I said good-bye to my father for the last time a couple months ago. His death wasn’t a surprise; his health had been increasingly poor for many years, and despite his doctors’ best efforts, his body just wore out.
Dad was a straight-commission salesman for nearly all of his adult life. In fact, he continued to sell well into his late 70s, when his health got in the way. He sold chemicals for industrial processes and maintenance. When a refinery needed to clean up after an explosion or a steel mill needed to degrease a rolling mill, he got the call. In his later years, most of his competitors were chemical engineering grads, but his customers placed more trust in his practical knowledge, despite the fact that he barely made it through high school. He was an extraordinary salesman, and that’s not just a proud son singing his praises — he received a constant stream of job offers right up until his retirement. (In fact, a salesman from a competitor once told Dad that his boss had instructed him to check the obituaries every morning, and if Dad’s name appeared, he was to target every one of his accounts. That’s praise, disturbing as it may be.)
We think of salespeople as overly aggressive folks who will say anything to make a deal. There are some like that out there, but those who succeed over the long term don’t do business that way. I used to accompany Dad on calls a couple times a year, and it was always very instructive and impressive. He’d walk into the customer’s office, head straight for the coffeemaker, and talk to everyone along the way. He knew their names and where their kids were going to school, and they treated him like a friend.
Today’s marketing world is filled with a lot of mumbo-jumbo. There’s some validity to it, but a lot of it is smoke and mirrors, and old concepts dusted off and given buzzwordy names. We’ll give it a try and see what happens. But a straight commission salesman can’t count on mumbo-jumbo. He can’t rely on branding or building up an image. If he doesn’t make the sale today, he doesn’t get paid, and his kids don’t eat. He doesn’t have the luxury of calling on a prospect ten times in the hope of getting a “yes” on the tenth visit. And in Dad’s industry, most products were very similar to what his competitors were selling, so there wasn’t a clear advantage.
So a successful straight-commission salesman has to become a trusted, valuable resource to his customers. He has to be able to identify their needs — especially the needs they don’t realize they have — and offer a solution. He has to be able to provide just as much information as they want (“Overselling,” he once warned me, “is worse than underselling.”) He has to anticipate their questions and have sound, credible answers. He can’t give up at the first objection or hesitation. He has to ask for the sale, and then thank the customer. And he has to make sure the company gets paid, because he didn’t get his commission check until the company received full payment.
Most important, a successful straight-commission salesman has to persevere. There are times when the job becomes brutal, such as during the 1981 recession that all but shut down the American steel industry and every company that supplied it, including two-thirds of Dad’s customers. But he continued to get up early every day and make the rounds. “Selling is like shaving,” he often observed. “You’ve got to do some every day, or you’ll become a bum.”
Those lessons echo in my head as I handle projects for clients. I don’t have much tolerance for vague, inconsistent efforts. Instead, I approach projects through the eyes of the audience, deliver messages in their language, and anticipate and respond to their objections. And I encourage clients to keep delivering their messages in the face of economic downturns and times of strong competition.
Only in the last few years have I realized just how much my Dad’s career resonates in the work I do every day. I’ll never forget those lessons that I learned as I rode along with him from refinery to rolling mill, and my clients will be the beneficiaries. Thanks, Dad.