Have you ever had one of those days that may have changed your life’s vocational direction? Do you remember it? I have and I do!
I remember the scene outside Professor Robert’s office just as if it were yesterday. It was final exam time, and this instructor was making us all sell one-on-one to him as a large part of our final grade. The atmosphere was tenser than any that I had ever experienced. It was almost surreal.
The class was Salesmanship and very different than anything that I had ever been previously exposed to in school. Professor Roberts was a very high-energy, former sales leader for a Fortune 5 company. He was also a pretty intense gentleman who would take exception to any students for being as little as three minutes late to class. I witnessed him kicking a student out for being late. He was one of the most demanding and challenging teachers at my school at the time. Tiny Johnson State College (Northern Vermont University), not known for business academic excellence, had a semi-tyrannical professor teaching business courses, who demanded full out effort and striving for excellence in every way, all the time!
As I nervously waited my turn to go face the “monster behind the door”, more than one student came either storming or cowering out of his office. Some students were in tears. Other students were absolutely livid. I assume both reactions were due to the treatment that they were receiving while behind the door. Some of the verbal reactions and the visual pictures that I witnessed were very disturbing to me.
My fear and anxiety dramatically escalated as my desire to do well, and my hate of failure began to take over my mind and body. Sweat from arm my pits poured down my sides like “Brushy Brook” on our farm back home in the springtime. My hands were freezing from the nervous energy. It reminded me some of standing at the free-throw line with seconds left on the clock and trailing by a point in a basketball game. Only this was much worse! Much worse! In my highly stressed condition, I think my knees came close to actually knocking. It was an amazing and very scary feeling. I felt like running away. I had to go in shortly and attempt this very “difficult sell” on a painting contract that my (imaginary) company would offer his (imaginary) construction project. I knew that I would have (imaginary) competition, but had no idea how he would respond to me when I walked in. I had a confirmed appointment, but apparently, that didn’t matter with this (imaginary) prospect, as evidenced by the failures, one after another, pouring out of his office.
Finally, it was my turn to enter the torture chamber for the test of all tests. I was next. “Here goes nothing”, I remember muttering to myself as I charged into the room. “Good morning Mr. Roberts!” I said with an enthusiastic smile.
“Yes, yes, what have you got for me?” He blurted.
“I am here to offer you a quality painting service and an excellent price with on-time completion”, I said with conviction.
“You know what?” He spoke. “I don’t have time for this!”
Whoa!!! What was going on? He was throwing me out. Aha, yet another flunked student to notch in his already hacked-up belt. No way, I thought to myself! I am not leaving! I can’t leave! I can’t fail!
“But we have a confirmed appointment!” I said, very professionally, but without the confidence of my initial greeting.
“I don’t care! I don’t have time!” He said a second time.
Again, I tried to convince him that I had quality, price, and on-time completion and that he should listen to me. I even offered top-notch references. He responded the very same way with “I just don’t have time to talk to you – now get out of here!”
Wow! Now what? My vision seemed to blur, and my head began to swim with thoughts. I was seemingly frozen in the harsh reality of not knowing what to do to resurrect this lost opportunity. There no longer seemed to be any words to claim or moves to make. I was stuck in a swirl and had no escape route on which to rely. Panic was setting in! Then suddenly, and I don’t really know how long it took to happen, or how or why it happened, but in my state of confusion, a light went on regarding his prior statement. I somehow mustered the courage and composure to say, “What if I can show you how to save time, would you talk to me then?”
“You can save me time?” he said. After a strange, but brief pause, I said “yes sir! I can work with your clients in advance to find out what they want, the colors they prefer, as well as the finish and time requirements that they have . . .”
The rest is a fond memory. He signed the order and sent me on my way, but not without first telling me that he told me three times that he was “short of time” before I got it. Hey, at least I got it, right? I also got an A for the exam and the course. And more importantly, I began to realize that “listening to hear” was very important.
I considered that brief, yet difficult “sweat” equity lesson from Professor Roberts a sort of a “kick in the butt”. In hindsight, I have profound respect for how he taught and consider him one of the best (if not the best) teachers I had in undergraduate studies. I have received many “kicks in the butt” along the way, both in my personal life and my professional life. None of them EVER felt like a pat on the back! They all hurt like heck! But they all were probably needed at the time and have cumulatively helped me as much or more than any pats on the back that I received, though pats on the back are also important.
Years later I realized something that will always stick with me. I realized that great salespeople are NOT born – they are made. What that means to me is that no matter how fortunate, beautiful, or intelligent one is, being a great or even adequate salesperson can only be accomplished with a fervent desire to succeed, plenty of improvement effort, and a healthy respect for both the profession and the people we serve — our clients.