Lessons I learned from selling books door to door

(Or: Everybody has donut days.)

Years ago when I was at uni, a friend of mine asked me if I would go along with her to a recruitment event for the chance to work in the USA for the summer.

Being an Americophile*, I jumped at the chance. I’d already worked the previous summer in the US and I was of the age (19) where I was adventurous and up for doing anything.

Noun

Americophile ‎(pluralAmericophiles)

  1. a lover of the United States and/or their way of life

Source

As it turned out, the firm was called the Southwestern Company and what they did was recruit university students to sell educational books door to door during summer break in the USA.

My friend decided it wasn’t for her, and ended up going and working in a US summer camp.

I somehow got talked into it, and ended up going to do it for one very long hot summer.

How it works:

The Southwestern Company had a very slick operation. They’d recruit all these young, excited British kids, ship them over to the USA at the start of summer, and put them through sales school, where we learned the dark art of direct sales. They’d then release us out into The Wild (somewhere where regional managers had been allocated, and then crosshatched into “patches” for each one of us salespeople) and off we’d go to knock on doors and hopefully sell our books.

At sales school I learned some stuff that has stayed with me for life. (Funnily enough, when I later met people who’d done Southwestern, we all remembered the same things. I’ve met a few in my job, so maybe they gravitate to the same type of work!) They’re not life lessons, as such, but interesting experiences that I have taken with me into later life.

  1. Get physical; go mental. Each day would start with an obligatory cold shower during which we were supposed to shout I love my job! We were also supposed to do a bit of jumping around to get ourselves excited for the day – sales team aerobics, if you will. This was kind of challenging to the British reserve where we are taught not to be overly effusive and “American”. Actually I have had a lifelong love affair with the US (can’t wait to go there on holiday!) and so I didn’t mind the positivity. I did mind the cold shower. Don’t tell anyone, but I had warm showers. I figured they wouldn’t be checking up that far.
    What I learned: Physical movement and positive affirmations can sometimes help, even if you think they’re extremely cheesy.
    What I ignored: If someone tells you to have a cold shower when there’s perfectly fine hot running water available, leave them to their cold shower and go with whatever shower you prefer. You don’t need to do dumb things for someone else. Or: Your boss shouldn’t have any effect on your bathroom habits.
    *
  2. First impressions count, and people decide in a split second whether to let you in. They taught us in Sales School that after you knock on a door, step back and turn slightly to the side. Don’t loom in the doorway as it’s offputting! Wear unfussy clothes – we were advised to wear a polo shirt, shorts and socks with trainers. Be approachable and enthusiastic and SMILE. You don’t want to give them an excuse to slam the door in your face.
    What I learned: There is definitely an art to knocking on a door and getting people to invite you in. I always step back from the door, even though I’m not physically big or threatening. From my own experience I think it helps, as I hate when people are crowding my space. I also learned more about having a “uniform” as a way of presenting myself (before I joined the grown up job market I mainly dressed like a grungey teenager). Your clothing tells a story about you, and whilst it’s cool to be unique and funky outside of work, nobody’s going to open their door to a stranger in a onesie.
    *
  3. Everyone has a story and people love hearing stories. Before I did this, I had limited experience of meeting complete strangers in a new setting. (School and uni it’s kind of facilitated for you.) At Sales School they advised us to have a short story or bio ready to say to people by way of introduction, and you practise it until it’s second nature. That introduction leads to more conversations. I heard so many stories and I told my story to many people, and it was really interesting and fun. Here’s another thing: Who you are, your accent and your appearance make you interesting. Don’t feel like you have to be the same as everyone else.
    What I learned: Meeting people is fun! I don’t really fear it any more, and even ostensibly boring events can lead to meeting really interesting people, and it helps if you have an opener to drive the conversation. Knowing your patter or elevator pitch is good for when your mind goes blank. Eventually it becomes second nature and you can get on to the good stuff!
    *
  4. Meeting more people multiplies opportunities. It is awesome to meet people, and if you’re open to doing so, opportunities arise in all sorts of places. Once we were released into “the field”, we had to find our own accommodation. We were on 100% commission so if we didn’t sell stuff, we didn’t get paid, and we had to pay our expenses out of any profit, so we ideally wanted to live very cheaply. I started off staying in a basement with a couple of guys in a less savoury area, but then I managed to get an amazing place to stay, just through random conversations. A conversation about the educational books led to two of us girls staying in an amazing house with a pool, gym and our own huge room to share. The dad of the house was a big shot music producer and he and his wife encouraged us and put us up for free. They wouldn’t even take money for groceries, and lent us their bicycles so we could go out selling more easily. Once or twice he even dropped me off at work in his Ferrari – hilarious.
    What I learned: You have to be open to opportunities, and you can put yourself in positions to grab them with both hands. Who’d have thought I’d be dropped off at work in a Ferrari? (This has never happened again, but I’m open to the opportunity! 🙂 )
    *
  5. Know and believe in your product if you want to sell it. Man, over time in my life I’ve had so many people say that they had issues selling things and you usually find out it’s because they didn’t like the product, or the product is bad. I’ve had people trying to sell stuff without actually knowing what it is, or not explaining how it will benefit the person who’s thinking of buying it. As sales associates, we had to buy our own set of sample books out of our own money and we had to know them inside out in order to explain what we were selling. I actually thought they were pretty good. (The great thing was at the end of summer we could give away the samples to people we thought could use them, like families who couldn’t afford them.) It was really fun to see kids getting enthused about the books. I would be terrible at selling something I didn’t believe in.
    What I learned: That summer I didn’t sell amazingly, but I didn’t sell badly – I was average, but I think at the time I was a little too shy to be one of the top performers. But the lessons I learned kind of became embedded in my life. In my job now, I’ve sold stuff so much better because I really know what it is I’m selling, and I believe it’s the best. I think if I can’t understand the benefit it’s going to bring to the buyer then I shouldn’t bother trying to sell it. Or I shouldn’t be surprised if sales efforts end in failure!
    *
  6. Success is the result of many rejections. We were taught in Sales School to have expectations of how things would pan out in terms of sales success. It’s a numbers game, and we had to play it. There’s an arithmetic to success and failure. Our aim was to knock on 80 doors a day. They told us of those 80 doors, 20 would answer. Of those 20, 10 would open briefly (or at least, not slam in your face!). Of those 10, we’d have a longer conversation with 8, and of those 8, we’d get to demo the product to 6. Of those 6, 4 would let us in the house for a longer “sit down” demo, and of those 4, we’d expect to make 2 sales. That is some heavy rejection right there! But by putting into context – the amount of persistence you need to have to make a sale becomes really clear. It’s like a maths challenge. Because we knew the rough proportion of success to failure – a very small percentage – we didn’t get downhearted when we had many rejections, and we kept pushing for success.
    What I learned: Persistence is key. You have to knock on a lot of doors to get one to open. And if it seems like you’re having a bad run, it’s likely that success is just around the corner. Law of averages! It’s all a numbers game.
    *
  7. You have to close the sale. We were taught in Sales School how to close a sale, which is something you don’t really know in everyday life (at least, I didn’t). This included scoping and framing the sale, breaking down all the benefits and getting the buyer to assign a value to them, adding those up into some kind of astronomical figure, and then getting them to guess how much the books would cost and comparing that to a relatively low actual cost. Standard sales tactics. This was actually really useful, as if you’re a 19 year old kid you don’t really understand how to draw a line under things. I’d naturally just keep chatting to people who weren’t going to buy. It’s fine to do this if you enjoy it, as long as you understand that it’s taking away from your sales time with other potential customers.
    What I learned: Closing a sale doesn’t necessarily come naturally – there’s an art to it. You should have a plan for how you’re going to do it. And it’s not just sales but life generally… If something isn’t benefiting you, then understand the value of your time. You can choose not to spend a bunch of time on things that don’t add value to your life.
    *
  8. Donut days happen to everyone. We had this thing called a donut day. A donut day is when you don’t sell anything – a donut is shaped like a zero. And the important thing we learned in Sales School is that even the best sales people will have the odd donut day. You have to look at the long game. One summer is about 50 days of opportunity. If you have X sales days then you cover your costs, and you’re no worse off than when you started – and have gained a load of experience. If you have more sales days than donut days then you can make a profit.
    What I learned: Behind every success story is a whole lot of rejections or failures. The best people have donut days. And successful people don’t get too downhearted about the donut days, because they know that better days are coming.

 

So… Overall the experience was pretty hard. I had a few donut days just like everyone else. Would I do it again? Never! It is tiring traipsing around doors, at least 60 of which will not be answered or slammed in your face. Daily rejection is hard! But the sense of achievement is enormous, and it gave me so many experiences and learnings for later life. I met lots of interesting people, and I found out that work is hard but persistence pays off. If you can do 14 hour days on 100% commission selling door to door in another country, you can do anything!

I’m not going back, but I’m always going to remember the things I learned way back then.

We all have donut days, and if you can see them in context then you can live with them, because you know that you’re working towards something bigger.

When I think about this really long journey of infertility and miscarriage, I think that I can, for the moment, keep trying… because I know that I haven’t exhausted my persistence yet. I haven’t yet knocked on 80 doors!

The law of persistence says that if you keep knocking, a door’s going to open. And I’ve got to believe that.

 

As a great leader once said:

For more wisdom of Winston, check out Winston Churchill quotes

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10 comments

  1. Courtney

    I love this… Like REALLY love it! I did sales for 6 months and did not learn half this much, but I also didn’t believe in what I was selling. Aha!

    Your parallel drawn to infertility is spot on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nara

      Aw thank you. I don’t think it’s magic or anything. Sometimes we have to sell stuff we don’t really want to sell… in our jobs or in life. I guess the trick is then knowing how others are going to respond if you don’t believe in what you’re selling. In those cases we probably have to get a bit creative! 🙂

      I’m really hoping the numbers are different for infertility… I’m not doing 80 IVFs! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ashleykyleanderson

    I know you mentioned that you studied social sciences before, but what exactly did you study? I seriously have wondered if you ever thought about being a sort of life coach or going into counseling more than once after reading your posts. I’m sure that sounds kind of funny, but I’m totally serious! I feel like you have a great ability to put things in perspective and communicate your thoughts as well as relate to people where they are and empathize with them.

    Also, is Americophile a real thing? I have wondered if there was an American version of this because I consider myself an Anglophile! I’m also getting more and more convinced that we need to switch places (or homes rather ;)) at some point! Except that we’d definitely need to find a way to meet up somehow too.

    Like

    • Nara

      Hi A… That is so sweet of you to say! I studied Psychology for my main undergrad. I did originally want to be a psychologist! But got kind of put off it by the time I’d finished my degree. (I did voluntary work at a hospital and later I worked at a charity and I realised how under-resourced they are. Also it is VERY hard to get onto the training course to qualify. When I did Psych it was extremely oversubscribed. I think I looked at the numbers and weighed up chances of success, and they seemed low!)

      I do often wish I could switch my very corporate job to something that would provide some real benefit to the world! I’m definitely a frustrated medic! I’m not sure I’d actually be any good at counselling as I’m a bit different in real life. I’m not good at self editing whereas it’s easier to do online! I just sort of get excited and talk all over the place! 🙂

      Americophile must be a thing, because we are it! 🙂 I’ve been looking for the word for years as I thought there must be one, if there is Anglophile! I think there was some debate online about whether it is americophile, americaphile or amerophile… I don’t know but I think Americophile seems okay and I found the wiki entry so it must be true! 😉 We should definitely do a switch sometime! Haha. And meet up of course! X

      Like

  3. Pingback: We can’t be Pollyanna every day! | From zero to zygote

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