As an 18 year old student, I started selling encyclopedia door-to-door. No-one would otherwise employ me. I was a scrawny little misfit; with greasy, scraggly shoulder length hair; of argumentative disposition.
It was a commission-based sales role, and I needed cash. Hunger. Kinda like… you don’t sell, you don’t eat. Hunger. An awesome motivator.
My parents were long gone. My father when I was 5 and my mother when I was 12. An older brother, his wife and two sons took me in after my mother died. I lived with them for five years, prior to leaving home just a few days after matriculating high school. I’ve been on my own, mostly financially self-sufficient and independent, since age 18.
I had managed to secure a bursary (as in the British definition: a scholarship granted to a university student in need). Granted by the South African Railways, it covered on-campus residency accommodation and annual school fees. Achieved on my own, all by myself. No adult had proof-read my bursary application. I had to attend an in-person interview, requiring travel by train from Cape Town to Johannesburg. The rail ticket was free, because they were the S.A. Railways. The journey took two days and two nights, one-way.
No-one coached me for my interview. I didn’t have any life-coaches save for my brother and his wife, and occasionally a high school teacher, perhaps paying attention to a student somewhat inadvertently. I’m quite confident that my host family would have been highly motivated to see me succeed with my bursary and university application and leave home… after all; I had been a drain on their own limited resources for 5 years! I only applied to one university, not knowing any better or different.
I had effectively closed my first material sale, winning that bursary competition, and was now officially enrolled for a B.Com (majoring in Accounting), with my large, annual financial commitments covered by my S.A. Railways bursary.
Accounting had been my easiest subject at high school. I chose it as a major because I was lazy, and I thought that by picking this easy subject as my major, it would allow me to graduate in 4 years without having to work too hard. The faculty dean didn’t fully explain the consequences of my entire choice; minor details like having to also pass Commercial Law, Economics, Business Economics, Business Communications, Statistics, and a variety of nuisance - and in my opinion irrelevant - other subjects.
Much later, I learned that Bill Gates handed his most challenging jobs to lazy people, because they managed to find better, easier and more effective ways of getting a tough job done. Where was Bill when I needed him?
Selling encyclopedia door-to-door wasn’t my first job. I had started working for Bloch Supermarkets as a shelf-packer, and later as a cashier, at the age of 14. I had worked there for 4 years. At the supermarket, I learned how to play business… helping people find what they thought they needed, overcoming basic sales objections, managing difficult clients, etc. That was more than 36 years ago, today.
For the Millennials reading this… encyclopedia are books; compendiums of reference works. Today, you may call that Wikipedia; but you cannot sell Wikipedia door-to-door, with payments spread over 24 months, an oak veneer bookcase, regular updates for an ongoing fee, etc.
Books that contained information, between two hard covers, alphabetically organized. Printed matter, always out of date, as any printed matter is vs. information available online today. My add-on sales opportunities included selling the things mentioned above. I sold them all. Almost every buying client had to buy everything. Having many sales items included on each individual sales order ticket directly determined the quality - or otherwise - of a next meal.
I quickly learned that people don’t like door-to-door salespeople, selling books. So I started selling education for their children instead. This is called a value proposition. If you knock on someone's door and say “I’m selling encyclopedia,” homeowners would slam the door shut in your face. Creating a sound value proposition allows salespeople to learn how to overcome the initial “no,” as related to any sales pitch.
So, I adapted…
I started knocking on doors saying "I represent South African Cultural Holdings, and we’re doing a survey on your children’s education."
No such company existed, although Afrikana (the local language version of the English Britannica), was published by SAKBEL. This acronym – translated from the original Afrikaans – provided the lofty naming convention above.
Parents would always welcome me inside. Why not? I had requested 5-10 minutes of their time to discuss their children's education. So, I only targeted homes where there were children. I didn’t have a value proposition for seniors and/or adults with no kids. I’d look for bicycles, toys, baby pools, etc. in the yard. Prospecting for new business requires targeting. I only targeted potential clients who would potentially buy my pitch and products. I didn’t have the time to try and knock on every door.
When I left a sales prospect’s home – often with a sales order for a set of encyclopedia in hand – the buyers had made a commitment to their children’s education, and not for a compendium of books. But in return, a few days later, they'd receive a shiny new set of reference books. Easily affordable when paid for over 24 months (an elective), costing them a nominal amount of about $49/month (in today’s money) spread over the payment period. Along with a book case (an elective), and a subscription to an annual update (an elective), providing another book to add to their original collection every year.
A super cheap and efficient way of ensuring that their children would enjoy an educational advantage over their peers! I earned about $150 per sale if I sold everything, about $100 if I sold a set of books only.
One weekend, on a single Saturday, I sold 4 sets in a little town called Orkney (near Johannesburg). At the time, the population of the town was only about 1,500 people. My first sale was to the mayor. He referred me to his business partner, a pharmacist. In turn, these two gents referred me to other people who bought 4 more sets of encyclopedia, in total, 6 sales in one weekend. Referrals result in the closing of more sales; asking for a referral is a basic sales requirement for future success.
Those days, $1,000 was enough money to buy a good, used car. I was loaded, and no longer hungry. Because I had sold two sets in one day on that Orkney trip, my area manager had to pay for my accommodation on the Saturday night. A dubious quality, less-than-classy hotel room at the local Orkney Inn. But it offered a bed with clean sheets, and I was proud nonetheless.
There are basically three reasons why people buy anything. I call these my Power Positions. I have to find these for every product that I sell. Without a good value proposition and power positions, you cannot sell anything. You may not know it, but if sales is in your DNA, you likely have these embedded in your pitch today. You could have ten power positions (or more), but you would need to use only three, selectively, depending on the sales objection, competition, client profile/requirements, etc.
Oh yeah, before I forget, your product is not the best. Everyone selling anything claims that. That's not a value- or power position. It's just sales bluster. Actually, your product may very well be the best in some respects, but a good salesperson will outsell you with an inferior product... based on laser-like (targeted) prospecting, a stronger value proposition, better power positions, and - in general - a personally attentive ear and an ability/affinity for delivering a solution to a client’s needs/problems.
If you think anyone can succeed in sales… why don’t you give it a try? I, and most of the high-quality sales pros I’ve coached and worked with before, would welcome an opportunity to compete.
And remember... coffee is for closers!