The Sales Gene and Why I Don’t Have It
“I’ll admit, most neck tattoos look like shit but that one is actually cool.”
“Yeah, I got it in Mexico after I played a few gigs in the area. So, you got a contest or something?”
“Yup. $10K in free windows and doors. Are you a homeowner?”
“Yeah but my windows are good.”
“How old is your home?”
“I’m really not interested but thanks.”
“Are your windows aluminum or vinyl?”
“I’m not…” He shook his head and walked away.
My trainer sidled up to me.
“We don’t curse.”
“You said ’shit.’”
“I did? Uhm… sorry.”
“And you need to get him talking about the three pain points*. You let him off the hook way too easy.”
When I was in college, I took one summer to come home to Kansas. I got a job as a telemarketing sales representative for a company selling Amoco Multi-cards to old people who didn’t need them. Cold calls based on cursory interest. Someone who signed up for information or took a survey and now were in the system would get a call and be strong-armed into getting the card (with all the padded-on fees and inflated interests rates with which these sorts of cards are loaded up). There was a script filled with pages of rebuttals — the built-in responses to any objection someone might have for denying the rep a sale.
”I appreciate that. However…”
Every objection was appreciated and we never said But. However was the go to vernacular. No matter what their objection might be, the goal was to steer them back to the pitch. Sales were rarely focused on the positives of the product. Rather, drilling down on the negatives of their lives the product could improve was the dance.
I was relentless. I never took No for an answer. I was really good at it. So good that a month into my summer, I was promoted to floor manager, running around, checking other reps’ phone calls and motivating them to close those sales. The people on the other end of the calls were simply numbers to tally on a white board in the front of the room. They were mostly lonely and wanted to talk to someone. They were easy pickings.
At first, it was thrilling. I was setting company records every day. I was bringing home some bank. I got bonuses and my natural over-achiever mentality was fed. One morning, I woke up and realized I was an awful human. I was pigshit in the disguise of a guy set to help these people by selling them something they didn’t need or want. I hated myself. I quit that afternoon and swore I would never do telemarketing again.
Thirty-three years later, after moving to Las Vegas and discovering that my varied and substantial resume in Chicago meant next to nothing in this new, money-driven town, my need for some work and some cash to pay the freight of living superseded that three decades-long lesson. At least it wasn’t phone sales, right?
The position was listed as Events Representative, which sure sounded like something to do with events. The cold splash of water in my face when coming from the midwest was that, in the desert, events means something almost completely different than the industry I had spent the past decade or so involved in. Here, events are simply designed to sell people things, involve a contortionist, or get them married. This position (Events Representative) was standing in front of a table in a the lobby of a gym or Ace Hardware or in the rows of vendors at a street fair and selling them window replacements. For ten dollars an hour plus commissions. Wearing a lime green or shocking pink nylon polo shirt.
Hell, I needed the dough and Dana is working part time in a bowling alley so I bit.
I noticed in the training an odd but predictable dichotomy. The training was designed to sell me on the idea that what I was doing was specifically not high pressure sales. In bold writing it told me that “CUSTOMERS are not cold statistics. They are human beings with feelings and emotions like our own. CUSTOMERS are people who bring us their wants. It is our job to fill those wants. CUSTOMERS require trust, are respected, cared for, and delighted.” I liked this. It felt right and ethical.
On the other side of the training was the script. The videos I had to watch were adamant that I follow the script verbatim. The dude in these videos was intense. The hard sell from his angle culminated in a semi-rant about people who thought they were smarter than his system and his assurance that, no, I was not smarter than the script. If I held true to the exact wording, I would succeed.
The trainer was adamant about this as well. There were the five commitments required from each customer. There were the six key principles to keep at the front of every interaction (my favorite being “Control direction, timing, and conditions of each conversation”).
The script with its pages of rebuttals and forced language (“NAME — from what you’ve told me, you do know that you will have to replace some or all of these windows in the next couple of years — whether you want to or not — right?”) was dripping with manipulation. It was no different than the multi-card script except to be done in person rather than on the phone. Instead of “I appreciate that, however…” the language toward direct statements of intent followed by the go-to closer “Does that sound helpful?”
My first few days of shadowing other sales reps… er… events reps… wasn’t difficult, but the cues from everyone who had been doing this for a while were in conflict with the training. “No one really uses the script,” I was told. “Tell them what they need to hear. Push the appointment. This is all about getting those numbers up.” A few were a bit more humane. “I go with a soft sell. Trying to convince someone who doesn’t want to even think about replacing their windows to do that is weird so I just make conversation and try to gently guide them that way.”
The bottom line was the number of appointments set in a given shift. No appointments set meant you blew it and would get hauled in and re-trained. Or canned.
In high school, the Wichita Aeros needed a mascot. You know, one of those dudes in a giant fluffy costume whose sole job is to rally the crowd and get them pumped up? Except that the guy before me had stolen the Captain Aero costume. They said they’d pay me 100 dollars a game but I had to supply my own outfit. I culled together some masks and big shoes and whatever I could and went out to do the gig. No one was interested.
I had beer bottles thrown at me. I was called every filthy name you can think of, and one woman, drunk on cheap beer and a horrifying life, tried to punch me out. I smiled a shit-eating grin throughout, doing lame cheers I remembered from basketball games and trying goofy shit to get the crowd less hostile.
It was a nightmare. After three games, I told them I couldn’t do it anymore. They never paid me a dime.
That’s exactly what sales feels like to me.
*Three Pain Points
These are defined as locating using specific questions the problems people may be having that your product or service can rectify. I’m told that these are the key to quality sales. Building up a sense of urgency in solving these pain points is the skill required and that sense of urgency is created through appealing to an emotional rather than pragmatic foundation.
I was told that I had exactly the right personality for this. I had been told that before. Outgoing, enthusiastic, dominating. Except for one thing: I hate being sold. I can’t stand aggressive sales tactics. I don’t want to be confronted on the street with a forced conversation that ultimately ends with a request for my time or money for almost anything. The inauthenticity of that faux interaction is designed solely to separate me from dollars. I empathize more with those hapless souls being accosted than I do with the cutthroat game of selling. Now, I’m being paid to be one of those bullshit artists. And wear a fucking day-glo polo shirt in public.
I get it. Most of capitalism is driven by sales. Most sales are made by people selling things and ideas. The time-share thing here in Vegas. The guy on the street-corner with the spinning arrow sign trying to get you to come into the third-tier mobile phone store. The kid with the box of candy to raise money for his basketball team. All some variation on the theme of non-stop, unwavering sales.
The window replacement company was actually a good one. The service was amazing, the warranty was amazing, the product is the best in the business. If I wanted new windows, this was the place without any question. And when I spoke to someone in the field who wanted new windows and wanted to talk about it, it didn’t feel like selling, it felt like helping (which was the first message of the training, right?). Unfortunately, replacing windows is not generally on the top of the to-do list for most families. So, 98 percent of the people walking by do not give a shit and are annoyed when their time is invaded by some fucker trying to get them to stop and have a conversation about window problems.
It was the day I spent in the lobby of a high-end gym that broke me.
People coming and going with one singular purpose: to workout. I stood there, smiling and announcing the $10K giveaway. No one — no one — was interested. It felt like a set up, placing me in a location where failure was the only option and bothering people with a sales pitch my only tool. I spoke to one guy about his workout but as soon as I diverted it to windows, he walked away. Not an “Excuse me, I gotta go” sort of thing but a stop talking and simply walk away sort of thing. There was enough time in between waves of people that I really had some space to float my perspective up and over myself and see what it was I was doing. I racked my brain to find a way to be good at this job without being that douche bothering people with a fake smile and faker concern.
I realized that I didn’t want to be good at this.
I admire a good salesperson. Geary Yonker, David Raphael, Chris Davila. All amazing verbal magicians with the built-in DNA designed to convince people of those three pain points, establish that sense of urgency and close the deal. David once told me that sales was like dating — tell them what they want to hear, be the person they can trust and rely upon, have sex, then move on to the next one. I once dated like that but it didn’t make me feel very good about myself. It felt empty. It felt sad to see people as merely a means to an end.
I’ve ruminated on my decision to take other work and leave this Willy Loman of the New Millennium Lifestyle by the wayside. Is it ego? Am I just too proud to stand out and try to sell shit on the street to strangers? Or is it merely that I don’t have the instinct for it? I have no problem handing out flyers for BUGHOUSE! and inviting strangers to come see our shows. A friend used to laugh at me as stood outside WNEP Theater before shows and would remark on “Don Hall, out peddling theater.” That feels different, though. Inviting someone to see something versus creating a forced dialogue to sell something is a horse of different color, I think.
Sales is a skill in manipulation. I do not have the gene. I could probably learn but the feeling I get when trying to steer a nice, normal conversation into a place where I control the direction, timing and conditions of that dialogue is a quagmire of self-loathing. Perhaps it’s the reason I’ll always be an artist before a businessman. Perhaps it’s why I’ll never have a fat bank account.
I’m okay with that.
Hopefully, I won’t forget this thirty years from now.