PAT TAYLOR: A Lesson in What Salesmanship Is All About
Most people don't grow up thinking they want to go into sales as a career.
Despite its central position in American business, it's not taught in schools, and our culture doesn't really appreciate salespeople. When they are portrayed, which is rare, it's usually in an unflattering light. Maybe it's a legacy from Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman."
I, too, grew up with a serious prejudice against sales and advertising. It was the last thing I thought I'd go into as a profession. I didn't see it as an honorable under-taking.
It wasn't until a publisher offered me the proverbial job-I-couldn't-refuse in advertising management that I started working in the sales and marketing arena. I quickly learned I'd been completely wrong about selling, that the act is best done when helping people solve problems. It wasn't clear to me then that nothing happens in America until someone sells something. I'd never realized that we're all selling something, whether it's a product, an idea, or ourselves.
The hardest part of selling is not assuming you know what's best for your customers, or how much they can afford. That's good advice whether you're selling a product, a promise, or an idea. A true story illustrates the point.
When my son was in high school, his baseball team needed to get lights on its field -- or face the prospect of not finishing games because of darkness. So several of the fathers on the team borrowed $80,000 to donate the lights to the school, then raised the money to pay for it. We raised money a lot of different ways, and one of them was a team "yard sale" at the school gym.
There was a woman at the sale with three 25-cent items in hand, wandering among the tables. I spoke to her in passing. She was pleasant looking, in her 60s. Her gray hair was pinned up in an old-fashioned style and matched in an odd way her gray sweat pants and shirt.
When I passed by again, she asked, "What is this yard sale for?"
I answered, "We're raising money to pay off the lights that we installed on the baseball field last week. We need to raise $80,000. And if you'll write me a check for $10,000, I'll name the field after you."
"Really?" the Gray Lady said. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"Yes, ma'am. I am."
"I just might do that," she responded.
"You're serious, aren't you," I said, recognizing a golden egg-laying goose when one was standing in front of me. "Let me show you what I'm talking about." I took her outside and showed her the lights. She explained why she was interested. Her story taught me a lesson in selling I've never forgotten.
Her father had grown up on a farm near the school, and his family owned hundreds of acres in what were now upper-class neighborhoods. Over the years, Carl Sapp was involved in the development of the area, at one point even starting the volunteer fire department. He was largely responsible for naming the high school Mount Tabor for the area it's in, rather than for a dead president. As a boy, Mr. Sapp had played on a sandlot baseball field in almost the same location as the current school baseball field. He'd been a lifelong baseball fan.
Carol Sapp told me her father had died a few months earlier, and she had been looking for a fitting way to honor him. Naming the baseball field for him seemed a fitting honor to his daughter, given the history. We shook hands on the deal before she left, and both of us were happy. She got what she wanted, and I got $10,000 less in debt. My fellow fundraisers thought I was the godfather of fundraising.
A few months later, we dedicated the Carl Sapp Field with appropriate formality. Ms. Sapp got a ball signed by the team and a jersey from the team. We got a new friend for the school.
The moral of the story, of course, is if you assume too much you could miss a grand opportunity. Had I judged Ms. Sapp prematurely -- and that would have been easy based on her casual dress -- I might have walked past without speaking. I don't really know why I chose her to offer to name the field after, but at least I was open to the moment and didn't assume anything. You never know what you miss if you never ask.
We didn't take $10,000 from someone who couldn't afford it; we solved a problem for a wealthy woman and made her extremely happy. Together we helped every baseball team at Mount Tabor High School for the past five years and for the next 25.
And that's what sales is really all about. And somewhere Mr. Sapp is smiling while the boys play ball.
Pat Taylor is advertising director with The Pilot.
More like this story