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Door-to-door memories offer meaning

From the Ground Up

The day after my high school graduation, I caught the first bus to Daytona Beach, Fla. I intended to become a soldier of fortune, a taster of life and a seeker of…well…whatever lay ahead. I didn’t take the road less traveled. I plunged into the forest.

My adventure was financed with cash that I had received as graduation gifts. It was less than $50. That was no problem however, because all I needed was money to get there and exist for a while. A former high school classmate who had moved to Ormand Beach had invited me to come down and stay at his family’s home. Food and lodging were secure.

My plan was to get a job as either a life guard or freight handler on a boat that plowed the seas between Florida and the Caribbean. Lifeguarding was my first choice. The working conditions were ideal and it was an envied occupation. Sitting on a high stand, watching the beach beauties and occasionally rescuing drowning swimmers didn’t seem like a bad way to spend a day. Upon inquiry I found that the lifeguard training was a cross between medical school and Army basic training. Once hired they even ran six miles on the beach every morning. I decided to pass on the lifeguard position. Next I went in search of the docks and the boats. I should have paid more attention in geography class back in high school. Daytona was not exactly a port city. There were no big freighter ships.

Soon, my pockets were empty and my welcome was wearing out at my friend’s house. The classified advertisements were my last resort. Only one ad offered hope. It read, “Sales Manager Trainees Wanted, Unlimited Income Potential, No Experience Required.”

The next day I presented myself at the designated location, completed an application and was hired on the spot. Training began immediately. It was then I learned that I had just become a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman.

After a few hours of training in presentation skills, product knowledge and how to overcome objections four of us new salespeople were assigned to a “District Manager,” who took us to a downtown cafe and treated us to lunch. We were then driven to a large subdivision of look-alike houses somewhere between Daytona and Titusville and each dropped off at strategic points.

“I’ll pick you at 4:30 at the shopping center,” said the manager. “Go get ‘em.”

With a briefcase full of samples and a stomach full of butterflies I walked up to the door of the first house, pasted a grin on my face and knocked. A woman who reminded me of my mother opened the door, smiled and asked if she could help me. I launched into my hastily rehearsed presentation. She smiled politely and told me she wasn’t interested. I smiled back and began my response to her objection. I had been trained for just such a moment. She continued smiling and repeated that she wasn’t interested. Only this time she closed the door in the middle of my overcoming her objection.

I moved on to the second house, where I was greeted by another woman. She reminded me of what my grandmother would have been like if she had been a drill sergeant. A cigarette hung from one side of her mouth. She used the other side to bark, “Whaddya want?” I began my pitch. She slammed the door.

The next four houses brought variations between the two extremes. This job was not going like they said it would in the training session, which by now seemed such a long time ago. I had also become soaked with sweat. At the last house on the street I walked up to the door and said simply and humbly, “You don’t want to buy any encyclopedias, do you?”

The man behind the screen door was middle-aged and crewcut hair. He slowly pushed opened the door and said, “As a matter of fact, I do. The kids are starting school next year and my wife and I have been saying how we need a set of encyclopedias.”

Joy leapt inside of me. I went inside, made my presentation and he bought the full set, complete with supplements and the annual updates. I don’t recall selling another set of encyclopedias. It didn’t matter. I made enough money on that one sale to last me another month in Florida.

By now, I’m sure you are wondering about the point of my story and what it has to do with business, so I’ll get to it. It took many years for me to really appreciate this experience and the lessons that I learned. The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, said that all humans have a hierarchy of needs. After the physical needs of food, clothing and shelter are met, emotional needs are next. Greatest among these is to belong to a group. Then the need to have the respect of others is important.

On that hot, summer day in Florida I experienced the lows and the highs of this concept. The worst experience was rejection, which one does not have when he or she is not part of a group. The best experience was the respect shown by the man who bought what I had to sell.

Businesses that make their customers feel like they are part of a group succeed because they are meeting the customers’ most basic human need. That is why brand loyalty is so important in business. On the other hand, businesses that don’t respect their customers will lose them to another business that does. Understanding human nature is therefore one of the most important keys to success for a business.

Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.

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