Al Pacino in the movie adaptation). Roma spends most of the first act closing a deal by acting like a prospect's friend, talking about almost anything but real estate, while getting the potential customer slowly drunk. Drunk enough to sign on the dotted line. Of course, fate and justice have it that Roma's deal falls through in the end. But you have to admire Roma's lateral thinking.

Why do I bring all this up? Because it seems like so much of being a reseller is cultivating the fine art of salesmanship. In conversations I've had over the last three months with experienced sales people, I've gotten the sense that it is much more so that than a science. It requires knowledge, obviously. But the word "relationship" comes up a lot, and that takes finesse.

So to all you successful salespeople out there, I salute you. It's a job I could never do, not without being a complete jerk.

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