We left West Lafayette heading for Nashville around 10 o’clock in the morning. Upon arriving in Nashville, we only had about 15 minutes to drop our luggage off at this awful motel before getting back in the cars to head to the “Opening Ceremony” of the sales convention.
Guys, this was nuts. Held in a gigantic convention center, there had to have been a thousand students in that first meeting. The energy levels were through the roof, and that was done on purpose of course. Loud music, flashing lights, MC’s on stage pumping up the crowd – the whole nine yards. “Who’s ready to make some moneeeeeeey!!!!!” And the crowd goes wild. Of course. We’re all naive college kids, all of whom signed up for no less than 12 credit cards over the past year for a free T-shirt or a slice of greasy pizza. Someone says we can make $8,000 selling books? Hell, yeah!
If I haven’t made this clear by now, let me explain. What is Southwestern? Well, it’s like Amway, but with books. Cutco, without the knifes. Door to door sales, promises of giant pay days, but most of us were in for a world of hurt. From the start, my spidey senses were sort of tingling, but I was so damned broke I allowed my optimism to cloud my judgment.
I’m telling you, this sales conference was bananas. Any remaining skepticism I had was completely gone by the time the conference was over. Four days of lectures on best practices, orienting yourself in the community, getting and staying organized, learning how to close a deal, learning how to give your spiel without sounding like a robot. “Sales Boot Camp” is what they called it. With the benefit of hindsight, I feel like a complete idiot. It was barely veiled propaganda, shoved down our throats for four days to give us all just enough confidence to think we could actually make a little bit of money selling books. Alas…it worked.
Thinly veiled or not, these people knew what they were doing. They convinced over a thousand students to travel across the country in an effort to make money selling books. Educational books. Encyclopedia sets. College prep books. Study guides. They convinced us, even the most skeptical of us, in four days. Here’s how I got duped.
The guy said I smiled when I talked.
Dan something-rather. I can’t remember his last name, but I remember his face. Probably won’t forget it, either. He was one of the dozen or so keynote speakers during Sales Boot Camp, but he also happened to be our division’s top manager. Meaning, we all reported to Andrew, who reported to David something-rather, who reported to Cynthia (??), who reported to Dan something-rather.
Side note: I keep just wanting to type Dan Rather, but you’d get the wrong visual.
Anyway, Dan made his rounds over the four days to all of the groups under his purview. Man of the people. Or something like that. He made it to our group the second to last day of the boot camp while we were practicing our sales spiels. We got these handbooks the first day of the convention with everything we needed to know about selling books. The first five pages of the handbook contained that cold call spiel. We were required to have it memorized by the end of the week. I happen to be quite talented with rote rehearsal. I couldn’t tell you a single word of that spiel today, but that week, I was the first one in our group to recite it word for word from memory without any prompts whatsoever.
We had to practice the sales pitch daily with our groupmates until we got it right. I was dialed in on the third day. This drew a bit of recognition from Andrew and, subsequently, Dan. But Mr. Something-rather wanted to see it for himself, so he had everyone gather around us in a circle and made me recite the pitch to him. He interjected multiple times with questions in an attempt to rattle me. It didn’t work. I had a canned response for everything he threw at me. Each time I knocked down one of his questions, a little smile would appear in the corners of his mouth, and he’d narrow his eyes at me the slightest bit as if he were skeptical. By the time I was completely through it, he was laughing incredulously, slow-clapping his hands and shooting glances at everyone else in the group as if to say, “did you just see what I saw? That was perfection, folks!”
This all made me feel incredibly awkward, mind you. I’m not really the kind of person who is comfortable receiving gratuitous public recognition. I know that’s hard to believe, you know, given that I write a blog on the internet for other people to read, which in it’s own way is like saying, “hey you, look over here! Validate me!!” Yeah, I get it. But Dan’s over-the-top reaction felt more like I was getting hit with a praise bazooka. Too much of a good thing, you know?
But he kept going. What I’d just done was notable (to a reasonable extent) and Dan was going to use it as a teaching moment. He offered a critique of my line delivery, the tempo of my speech, my posture. He said I could work on enunciating my words a little better. To this day, I still slur words together, so Dan probably had a pretty decent point. But then he wanted to tell me the best thing I did.
“This isn’t natural for a lot of people. But Sam here has it,” Dan explained, glancing around the group as he spoke. “Did anyone else catch it?”
“Oh, c’mon! Someone else had to have seen it.”
One girl raised her hand. Dan pointed at her to speak. “His face was, like, super engaged. Like, his eyes. Right?”
It was close enough. “Exactly! When Sam speaks, he smiles as he talks. You know who’s going to sell a ton of books with that smile? Sam is!”
I can’t believe how moronic that is. What’s worse is that I fell for it. Hell yeah I was gunna sell a ton of books! I smile when I talk, y’all!
The sales conference wrapped up Friday morning with one final rave-like atmosphere in the convention center, a final effort to pump all these college kids up with enough adrenaline and positivity for the first week of door-to-door sales. When it was all said and done, our group split out to a common area to learn where we’d be heading for the summer.
Oh yeah. That’s an important detail. Up to this point, we still had NO IDEA where we were going to be selling books. We’d just spent four days getting sunshine and rainbows blown up our butts without the slightest clue where we’d be spending our summer. That’s an important detail. I’m not positive why they waited until the last day to tell us, but then again, these people knew what they were doing. That Friday morning, with the sun shining and a cool breeze blowing by, Andrew could have told us we’d be flying to Russia to sell books and I’m pretty sure we’d all be doing back flips.
Andrew pulled out a large yellow envelope with our assignments for the summer. He started with the pairings. Each of us would go to a town with a partner. We’d work independently while we were there, of course, but none of us would be completely alone. Sure enough, the last two people Andrew called were me and Ricky. Remember Ricky? Short guy. Smoker. You’ll hear more about Ricky in the coming weeks. Nice kid.
The moment of truth. Since me and Ricky were the last partnership mentioned, Andrew started in reverse order and gave us our destination first.
We were heading to a town called Grants.
Grants, New Mexico.♦