Saturday night, Ricky and I sat on the back patio at the house in Bosque Farms. We’d just wrapped up our first week selling books door-to-door. The week itself had been fun in some ways, and miserable in others. Either way, I was exhausted. The next day we’d drive up to Albuquerque to meet up with Andrew and the rest of the sellers. This would happen weekly from here on out.
“So what’d you end up with this week?” Ricky asked. We both had our “slogs” — or selling logs — in front of us. I thumbed through the week and counted, but I already knew what I’d done.
“Looks like…eight soft sales. You?” I didn’t want to talk about the fact that I hadn’t closed the deal on anyone that first week. Soft sales were just that. A soft commitment where someone would say, “yeah, I’ll buy”, but they defer any payment until the end of the summer when the books are delivered. Giving the option to defer payment is always a last ditch effort to secure some sort of sale, but was only to be used the second before you felt a definitive “no” coming. The conversion rate on soft sales was pretty low. Of the eight I got that first week, it was likely only one or two would actually buy a book. Conversely, a hard sale meant you got payment up front. For me, hard sales had been elusive that first week.
Ricky looked through his slog, although I’m sure he already knew what he’d done too. “I got five soft sales, and three hard sales.” He was grinning, despite that fact that he’d worked around 65 hours that week and netted no more than $100 worth of profit. It was better than what I’d done, though.
I started to wonder if I was doing something wrong. Dan Something-Rather told me I was going to sell a ton of books because, you know, smiles and all. But after the first week I had nothing substantial to show for it. I wondered about some of the other kids at the sales conference strewn about the country. How were they doing? Was it this hard for everyone, or just me?
The next morning we pulled into a parking lot at a park in Albuquerque for our weekly meet up with Andrew and the other sellers. It was good to see everyone again. The last time I’d seen everyone, we all had dollar signs in our eyes and enough energy to last until next summer. Today, I could once again feel the excitement, the optimism. I truly felt like I hadn’t seen these people in a month. Maybe even stranger was that I felt like I’d known these people for years. They felt like family.
About an hour later, after Andrew had met individually with all 16 sellers, he gathered everyone for a quick “staff meeting”. He gave us the news from other regions, other divisions, even other colleges. After looking at the macro events, he dug into the details from our group. The top seller of the week was…
My good buddy, Travis, with 13 hard sales and eight soft. We all cheered and clapped. He’d basically done better than two hard sales per day. It was pretty impressive and with him being my best friend, I was really happy for him.
But then it thought about it again. Thirteen hard sales and eight soft. I had eight soft sales, only. My heart sank into my stomach. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this.
From my conversations with everyone else, I was pretty sure I was the only one to not book a hard sale. Here I thought I was going to be the best seller in the bunch, with the truth of the matter being that I couldn’t land a single real sale. It was certainly a shot to my ego. An uppercut to my pride.
But I was determined to get a sale. A real, cash-in-hand sale. On Tuesday of the next week, it finally happened.
Monday had been another tough day. No one answering doors, no one giving me more than 30 seconds to explain what I was doing, and definitely no one looking to buy what I was selling. Andrew called Monday evening to check in on me. When he heard about my day, he decided to switch things up a little, sending me to another part of town. His sense was that I was simply trying to sell in the wrong part of town.
Tuesday morning, after dropping a $5 bill on the table for my coffee and oatmeal, I left the diner and headed East rather than South. Twenty minutes later, I landed in a housing development that simply didn’t look like it belonged. All the houses looked like they been built within the past five years. The neighborhood was clean. The roads were new and well-kept. And the lawns were full of luscious grass. It looked like an entire subdivision had been plucked out of Cary, North Carolina and dropped into the outskirts of Los Lunas, New Mexico. It was one of those fabled “rich neighborhoods”.
I remembered what Andrew had said about saving the rich neighborhoods for later in the summer and decided to cross the street to another subdivision, one that looked just a rung or two lower on the wealth ladder.
Around 9:30 that morning, just as the sun was really starting to heat things up, I knocked on a bright yellow door, took two steps back, turned to face the neighbor’s house, and tried to look impressive. The door swung open quickly. A girl, maybe 9 or 10 years old, looked at me for a few seconds before turning around and walking away, leaving the door wide open. I heard her call out to someone, and another few seconds later an elderly woman came to the door. Within the few two sentences of introducing myself, I could tell she wasn’t following me.
“Ma’am, do you speak English?”
She shook her head, confirming my hunch. Luckily, the girl came to my rescue.
“Hi, Mr. Sam,” she said, politely. “I can translate.”
So I continued. The sales pitch is fairly succinct, but I pared it down even more just to make sure the girl could communicate effectively what I was there to do. A couple minutes later, they invited me in to sit down.
In the living room I was able pull out the books and give demonstrations, pointing out all the wonderful tools and features of each book. I’d won over the girl in a matter of minutes. Then it became a matter of convincing her Abuela. Luckily for me, I didn’t even have to. The girl turned to her grandmother after seeing a section on math skills in the demo book and started pleading. Grandma was toast in a matter of seconds.
But then I had to talk about the cost. Upon revealing the selling price of each of the iterations of the book set, Grandma looked at her granddaughter with the “sorry kid, but no way” look. Well, that’s it, I told myself. On to the next one.
Instead, the girl started bargaining with her grandmother. But Grandma wasn’t budging. I sat quietly while the two of them went back and forth for what seemed like six hours (it was probably closer to four or five minutes). Eventually, Grandma left the room and the girl got a huge smile on her face. I could hear Grandma on the phone with someone in the other room.
“She’s calling my brother, Juan,” the girl explained. “He works at the car shop about five minutes away. He’s the one that makes all the decisions.” She flashed another huge grin, almost as if she knew she was going to get what she wanted. Her brother must have adored her.
Sure enough, a man just a few years older than me came through the front door and greeted me warmly. He introduced himself quickly and we all sat down. It was apparent to me that he’d come home on his break from work and had to make a quick decision. I gave an even more condensed version of the pitch, ending with the cost.
Juan sort of cocked his head to the side and stared wistfully at the demo book. He glanced over at his baby sister, no doubt a huge part of his life, and then back to the book.
“Lucy, would you actually use this?”
“Yes!” she screamed. “Yes, yes, of course I will! Please, Juan. PLEEEEEEEASE!!!”
Juan thought for another few seconds, and I could see he wasn’t convinced.
“This isn’t going to be like those piano lessons I paid for, right Lucy? I worked overtime for two months so you could take that piano class and you wanted to quit after the second time. Is that going to happen again here?”
“No, Juan, I promise!! I love these books! I’ll read them every single day!”
Again, Juan wasn’t sold. I couldn’t tell whether it was the books or the idea that his baby sister would ditch them after a week’s time. It seemed a precedent had been set. I had Juan on the hook — well, I guess Lucy had Juan on the hook — but I needed one last thing to reel him in completely.
“The real nice thing about Lucy being so young right now is that you’ll get the full benefit of these books. They are designed to sort of grow with kids.” I flipped to the back end of the book. “If you look in the back here, there are all sorts of advanced math and science concepts laid out and explained, and there are even some college prep type resources, too, if that’s something she’d be interested in some day.”
Juan’s eyes got big for a second. He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his left hand propped up his chin. He was thinking hard. Another second and he started quietly nodding his head.
“Lucy,” he said after standing up, “you promise you’ll study these books?”
“Yes, I promise I promise I promise!”
Juan turned to me and smiled. “Okay, we’ll take the set.”
I’m not sure an actual word was used, just squeals. Lucy tackled her big brother onto the couch and showered him with hugs and kisses. It was truly one of the sweetest moments I’ve ever witnessed. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Juan disappeared into another room and returned with his checkbook. The process of filling out the order for the books, collecting the check, etc., took another few minutes. During that time, Juan explained their family dynamic. Juan and Lucy’s parents had been killed in a car accident only a handful of years before. He was eighteen when it happened, Lucy was only four years old. Their dad had some life insurance through work, which they used to buy the house they were living in now. Juan asked his grandmother to quit her job as a cook to come be Lucy’s full-time caretaker while Juan worked two jobs (or three, depending on the time of year) to support the family.
By the time I got everything situated, I felt like I knew everything about Juan and his sweet little family. I’d already taken up too much of his time and I could tell he was antsy to get out the door and back to work. I thanked them for their business, and they thanked me for coming.
The door closed behind me and I allowed myself a heavily subdued fist pump. I knew I should act like I’d been here before, but getting the first sale under my belt was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.
I didn’t sell anything else for the rest of the day, and I was fine with that. As I walked house to house, I replayed in my mind the conversations with Lucy and her grandmother and Juan. I performed a sort of self-assessment and came to the conclusion that I’d absolutely rocked that sale. I got through the sales pitch succinctly. I was able to adapt to the audience, despite not speaking the same language as one of the parties. And, maybe most importantly, when doubt crept up in Juan’s mind, I was able to give him the perfect nudge to close the deal. Final assessment: I sold the hell out of some books.
It felt good. I kept thinking about it. Over and over. I wanted to leverage what I’d said and did to other prospective buyers. As I was driving home for the night, I turned the radio off and starting talking aloud to myself, once again reliving the conversations.
I got a kick out of how hard I’d tried to get that sale, especially since I thought the grandma was going to shoot me down immediately. “These books will grow with Lucy,” I said aloud, laughing. “Please Juan, PLEEEASE,” I said in a high-pitched voice, suddenly realizing my window was rolled down and other folks at the stoplight probably thought I was nuts. “This won’t be like those piano lessons, right?”
Back at the house, I went through my slog and made sure I’d recorded everything properly. I took one more look at Juan’s check before putting it in the deposit envelope and stashing it away. Three hundred dollars, I thought to myself. For books. Yeesh.
In the next two seconds, my mind rehashed everything Juan had said about his parents, about his grandmother, and about his two (and sometimes, three) jobs. I remembered him asking his sister if this time would be different. Unlike those piano lessons.
Exactly one second later, I decided that was exactly what was going to happen. In essence, Juan had just flushed a month’s worth of overtime pay down the toilet.
I leaned back into the couch cushions, suddenly aware that my stomach was in knots.