I remember when I was a kid at Hebrew school, I had one teacher, a young rabbi, who had worked for a few years rescuing kids who had been brainwashed by cults. Kids who would disappear, leaving their family to join some religious sect, these rabbis would answer the call of their parents like the A-Team but with beards and black overcoats. They would track the kids down and kidnap them if they had too, then spend days, or even months if necessary (although I doubt that was really necessary too often) trying to “re-program” the kids to come back to regular society. Often I’d sit at our morning meetings while the sales manager harangued away in his daily pep talk and wish that a squad of highly-trained rabbis would swing down on ropes from the next rooftop, break through the plate glass windows, and take me away. Daydreams from my last summer job as a college student.
But instead of being held at bay by my rescuers, Manager Dan would Lombardi away, and those around me, the converted, would shout and cheer themselves into a fervor as they prepared for their missionary work, in whichever region they were assigned that week. We sold paintings, prints actually, door to door to around Rochester, New York. Now, of course that by itself sounds about as demeaning as possible, but it was these cult sales meetings that really got to me. And having had a bit of experience since then in more ‘respectable’ businesses, I’ve come to realize that sales is sales, and if you don’t believe… they have ways to bring you into the fold.
There was a brotherhood here that I never quite caught on to myself. The whole thing was like a game where my coworkers and I were in competition with each other in a very obvious, macho way, but also we were all in competition with the customers. And it was that battle that Dan prepared us for each day.
“Warren!” he’d yell from the front of the room, with the rest of us sitting in wooden chairs, about six rows deep, “how many paintings are you gonna sell today?”
“I’m gonna sell nine paintings today Dan!!” Warren would roar. Then he would turn and take high fives from Cal next to him, bobbing his head as if he had actually just sold the nine paintings, it was all over!
And in the rows behind him the other sales people would murmur in appreciation, “Jeez, nine paintings! Alright!”
Then Dan would tell a story from his selling days, and the group would roar with laughter and cheer with approval and envy. It was not idle boasting. Everyone in the room knew that Dan could walk out the door that day with the same paintings the rest of us carried and sell twelve; fifteen if he was motivated. In fact, everyone in the room knew who all the heroes in the room were, because that’s exactly what they were: heroes. Every Monday, Dan would announce the who had won the prize of the week. There was some arbitrary sales quota picked each week, and whoever reached that quota first won the special prize of the week. On top of that there were the standard bonuses that were always in effect, anyone who made a certain number of sales in a month, a number which didn’t seem too hard to reach, would gain not only their commission for those sales, but an extra five hundred bucks. Now, like I say, those bonuses were not tough to get. In any given month probably a third to a quarter of us would get them (notice how I say ‘us’ as if I actually ever came close to that cash?). There were higher bonuses too. A person could add more than a thousand bucks monthly to their commissions with these bonuses, and quite a few did.
There was Warren who I mentioned, who was just a kid really, a year younger than me. Warren had the aggressive, super personable, heavily competitive style that you would associate with the clichéd picture of a succesfal salesman. I couldn’t stand him. Well, a lot of people couldn’t stand him, because they were salesmen too, and he was better and often let them know it. Bit I really just couldn’t stand him. A few of the other top salespeople (there were about thirty of us in the ‘team’ in all) were similar in style to Warren: bombastic, cheerful, and above all, confident. There was really no cut and dried recipe for what type of person would make a great salesman, though. There was Al, who was a, well, a zhlub, in his forties or fifties. A little, ugly fellow with a pot belly and ugly old sport coats that didn’t fit properly. He had a quiet, almost bitter personality. He was not aggressive at all, in fact he hardly seemed to have any self-assurance. When I first met him, I assumed he was one of the people Dan had told me about initially, the 20% who come in and try it for a few months, squeak by a living and then decide that sales just isn’t for them. But he was actually one of the heavy hitters of the group. There was a story I heard where he literally stuck his foot in the door when a man tried to slam it in his face. The man had rushed out of the shower and stood there dripping wet in his bathrobe, quite upset. Al sold him three paintings, all at a fair mark-up. Then there was Corrine. Corrine was a young girl, probably in her late twenties. She was French originally, and spoke in a pretty, quiet voice, with a strong accent. She also kept to herself and was never one of the loud voices at the morning meetings. She was absolutely beautiful. I was single, but I never could have considered making an advance at her, I just assumed it was impossible. I had decided that if I were to try for anyone at work that summer, it would have to be Jen, the sharp-mouthed secretary. Corrine was tell and very slender, with long, perfectly shaped legs and beautiful little hips. Her face had very fine features, with a tiny sculpted nose and little angular eyes. She had medium length blonde hair which swept away from her face. She was a hell of a salesperson. Some weeks, she was the top in the team. Warren was absolutely in love with Corrine. He was constantly coming on to her in a brash but joking way. Behind her back, he and Dan would talk about her constantly. Warren’s face would tighten up and he’d smile a strange, frustrated smile and say, “Oh my God! I have to have her! She’s incredible!” She was a great salesperson.
In theses morning meetings, Dan would call one of the salespeople up to practice their pitch, using him as the cutsomer. He would kind of alternate between the pros, like Al, and the weaklings, like myself. We would go through all the possible objections and cover all the proper responses. Then, as soon as the little play was completed, he would turn back at the group and suddenly shout something like:
“Dave, how many paintings are you going to sell today?!”
At which point I would shrink back in my chair and try not to make eye contact with anyone, purely out of embarrassment. The whole idea of grown men and women sitting in a warehouse shouting affirmations at each other daily made me very uncomfortable.
“Uhh…five,” I would say quietly, five being basically a pretty good day for me.
Then the group would laugh, and Dan would walk up to me with a huge smile, “Five, Dave? You don’t sound too confident! Everybody, you just heard what Dave said he’s gonna do today. Did you believe it?”
The scattered shouts came from the peanut gallery.
“Dave,” Dan would bark, but always with that smile, “Did you hear what someone just called you? Now come on, how many are you gonna sell today?”
“Five!” I would yell a little louder.
“Alright!” Dan would shout, “Now I think I believe you! I’m just about ready to buy five off you right now, you seem so confident. five’s not much, but it’s a great start for a beginner Dave. Hit that goal!”
And everyone would cheer for me too. Five paintings, why it was in the bag. Dave had said he was gonna hit five, and there was confidence in his voice! Done deal. It was at least a very supportive group.
When I first started, they put me with Cal, a Warren-Lite type, for two days training, to learn the ropes. These were the ropes: Within a couple hours drive radius of the city, each salesperson would pick an area they wanted to hit. It was somewhat arbitrary, but if someone tried to cover an area that was too large (which would be unfair to the others), Dan would cut it down. He also wouldn’t allow someone to cover an area that had been hit within the last six months or so. Depending on the size of the area, how many doors there were to knock on, and your success with it, you could stick with that area anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks. We would go door to door to businesses; restaurants, shops, offices, and try to sell to the manager. For the business or even for their home if they wanted. It wasn’t unusual to go to homes out in the countryside, but Dan explained that we had a better shot with the businesses.
We sold limited edition prints, although the “limit” seemed to be somewhere in the thousands. They were nice paintings I have to say, mostly wildlife scenes by big name upstate artists. Well, this is what we were told to say in our pitch. For all I knew they could have been done by Dan’s brother, or Da Vinci. The prints, with the frames, cost $70. That is, for each print sold, we had to pay Dan, who was part owner of the company, $70. Anything we could sell it for above that was ours to keep. In general you’d start out looking for about $120 or $130, and allow yourself to be haggled down. Everyone had different philosophies and methods for what they would ultimately sell for, but of course, if you were close to hitting your bonus, you’d sell at a loss just to reach the quota.
Of course, the customers never knew that anything over $70 was profit to us. $120 was simply the price to them. Why? Because I would say it was $120 and that made it official. So if the price was their objection, we could cut them a deal. It would often so happen that I was at the end of a great day, I had only three left in my car, there on the back seat! and if they would give me a clean sweep on the day and let me go home early, why, I would give them all three for ninety bucks each, just so I could go home. They didn’t need to know there were another four in the trunk. Or perhaps I was close to reaching my quota (well, as far as they knew maybe I was close to reaching my quota), and… No matter how you cut it, dropping a price when I knew how much I would still make off it, made me feel queasy. None of these tricks were as bad as the ghost call. In the ghost call, I was again at the end of my day, with just a few left and I was willing to lower the price for them. The ghost call was then brought into play if further measures were necessary. That was when I would say, “Okay, well, I’m not allowed to go below ‘X’ dollars. But I really want to finish off what I’ve got today. Maybe if I call my manager he’d let me go below price. Do you have a phone I could use?”
No, like I say, Dan didn’t care what we sold for. He got his seventy per and that was that. So I would call the office and Jen would answer.
“Hello Jen, how are you? It’s Dave. Is Mr. Gershon there?”
“Ghost call?” she would say.
“Hey Mr. Gershon, it’s Dave, how are you?”
Then, from the potential customer’s point of view, the conversation would go like this.
“Listen, I’ve got just three prints left now, and I have someone who’s interested.”
“Uh-huh. Well, what I was wondering was if it would be possible to give a lower price, since these are just my last three.”
“Yes, I know but… oh, ‘(X+15)’ would be okay? Well, the thing is, I told them I would see if I could go as low as ‘X’.”
“Okay. Yeah, great! Thanks Mr. Gershon. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Of course, Jen was at the other end of the line the whole time doing anything she could to try to make me crack up. The ghost call. I feel dirty all over again just thinking about it. At least having done it makes me a little more realistic whenever car/ furniture/ appliance/ computer salesmen tell me they have to speak with their manager.
So, those were the ropes. In two days with Cal, we made a pretty good amount, three hundred. And I had done a lot of the work. The first few I mostly watched, but after that we worked as a team. I even did a couple on my own. All the money at the end of the day went to Dan, who would then pay us our profits at the end of the week. Except that at the end of the week he only paid me for the profits I had made in my three days alone, after working with Cal. After I looked at my check I went to his office to find out what was going on. He explained that I was just in training when I was working with Cal, and that Cal got the money. When I started to complain he told me that Cal would probably have been able to do even better on his own, and it wasn’t fair to penalize someone for volunteering to help train the new people.
“Look,” I said, “this is absolutely ridiculous. I worked those two days the same hours as Cal did, and I was talking to the customers the same way he was. I’m not going to get shortchanged because you think he’s a better salesman so I must have been holding him back. I know that at least two of the sales I did myself, and most of them we worked as a team. I want my cash.”
The long and the short of it was, Dan paid me my half out of his pocket, and let Cal keep the full amount he had been given. In spite of how much I hated those meetings, and how dirty I felt with every sale, I liked Dan and I knew he really was trying to help and really thought that his people could do very well for themselves if they were good. I wasn’t.
On my own, I gradually degraded from my peak days working with Cal. I could sell no more than a few paintings a day, netting me about seventy or eighty bucks. Over the weeks, things got worse. From the first, I had hated the selling aspect. Not a promising sign for a salesman. I detested trying to convince people to do something they didn’t want to do. What did I care if they had this painting? Why should I force it on them? Why do we have to be divided so that half of us are always trying to tell the other half what they should do? What was money anyhow? Why couldn’t we all just get along? Existentialism is not a trait to put on your resume when applying for a job in sales. After a while, the morning meetings began to wear on me even more. At first I had been amused by them, I had gone out with friends and tried to convey the comic aspects of the whole thing. But the cult atmosphere began to bother me seriously. I wondered why people needed such an obviously artificial support to be able to perform their jobs. I started to question exactly what kind of people these were, and by extension whether people in general need to resort to similar but more subtle measures to feel comfortable with what they do. Conversely I wondered what kind of job it must be that the only way in which people could feel comfortable was with such outside motivation. Then, as far as the job itself, it wasn’t just the selling that bothered me. After about two weeks, I began to dread the moment of entering the doorway of each potential customer, clumsy with two or three framed prints under my arm. I thought that the moment I walked in, everybody noticed and detested me. The salesman. I felt like a leper, whether I sold or not. Most often, not.
I mentioned that at that time, I was trying to earn cash for my last year in college. As you can easily imagine, I was somewhat concerned with what life after school would hold for me. I was a history major, but I knew that that meant, dollars to doughnuts, that I would probably end up working somehow in the business world, as most with liberal arts degrees do. I began to cast all of consumer business in the light of my experience here. It was quite unsettling. I spent sleepless nights worrying about working in marketing or advertising, coming up with gimmicks to make the salespeople’s jobs easier, to convince more people to buy something which they didn’t want, and for a price that of course could be lower, to be truthful with you ma’am. I began to use the salesman/ customer dichotomy as a metaphor for other aspects of life: sex, relationships, politics. I saw everything through this filter.
I would arrive for the eight o’clock meetings tired and depressed and my workdays took on a bizarre routine. I would drive out to my area, and spend a few hours trying to hit as many doors as I could. If they didn’t want it, who was I to argue? I’d forget about our mornig meeting charades and move on to the next door. Finally, if I could sell two or three prints, (or, oh the hell with it, one) I would say to myself, ‘That’s eighty bucks (or sixty bucks, or twenty bucks) profit. Even if you don’t sell anything else, at least you’ve got that. It’s not a waste.’
Then I would go back to my car and go to sleep in the back seat. I’d sleep for two, three, four hours depending on how tired and/ or depressed I was. Then in the late afternoon, I took a leisurely approach. I’d hit a few more doors. If I sold, I sold, if I didn’t, what the hell? Eighty bucks (or sixty or twenty).
After a few weeks of that attitude, it was time for an intervention. It was obvious that I needed re-indoctrination. My numbers were down. I had forgotten the way. Dan decided to have Corrine retrain me. I was to spend two days with her, and then go out on my own again. This time that Dan told me explicitly that we had to make our own financial arrangements. Corrine was in charge, and she would decide who was to get the money. This worried me because Corrine was notoriously known as being a solo artist. She hated partners and always refused to help in training. I was surprised she had agreed to take me on at all. In fact, Corinne agreed right away to split even with me. I had mentioned at some point that I was familiar with the small town of LeRoy, as I had visited my grandparents there as a kid and used to play golf there. She thought that my familiarity with the shops there, and ability to drop a few names would do well in a small rural community.
The first day went well. Basically, I just watched, which is pretty much what the customers did. In taverns, auto repair shops, and even on farms, Corrine’s method basically was to make her pitch and then wait. The customer, and whoever else was around would just kind of scratch their heads and take her in. The silences would be so long I would want to sneak out. Corrine would just stand there with a totally blank expression on her face as the head man would tip his head back and forth and say, “Aww geez, I don’t know…. I don’t think I should… I don’t really have room for anything… it’s pretty expensive.
To any of these comments I would have, during my first, more aggressive weeks, used this as an opportunity to give my standard responses for overcoming objections. In my later, weaker weeks, I would have used these as an excuse to leave. Corrine did neither. In fact, she did nothing. She stood there looking completely, beautifully inscrutable, and everyone in the room would become quietly uncomfortable. And then the manager would give her money, and she would give him the prints. It was amazing. She had a completely unique approach to sales. Nobody wanted to tell her to leave, as they would have told me, so she would just wait until they were so uncomfortable they would give in. Of course, I was twice as uncomfortable as anyone, as I had always dropped some name as a pretense that we had some connection to the locals, and then I had to stand back and let her do her thing. Corrine by the way never bargained below one hundred. She was insulted even by my asking about it. Away from the customer she was actually a lot of fun, and we had quite a good time telling jokes as we drove through the countryside. We cleared three hundred in one day. I liked her a lot.
The next day, Dan was away and he had asked Warren to run the morning meeting and mind the office for the day. At the morning meeting Warren made a few jokes at my expense regarding my aspirations with Corrine, and then off we went.
We had a similarly successful time that day. Over two hundred. Even with only getting half of the two day total myself, it was almost as much as I would make in a whole week alone. On the long drive back to the warehouse, where she had to drop me off to get my car, she talked about her fiancé.
“You know,” she said apropos of nothing, yet so sweetly, “we haven’t had a great relationship lately. Really not sure I can stay with him. But I still would never do anything behind his back.”
I didn’t quite understand where this was coming from so I just stayed quiet.
“You know, it is quite insulting to me really when Warren says these things. I know he tries to guess who I will be with from work, but I will not do that. Especially not with him, of course.”
“That’s great,” I said, “especially not him.”
“We-ell,” she laughed, “he is very unappealing. It is one thing to say I would fool around on my fiancé, that is bad enough, but then to imagine it would be with such a man, it is crazy!”
“I can understand why this would be insulting,” I said.
“And look, I have been with you for two days, and he makes all these joke, but we have not done anything.”
Now I shut-up. How did I get into this? This was unexpected. I tried to look away from her eyes to hide how surprised and thrilled I was that the idea was something she could mention aloud without laughing. But looking away, all I could see was her skirt, slit way up her thigh and the smooth and rounded flesh which showed pale and pure in the long v cut in the fabric.
“After all, David, if I were to be with anyone it would be you, but I would not do that.”
Now I had to look at her face because I needed to see if she was making fun of me. But instead of laughing she just looked calmly out at the road. She turned for a moment and smiled in a shy way at me.
“Well, I understand,” I stammered trying to think of something to say, “I can certainly see why you would not enjoy…”
“I have an idea!” she shouted as she turned to me with a great, excited smile, and I almost cried looking at her perfect tiny teeth, “Why don’t we play a joke on Warren? We can pretend we really, you know…”
She shrugged her shoulder, kind of embarrassed, and I grinned like a monkey. My heart was beating out of my chest. Was I going to wake up alone in the back seat of my car with my afternoon selling shift still ahead?
When as we parked in front of the warehouse, Corinne put on some fresh lipstic and gave me a few kisses on the cheek, and one just half on my lips. The smell of her hair and the feel of her cheeks against mine would have done me in if I wasn’t so excited to see the look on Warren’s face. She messed her hair up suitably and I told her her lipstick was smeared well enough. Then I had an idea. I pulled a condom from my pocket and tore it from the wrapper. I unraveled it and winked.
“I’ll just throw this in the trash as we pass by the desk. Give him something to really think about.”
We walked in through the office, carrying the leftover prints. Jen had already gone home, but Warren sat at Dan’s desk. He looked at Corrine, and then at me and his jaw hung open. For the first time since I knew him he was speechless. I looked down at the unrolled condom I held in my hand, shrook my head and tossed it in the garbage pail as we walked back into the warehouse. We dropped off the paintings and left.
The next day, when I had to go back to working on my own I could tell from the way people looked at me that Warren had told the story. He cornered me after the meeting.
“Dave!” he cried, “Did you and Corrine really?… I mean, what happened??”
I shrugged and smiled benignly.
“Dave! You’ve got to tell me! I mean, you? Really??”
I left him there and carried out my prints to the car.
That morning I didn’t try any new doors. I hadn’t slept at all the night before. I had wondered about Corrine, being in an unhappy relationship but staying true to it, and I wondered about Warren making his bonuses and pining after Corrine, and I wondered about me. So that day I just drove out to my area, found a park with some shade, then lay down in the sweet August grass and went to sleep. At about one o’clock I drove back to the office and told Dan I couldn’t do it anymore. He nodded with understanding. He said he kind of expected it since I hadn’t called in at all yet that day. I gave him back the paintings and he wrote me out a check for the money he still owed me. I never made the promised land in the sales game, the land of milk and honey, and fat cash bonuses. Still, I guess I did alright all in all. I wondered how Corrine would look in a big black hat and robe.