When last we checked in with 19 year old bookgirl Alison Lytton, she was about to knock on her first door as a door-to-door book salesperson in Arlington, TX.
I knocked twice on the door of the small suburban brick home, stepped back, and waited. No answer. I knocked again: nothing. Alright. First door down; who’s next, who’s next? I picked up my bag and ran to the next house. Nobody home either. By my third house, the nerves had settled a bit. But when someone finally answered the door, it was Mister Jones, not Mrs, and he was on the phone. I was not prepared for this scenario! “Hi, uh, I’m Alison, and, uh” “Hold on just a secondwhat do you want? I’m on my way to work.” “Oh I’ll just come by later!” I responded chipperly, sprinting next door. That wasn’t so bad. He didn’t slam the door. Maybe I didn’t even tell him what I was doing, but in the metrics we were instructed to meticulously track, talking to a human being who could conceivably be a parent was considered a “call”. I’d made my first sales call! This was going to be a great summer!
The rest of the morning was much the same. Knock, knock: nobody home. One important part of our sales cycle was “pre-approach”, ie finding out which families on the block had kids and which houses were childless, so we wouldn’t waste time. Although it sounds like a creepy thing to ask, most people are pretty forthcoming about their neighbors, even to a sweaty, overwhelmed-looking college student. I also spent a lot of time analyzing yards to look for signs of toys. The key was remembering which houses were which, so I drew a detailed map on my notepad with identifying markers. The idea was to come back to houses with kids in the evening when people were home.
By midday, I had marked up dozens of calls, but only a couple demos. Or “demos”, rather, as by now the sales presentation had entirely fled my mind, and the demonstration consisted of Mrs Jones slowly closing the door on me while I flailed about, waving the book around on the front steps. In my defense, at least one of the times I managed to actually open the book before she closed the door.
Finally, I found a house where the mom was not only home, but interested! Not interested enough to let me in the door, but interested enough to listen to my garbled sales presentation on her front steps and take a quick look through the Student Handbook. “This looks great for our daughter, she’s really struggling in school,” she confessed. What luck! A need! I didn’t even have to find it! “Let me see it,” she said, grabbing it from me and causing me to commit my first sales error: letting the customer look through the sample book rather than me highlighting key parts. “How much is it?” she asked, and I committed my second error: telling the price too soon. You see, the canned sales presentation was more than just a memorization challenge; there was actually a logic to it: approach, build rapport, ask questions, find the need, fill the need, answer objections up front, close and THEN give the price. If you did the steps out of order or skipped a step, you were much less likely to be successful at making the sale. “Oh, that’s too much,” responded Mrs Jones when I told her the price, “I’ll have to ask my husband when he gets home.” Wherein I committed the third error, and the cardinal sin of bookselling: never go back after you tell them the price. If they aren’t going to buy it then, they aren’t going to buy it ever. Come back later to talk to dad, but don’t tell mom the price first. Never go back. Never ever. But desperate bookgirl that I was, I told her, she declined, I promised to come back and then slogged around the neighborhood for a couple more hours (the time of enthusiastically running between houses was long gone) while the fear of having my first day be a zero sales day became more and more real.
When dinner-time came, I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my car and reviewed my maps, which were completely illegible. I had no memory whatsoever of the hours between 9am and 2 pm. So I started on new streets, wasting time with grandmas and single folks and empty nesters before heading back over to the Mrs Jones I’d told the price to. Going against everything my Southwestern sales trainers had told me, this time Mrs Jones let me into the kitchen and we walked through the sales presentation with Mr Jones from start to finish. Their daughter came in toward the end, and unfortunately she seemed well past the point when any book could interest her enough to help her. But her parents were desperate, I was desperate and we all wanted to see someone succeed that day. So they bought Student Handbooks 1 & 2, and I had my first sale. It was the only sale I made that day, followed by zero sales the next day, but it was a sale. Introverted, English major Alison had done the impossible and made a sale!
At 9:31 pm, I knocked on my last house and then fled, exhausted, to my car. One day down, 64 sales days to go. I picked up my roommates from their territories. Julie was enthusiastic, and although we werent supposed to share stats with one another, I garnered that shed made three sales. Crystal sat in the backseat in a cloud of sullenness that could only be understood as a zero day. We went home, called in our stats to our student manager, and went to bed to sleep the sleep of the dead. Until the 6am alarm went off and we were at it again.
I don’t think I cried until my third week. Id been trucking along, focusing on work habits, not sales. Our sales manager and the student managers emphasized the work rather than the money. Its a numbers game, theyd tell us. If you got in 30 demos a day, an average of three people would buy. All you needed was three for a $10,000 summer. Even the Estonian exchange students whod come over to sell books were able to hit this goal, and they barely spoke English. But by week three, even three sales a day seemed optimistic. I was averaging one to two a day, literally pounding the pavement. This day a Wednesday, I think was one of the first really hot Texan summer days. Out of pride, I was still wearing jeans, sweating like crazy by 10 am. No one was home in a particularly barren and treeless neighborhood. I finally found a house to ask to refill my water bottle. Rather than take it inside to refill it, as most moms did, she pointed me to her garden hose. The warm, metallic water and the moms scorn didnt help my attitude, and Id stopped repeating the positive affirmations Id learned at sales school.
By 2pm, it was 90 degrees, Id eaten all the food Id packed for the day and had zero sales and only a few real demos. I sat down on the curb, feeling like I was going to pass out, and thought of my family, the nine long weeks ahead and the deep failure I would feel when I returned home. I thought about air conditioning and swimming pools. I thought of the cool Kunming summers and my favorite Chinese food. And I started crying bitter tears about the horrible situation Id gotten myself into and the horrible days ahead.
It felt hopeless. What were my options? Crawl home, a quitter, as my roommate Crystal had done the week before? Work hard and fail hard while my remaining roommate Julie became a top first year? Keep my commitment to myself and my student manager not to quit?
The pleasures of self-pity are many, but they do grow old, as sidewalk curbs grow uncomfortable in 90 degree heat. I finally got up, resigned to a summer of failure, and started knocking on doors again. Theyd told us stories like this in sales school, when a student would hit the wall and go on to have their best day ever. I was not this story. It continued to be very hot, people in that neighborhood continued to be grouchy (in fairness, so did I) and one dad even mansplained in great detail to me how I was wasting my time with such a terrible summer job. I did not make a sale that day, another big fat goose egg of a day.
But although it didnt feel like it at the time, that day was something of a turning point. I bought some cheap boys athletic shorts at Wal-Mart, a lifesaver as the temperature creeped up to 105 degrees. I learned that at 105 degrees, even my elbows would drip sweat on Mrs Jones front stoop. And Mrs Jones started listening to the perky, sweaty book girl, would even let her inside the house, give her ice water while listening to her demo and then write her a check for an order. The checks got bigger, as I started selling the full five handbook set, the full kids book set and on the rare happy occasion, the whole book bag. The 50% deposit on an order like that was something around $300, a shocking amount to me at the time.
Our weekly Sunday meetings became more enjoyable too. Julie and I would still wake up at 6am (before the alarm, by this point), stop at Krispy Kreme for half a dozen donuts and drive a couple hours to somewhere on the other side of Dallas. Our meetings were always in conference rooms at Radissons or Courtyard Suites; wed do recognition of the students with the top work stats (one amazing Sunday I was the top first year in our group), then finish up our weekly reports while listening to additional sales training. Wed head off to a group activity for lunch, usually along the lines of mini golf but on one exciting Sunday, horse riding on a ranch and one SUPER exciting Sunday to a water park where we displayed appalling farmer tans. At some point during the day wed each have a 1:1 with a student manager to discuss our goals for the week and how we were going to meet them.
It was a great chance to share stories: the ridiculous objections Mrs Jones would give us, the occasional cool dad who would give us a beer at the end of a Saturday night, the older lady who opened the door to me completely naked, the numerous dog and trailer related stories the guys selling in the country had. It was also the only chance we had to feel like we were normal people having a fun summer. Youd feel a little wistful, particularly when people were having pool parties and setting off fireworks for the 4th of July. And it was a little embarrassing when youd accidentally knock on a house without kids and a college student your age would open the door, just waking up at noon, looking you up and down with your positive attitude, goofy polo shirt and sales case.
But for the most part, as the weeks went on, the more badass we all felt about ourselves and what we were doing. Technically, we were running our own businesses, tracking expenses, putting in orders, running credit card checks, getting the occasional dreaded stop payment on customers deposit checks. We were working crazy hours, making sales, getting better every day. Many days still sucked, dont get me wrong. The great fear was getting off schedule, and more than once I gave into the temptation to take a break during the hot, dead quiet hours after lunch, sneaking off to Walgreens to read a magazine and buy a Luna bar until the guilty feeling of not working was a sick knot in my stomach (a 15-20min process). But aside from the occasional side trip, each day was exactly the same and somehow totally different. Knocking on doors, getting quick door demos, getting longer sitdown demos, getting sales. The families who bought werent always cool. Youd get an awesome connection every once in a while, but we were encouraged to stay no longer than 20 minutes at a house, and I typically stuck to that rule. The best was when the kids were there, as they were always thrilled to have an enthusiastic, sweaty college student come by, and 95% of the time, when you asked them during the demo if theyd use the books, they swore up and down that they would.
I also learned a lot of other things, seeing house after house and family after family. It was amazing how much time people spent on lawn care. It was amazing how many women had to ask their husbands to spend more than $100 on a purchase. So many beautiful, big, new brick houses were half empty inside, with families unable to afford furniture to fill them. I hated the monotony of the suburbs, promising myself to never live in neighborhoods like that.
Soon, though, it was August, and the sales season was over. A truck delivered a couple pallets of the books my customers had purchased and I cleaned up my paperwork: it was delivery time! Door to door knocking was done, but selling wasnt completely over; most customers were excited for me to deliver their books and show the kids how to use them, but a few had conveniently forgotten. I quickly learned why the student managers loved full down deposits as the next week became a blur of dropping off books and trying to track down customers who were never home and still owed half. My roommate and I stopped meeting for our daily Waffle House breakfast and were out the door by 620am, loading up our cars with books to deliver until 1030pm or later. At some point during the long, long week, our landlady got mad after we left the garage door open and kicked us out, so we moved to a motel for the final couple days of deliveries. 99% delivered to 300ish customers each, only a few post-dated customer checks in hand, we were finished!
We drove up to the country north of Dallas to pick up a couple teammates to drive back to Nashville. While they emptied the last few book boxes out of their storage unit, I was so tired I laid down in the August sun on the concrete outside the storage unit and fell asleep for a good thirty minutes. As we drove through east Texas, up through Arkansas and into Nashville, the naive Alison of three months before seemed like an entirely different person. “We’ll never be the same again!” my roommate and I chirped to one another. Seven of us checked into a motel room and then headed to the Southwestern headquarters to fill out paperwork and get our final “big checks” for the summer.
After hours of wrangling with stats sheets, cashiers checks and a calculator, I had the final tally: just under $8000 gross revenue with a check cut to me of just under $5000 net, after all expenses. The blood, sweat and tears had paid off: I was an average first year salesperson!
That sweet smell of sales success lured me back for the next few summers, in rural Michigan, rural Ohio Amish country and the East Bay in Northern California (Ohio was my favorite summer). I became a student manager myself, training and coaching first year students to work hard and stay positive. Every summer was difficult, every summer I cried more than once, but it was never as bad as the first. Although I never became a top salesperson, I learned to work hard, face failure and keep going no matter how awful things got. They weren’t the most fun summers of my life, and in some ways they were the worst. But somehow they’re also the best.