Calling someone a salesman can sound like an insult. We’ve got too many negative connotations to associate with salesmen: the used car salesman with a big smile, greasy comb-over, and clip-on tie trying to sell the wreck with a new coat of paint; the life insurance policy asking how your wife and children are going to survive if you die in a car accident; or the “Wait, there’s more!” infomercial spokesperson pushing miracle gadgets manufactured and assembled for pennies somewhere in Asia. If someone in sales has ever manipulated you or pulled the wool over your eyes, it’s sometimes hard to resist the picture of the salesman as a wolf stalking prey.
I hated this stereotype so much that while working at J. Crew my freshman year of college, I went to the opposite extreme. I’d answer people’s questions, but I never recommended that anyone buy anything. Kim, the store’s regional manager, would emerge from the back of the store holding a print-out with the day’s number broken down by person.
“Hey Austin, can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure, Kim. What’s up?”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been going over everybody’s numbers, and your UPTs are a bit low. Do you think you can try to get those up?”
“Sure thing, absolutely,” I’d say.
Oh wait, now that I think about it, I don’t give a CRAP about my Units-Per-Transaction. If I came into this store looking for a pair of chinos, you bet your bologna that I don’t want some fresh-faced college kid in pastels with a quart of product in his hair trying to sell me v-neck t-shirts, argyle socks, and boxer shorts with lobsters on them. I came for pants, not an Ole Miss Alum look alike contest. As much as I’d like to chill on a boat off the southern coast of Ireland in your fabulous clothes, I just want pants, cotton pants, in the closest approximation to the color khaki that you’ve got. I don’t care if it’s called “Ancient Stone,” or “Ripe Wheat,” or “A Shetland Pony Drank A Keg of Guinness And Peed This Color,” just give me pants, not a sniveling sales pitch, you seersucker freak.
J. Crew never fired me. Customers seemed to like my non-intrusive approach. I’d fold my two hundredth pair of jeans for that shift, and they’d bring me questions if they had them. I could also be funny, which people like. Once they decide they like you, they assume that you’re good at what you do. Being likable was a lot more important than a high UPT average. Kim was a petite woman with a perky personality, and I genuinely enjoyed talking to her about anything but UPTs. I would hide behind boxes in the back and jump out and scare her. She seemed to enjoy this unsophisticated humor, and I think she appreciated me for not letting pigment-washed sweatshirts and cashmere scarves lobotomize me. Besides, J. Crew made plenty of money without my help. Plenty of Vanderbilt girls with their daddies’ credit cards lived down 21st Avenue. You can identify them by their crisp-looking North Face jackets.
Sales isn’t always bad. Sometimes people are selling useful products. My cousin Bryan sold Cutco knives for a summer. They stay sharp for years. My mom still uses the ones she and my dad got as wedding gifts.
I have to defend salesmen because sales is a part of what I do. My mom once told me that I could sell an icebox to an Eskimo. I don’t know if this is true or not. I can’t find any iceboxes to sell. I do sell my writing services. I sell words: web content, articles, brochures, advertisements, names, and product descriptions. I sell project management, which I call “creative quarterbacking.” I sell search engine optimization and social media coaching. I sell my ability to tell a story, craft a message, and respond quickly. I sell desired outcomes.
I’m not sure I had much of a choice. My mom told me recently that she came home one day when I was a boy and found me with a telephone in one hand and the church directory in the other. I was calling one family after another and selling them my older sister’s girl scout cookies. I may be a born salesman, but at least I sell people things that are worth having.
What have you sold? Don’t be ashamed.