Late in 1979, I published as greeting cards ten watercolor paintings that I’d created, metaphors for states of mind and relationship. Several were exploring humanistic psychology models of personality transformation. I relied upon the work of Rogers, Maslow, Pearls, and Janov as I was designing islands, continents and journeys across these seas and landscapes as ways to describe how humans change.
I found a sales rep in the Chicago Merchandise Mart to sell the cards. In January 1980, impatient to see results, I walked from store to store in the Chicago winter. I averaged about one sale per day, placing my line of greeting cards in stores. I had no training as a salesman, but I was earnest and clearly willing to do whatever was necessary to make the sale (negotiate price, get them display materials). Recycled Paper Products (RPP) was just taking off and the contemporary greeting card business was being born. I was in the right time in the right place to make a living. I was having trouble paying bills as a free lance illustrator.
Up to the late 1970s, there were three main greeting card companies in the U.S.: American Greetings, Gibson and Hallmark. RPP, largely as a result of the popularity of the illustrator Sandra Boynton, grew quickly into the 1980s. In RPP’s wake, small, unique publishers emerged, companies like my own with fewer than 20 cards. They quickly proliferated across the country. Small specialty greeting card stores appeared, particularly in gay neighborhoods and in college areas. These small shops specialized in these unique, tiny greeting card firms.
I fired the merchandise mart rep. He made two sales, never having left the mart. I started my own repping firm. Other small greeting card publishers like my own company were looking for a rep in Chicago that would go from store to store. In six months, I had almost a dozen lines. In other states, I found new, small reps, like myself, who took on my line, selling my little Maplands greeting cards to mostly college town stores.
It is 30 years later. I have worked with many thousands of store owners, selling them greeting cards, calendars, ads for a comic monthly I did for a while and now websites. This is how I met my wife; she had a store. I can’t say I was particularly proud to be a salesman as a profession, but I was good at it, and it allowed me the time to pursue the things that I adored. I come from a long line of males starting and managing their own businesses, selling products to stores. When I was going to college, it was never suggested that I go to graduate school. What a male did after he grew up was start a business.
In my present business, web development, I’ve never had a rep. When I sold greeting cards and calendars, I hired staff to cover the state of Illinois. I mostly sold to the chains, such as OSCO, Walgreens, Sears and Montgomery Wards. The folks I hired worked the individual shops. I had a small firm. There were three or four reps at any time.
Rosanna, who I brought on temporarily as a research assistant, is now my sales rep. She is my first rep in this web development business, a business in its eleventh year. Most new clients have come in through referral or my cold-calling Chicago and northern suburbs. With the recession, business has fallen off. Rosanna has stepped in, walking from store to store, encouraging people to allow us to design, maintain or market their website.
In more than one conversation with Rosanna, I find myself explaining how exactly I engage in sales. That is the subject of this piece.
Sales is personality, philosophy, biology and common sense.
Describing to Rosanna how I sell, I find myself referencing biological and philosophical sources. That, in addition to just emphasizing what a personality does best. I have a rather earnest way of going about things, characterized by a persistence that some find unusual. Persistence is perhaps what I emphasize the most.
Regarding personality, I show up. I show up over and over again. I walk into almost the same 1,500 store doorways once a year, year after year. When shop owners see my face when I step into their space, it is a familiar face. They grow to trust me. They ask me questions. Many, after these multiple exposures, ask me to perform the job that I specialize in, and I have a new client.
I am a shy guy. I feel uncomfortable pushing people in a direction they don’t want to go. Walking into a store, cold-calling, I find that people usually don’t want to have a conversation. I respect that and don’t feel compelled to make them have a conversation. I just want them to know what I do and that I am available to have a conversation regarding what they do, if they would like to talk. Most of my cold calls are very brief.
I seek to cover as much ground as I can in as short a period of time as possible, visiting multiple stores, providing an opportunity for a person that wants my services to appear. There are people who want what I have. Covering ground, returning year after year, provides those opportunities. So, as personality goes, I display persistence and respect. I am not selling. I am showing up in order to make myself available.
I have no goals. No targets. My philosophy of sales carries no sports or war metaphors. I just walk in.
When I share the space of the person who I am seeking to make a client, it is the context of we both sharing the space in the context of my seeking to make him or her a client. I feel amused. I feel amused by the part that we each are playing. I express this amusement or delight in a subtle fashion. I feel present to serve. I experience that person and myself sharing a space and context characterized by my being present to offer services. Usually the person I’m relating to is in a distracted state. I allow myself to respond to wherever they are. This usually means that I withdraw quickly. They usually feel compelled to pursue whatever it is that they are in the middle of at that moment. My supporting them in that pursuit feels right.
At the same time that I am exhibiting persistence and respect while experiencing amusement at the situation, I am mirroring their experience. This is the biology of sales. Thirty years ago I studied and became a practitioner of Neuro-linguistic Programming, following that with an exploration of Ericksonian hypnotherapy. I became adept at biofeedback. I developed sensory acuity for biological process and learned to reflect back a person’s rhythms, his or her breathing and heartbeat, using my intonation patterns and body sways. Listening to a person talk, I’d reflect back his or her speech patterns, rhythms, tones and vocabulary. I’d acquire the same posture. Noting the speed of the person’s metabolism, heart rate and breathing, I’d mirror back the individual’s physical state.
I walk into a proprietor’s shop and enter his or her world.
I was trained in these techniques in the context of psychotherapeutic intervention. I practiced therapy for a very short time. A part of me revolted against so deeply offering myself to another person, particularly because I spent so little time accompanying myself. I felt like I was letting myself disappear into another’s soul while still frightened of my own. Nevertheless, in the context of short contacts, establishing relationship, this is not a problem. As a salesman, mirroring another’s person’s internal, biological experience, establishing rapport, I feel deeply responsible to respond to that person’s needs. I am not there to sell. I am present to consult. The question is: Are there services I offer that can help the person I am relating to, a person whose internal experience is, at that moment, feeling so familiar?
On occasion, the person I am talking with is having an exaggerated experience. The person’s heart rate is fast, with demeanor manic, with agitation deeply established in the personality. I find myself trying to pull out of his or her space. It feels uncomfortable, and it is difficult. I find myself having to accompany myself, while with that person, to not feel overwhelmed.
The biology of sales means both entering into the physical space of the person I am with while at the same time finding a solution to that person’s needs.
My personality of sales involves persistence and respect. Philosophy suggests being in the present, amused. Biology involves mirroring experience and seeking ways to serve. Common sense means knowing how to do the job.
One of the many deep-seated insecurities I carry with me as a personality is that I’m dumb, that I am a slow learner and that I may fail to do what I’ve committed to do. The common sense part of sales is that what I say I can do, I can do. I mostly don’t exaggerate. I state things as clearly as I can, outlining what I am capable of, my limits and the limits of what a person in my profession can do. In other words, common sense dictates that what I say is true. So, I make sure that I can do as I say. Common sense in sales demands I be honest and predictable.
Persistence, respect, humor, attention, a desire to serve, honesty and predictability. That is how I engage in sales. I hate to feel ashamed. There have been rare occasions where I or someone on my staff screwed up. I use those times to renew attention on how specifically we can get better at what we do. Learning from our mistakes is integral to our becoming better.
Rosanna is now out there every day, talking with strangers, making our services available. Communicating to Rosanna how I engage in sales is a challenge. Sales is a reflection of my life.