Unlike Gretchen Weiners, my hair isn’t full of secrets. I’m happy to chat about things going on in my life, past and present. However, there is one significant and influential part of my personal history that I talk about rarely, if at all: I used to be door-to-door salesperson. This wasn’t just a one time youthful folly. Reader, I spent four summers including two after college in this profession. It is one of the best and worst things I’ve ever done, one of the most difficult, one of the most influential and definitely one of the most embarrassing things. Because who wants to admit to being one of the most annoying stereotypes around? Check it.
The job was selling educational books (and a little bit of software) as an independent contractor of the Southwestern Company. Not encyclopedias and definitely not magazines, which were truly a dodgy pyramid scheme, but reference books to help with homework. In the hierarchy of college summer direct sales jobs, it was at the top. I was recruited by my college roommate’s boyfriend, who was about to embark on his third summer with the company. My parents had actually bought Southwestern reference books from a college student years before, which we carried to China and I read through from cover to cover, multiple times. So the sketch factor was low. The only question was whether I was up for the challenge.
“This will be the hardest thing you’ve ever donebut the most rewarding” my roommate Julie’s boyfriend aka “student manager” repeated again and again during the semester of training before the summer. The hours promised to be long: 759am-930pm minimum, Monday through Saturday. The top producers worked longer, typically clocking in 84 or 85 hours a week. Sundays were a day off from knocking on doors, but we would spend most of the day in a Sunday meeting with the rest of the team, getting additional training and occasionally doing a fun activity, with the remainder of the day filled up by grocery shopping for the week, laundry and bed by 10pm. Would it be intense? Yes. Character building? Absolutely. Financially rewarding? The average first year student made about $8000, which seemed like an enormous amount and the obvious incentive to take the job, even if my student manager warned it would not seem very motivating on a slow, hot afternoon when nobody was at home.
So one mid-May day in 2001 right after finals, my roommate, her boyfriend, about 30 other New Mexico State students and I started caravaning our way out to Nashville, Tennessee, where Southwestern’s headquarters are located. Our first week would be dedicated to sales training, product training and motivational speeches. As first year salespeople, we were nervous and excited, not sure what to expect, both comforted by and jealous of the cool, calm second year salespeople and the godlike third and fourth years. We’d been told the most important thing was to have the canned sales presentation for the core product the Student Handbooks memorized before the week of sales school, so we spent the boring hours driving through Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas testing one another, memorizing the three page pitch and trying not to get pulled over for speeding by the crafty Oklahoma state highway police. We didn’t know where we’d be relocated after sales school, but that it would most likely be in the midwest, east coast or south.
We drove into Nashville at about 10am on a Sunday morning and went straight to a warehouse to pick up our sample bags about 15 pounds of books. We bought food for the week at a grocery store (the better to “keep expenses low”, yet another mantra drilled into us) and I quickly gained the useful skill set of making a grilled cheese sandwich with a motel room clothing iron. Then our student managers dragged us out into the motel parking lot to practice mock approaches. Years and thousands of doors later, I still remember the approach: Knock twice. Put the sample case down by the door. Take two steps back and turn to the side, looking down at the notebook you’re holding. When she (you always hope/plan for a she) opens the door, you act a little surprised: “Oh hi, Mrs Jones? My name is Alison Lytton and I just have a real quick minute to tell you what I’m doing. I’m the college student from New Mexico who’s been talking to all the families in the town, showing a couple of student handbooks that a lot of families have been really excited about. I was just talking to the Smiths and the Jacobs next door, and I wanted to stop by here for a minute.” Then picking up the sample case, start wiping your feet and pointing inside: “Do you have a place where we could sit down?”
We went around and around practicing the approach with one another and with the student managers, who got tougher and started slamming the imaginary doors in our faces. We’d deliver a textbook approach: slam. Smile and wipe our feet perfectly on the imaginary doormat: “I’m not interested”. It was incredibly frustrating. The student managers required us to run between imaginary doors, so we ran in circles for hours, stopping to pretend knock and, most likely, be rejected by Mrs Jones. By late evening, we were exhausted, physically and emotionally, and a sense of dread had started to set in. Am I up for this? Are any of us up for this? What have I gotten myself into?
Monday morning, 6am: my alarm goes off, as does nearly every other alarm clock in the hotel full of Southwestern salespeople. We hear hooting and hollering as the guys race to be the first to jump in the shower. In Southwestern, every day began at 6am with a cold shower, long enough to sing a song: “It’s a great day to be a bookman/girl, best day I know. It’s a great day to be a bookgirl, everywhere I go. Goodbye no’s and nevers, goodbye doubts and fears, it’s a great day to be a bookgirl, so be of good cheer. Hey!” Finished off with a rousing “I feel happy! I feel healthy! I feel terrific!” delivered to oneself in the mirror.
Having experienced sales conferences since, in retrospect the sales content wasn’t groundbreaking, but I had never been exposed to anything like the energy of 1000 very excited college students. In order to show our dedication and commitment to hard work and character building, everyone literally ran between presentations and practice sessions, including up the steep quarter mile hill to the main auditorium with our 15 pound bookbags. We were almost all dressed in the unofficial uniform of khaki shorts and polo shirts, except a few like me trying to be cool in jeans (rebel nonconformist English major that I was). Everywhere little clusters of students were practicing approaches. The more prepared students had pulled out their sample Handbook and were giving actual sales demos. Inside the main auditorium, music was blasting and the front section was full of Minnesotans doing the wave. Rumors were flying that the kids in the very front row had gotten up at 4am in order to save the seats.
Every student was bragging that they would work the hardest, sell the most and be the number one student in the company. But along with the motivational presentations came the warnings. This will be hard. You will want to quit. You may get bitten by a dog. You will almost certainly cry. You will be a terrible salesperson the first three weeks. You will work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. But you will learn positive self talk. You’ll learn that action cures fear. You will learn to turn “no” into “who’s next?” You will persist until you succeed and live each day as if it were your last.
The morning training sessions were great. The speakers were funny, entertaining, professional and had all sold books multiple summers in their youth. The rest of the days from lunch until 10pm were spent back in the parking lot, practicing, practicing, practicing. Practice indoors in the air conditioning was for quitters and the weak. There were no breaks; just like on the bookfield, we needed to “stay on schedule”. We finally stumbled all the way through our Student Handbook sales presentations, only to learn there was a whole other presentation of books for younger children. Occasionally our Nashville-based sales manager would bring us together indoors for a quick motivational moment. He was ancient (30) and wise (6 summers on the bookfield!), and made us believe just for a moment that we could actually do this job. Then it was back to the parking lot and the endless, unanswerable objections to buying our books that the faux Mrs Joneses would raise. The only bright spots in our afternoons were the “executive exercises” (“execs”) our student managers would lead us in when morale started to get low. We’d get in a circle and sing camp songs like “Let me see your funky chicken” to burn off steam.
Unfortunately, no video exists of my patented third summer’s “Chinese drill sergeant” exec
After four days that were somehow both interminable and nowhere near long enough to prepare us for the unknowns ahead, we were pronounced trained salespeople. We gathered in the auditorium for the final inspirational video from the great orange Mort Utley. At the end of the night, they played House of Pain’s Jump Around and 1000 college students went crazy. When we got back to the motel, our student managers told us where we were headed: Dallas, TX. It was on!
Remember the Pony from the Southwestern Companys Sales School from Geoffrey Kidney on Vimeo.
The next morning, we caravaned back through Texas, getting more and more panicked the closer we got to Dallas. My college roommate Julie and I, along with a third girl, Crystal, had been assigned Arlington, TX as our territory. “This is sweet, sweet territory,” my student manager informed me, as we pored over an Arlington city map and divided it into three sections. He made a little x on a random street corner. “This is it: this is your first house.” My first house!
Because we were an independent contractors, we were responsible for covering our own expenses and finding our own lodging, although Southwestern provided recommendations on how to do it. The best way to find a place to live? By knocking on doors in the neighborhood asking people if they knew anyone who’d be interested in renting out a room. Unbelievably to me now, Julie, Crystal and I found someone on the second day of looking who was willing to rent out a room in her house for something like $25/each a week. She was a bit of an odd duck, but we promised we’d be working nonstop and almost never there. We settled in, picked up our “peddler’s permit” at city hall and packed our lunches in preparation.
Then the day came. Tuesday. My first day on the bookfield. After a delicious and unhealthy $3 breakfast at the Waffle House, reading aloud from the first chapter of The Greatest Salesman in the World, my roommates and I did some half-hearted execs in the parking lot. Pickup trucks of migrant laborers slowed down and stared at the three college girls singing and leaping around, but we barely noticed them. The sheer terror of knocking on our first doors was overwhelming. I dropped Julie and Crystal off in their territories and drove to the little X on the map my student manager had marked for me. I pulled over to the curb and turned off the engine. There it was. The door. “I feel happy, I feel healthy, I feel terrific,” I whispered to myself. My stomach was in knots. The dashboard clock clicked 758am. It was time. I grabbed my bookbag, jumped out of the car, and half-ran, half-scuttled up to the door. I put the bag down, knocked twice, took two steps back, turned to the side and waited.
Will Alison make a sale on her first day? Will Mrs Jones make her cry? Is this some kind of insane cult? Stay tuned next week for the continuing saga!