That Time I Was Top Salesperson My First Month on the Job and How I Did It
Not once, throughout my childhood or my years as an adult, did I ever envision myself selling furniture. Life has a way of leading you down paths you’ve never thought of and every path, if you allow it, will show you things about yourself, teach you valuable lessons, and give you a story that you can share to encourage others. My six-week career as a furniture salesperson was one such path.
In 2009 I was working in a mid-level management position with the local newspaper. With the exception of a four-year hiatus to engage in some overseas and stateside humanitarian work, I had worked in the newspaper industry since 1995 after about ten years in retail management. Things were going well for me professionally. I enjoyed the company and the company enjoyed me. I had been invited onto special teams such as the editorial board and the interactive steering committee. I was preparing myself for the next step forward, which was the executive level circulation director position.
Despite what felt like an upward professional trajectory for me, disaster was upon us. It was upon my local newspaper company. It loomed over the deeply indebted national parent company that owned us. And like The Nothing from The Never-ending Story it was sweeping away profits and careers all across the nation. This disaster had a name. It was called The Great Recession.
In the fall of 2009 we submitted our 2010 operating budget to corporate. Within a couple of weeks an executive from national headquarters paid a visit to our market, slashed two more positions from our organizational structure, and flew back home. I had already endured three rounds of layoffs, a pay cut, and furloughs over the previous year. And now, my career momentum came to a shockingly abrupt halt with a five-minute conversation in the Human Resources department and a severance package.
For the next three months I sulked, I panicked, and I worried I would never work again. The two industries I knew so well, newspapers and retail, were both under assault while news anchors, economists, and talk radio hosts all preached a doomsday message about our economy and the future of America. But then, in late February of 2010, I got a call from the manager of a furniture store where I had applied, offering me a sales position.
I had never sold furniture. I had never really sold anything direct-to-consumer except for newspaper subscriptions and packages of toilet paper in the retail stores I helped manage. Not only was this a sales position, but it was a 100% commission sales position. In other words, if I wanted to live indoors, eat and buy toilet paper, I had to sell something. A lot of somethings. I had nothing to lose. I began work on a March Monday.
My first week on the job was all about introductions and indoctrination. I learned what color shirts to wear on what days. It alternated between white and blue and there was an actual calendar to help people keep track of what to wear when. I met the sales staff and as I was being introduced, the manager said, “And this is Barbara. She’s our superstar! She sells $50,000 in furniture every month.” Everyone nodded. Barbara smiled. She was a very sweet lady, maybe in her 50’s, had been there the longest, and customers walked through the doors every day asking for her. That’s a lot of furniture.
For most of the first week I was hidden away in a back room with a stack of training videos and a computer to use for taking tests on what I had watched. They occasionally let me out of the room to dust furniture, blow up balloons, and replace missing signage, before sending me back. By about day three I became convinced that I would never be able to sell anything if I had to do it the way the man in the videos taught me to do it. I hated that man. And if I as a customer had walked into a furniture store and encountered this salesperson, it would have been a very short visit before heading to the competition. The training message was essentially this: “Talk until they walk.” In other words, follow the customer and bug the hell out of them until they succumb to your pressure or leave the store.
I emerged from my cell the following Monday and was placed on the sales floor. I had spent the weekend thinking through how I would actually engage with that first customer, knowing that I could never do it the way the videos taught me to do it. I realized there was a chance I might never eat steak again if I chose to do things my way, but one thing I knew: Succeed or starve, I had to be true to myself.
I sold $200 worth of furniture on the first day. I don’t remember the amounts from that point forward, but nearly every day I sold something and the sales continued to grow larger and larger. By the end of week two on the sales floor my manager and my peers were taking notice, congratulating me, and asking me how I was doing it. On one day alone I sold about $8,000 in furniture to one family. Week four of my employment came to an end an on that final day of the week I ran my month-to-date sales report. After three weeks on the sales floor I had sold, you guessed it, right around $50,000 in furniture.
Barbara was a kind person, always friendly and encouraging, but I detected a little relief when I announced a week or so later that I had been named the new circulation director for a newspaper company in the Midwest and would be leaving.
I tell this story a lot and always find myself explaining that there was really nothing special about me as a salesperson. I attribute that success to some very basic principles that I chose to follow and I believe these principles will work for any person attempting to sell anything in any industry. I’m happy to share them with you here, and in my opinion, these are pretty common-sense principles.
Don’t try to be “Barbara”
People crave authenticity. It makes us feel safe when we know that the person we’re dealing with, either in a personal relationship or a business transaction, is who they present themselves to be and mean what they say. Most of us have the ability to detect when someone isn’t being true to themselves and feel a sense of caution.
You are a beautifully put together person. You have a way of thinking, talking, and engaging with others that is uniquely yours and will naturally bond you to others in every aspect of life, including a sales agreement. If you choose to try and emulate anyone else, whether it’s the top salesperson or the individual in the training video, you will stifle the real you and cause a moment of pause in anyone whom you’re trying to engage with. Learn from everyone, both the good and bad, but by all means be authentically you.
You are there for the buyer. The buyer is not there for you.
When we know that our ability to live indoors, eat, and buy toilet paper is tied to the closing of a sale and earning of a commission, it’s easy to view the potential client as a means to an end. This too is something that most people can detect right away and will recoil from.
Your job as a salesperson, regardless of what you’re selling, is to make your clients dreams come true by uncovering and fulfilling the needs and wants that they know they have and the needs and wants they haven’t yet realized. You are the person with the solutions they need to make their personal and professional lives better.
When you are authentically yourself and are genuinely there to make their dreams come true, you’re truly on your way to superstar sales status.
Conversations lead to conversions
Remember the family who purchased $8,000 in furniture from me? They initially walked into the store planning to spend about $2,000 on living room furniture. As we walked around the store looking at options I asked about where they lived, what they did for a living, what they enjoyed about the city, etc. It was during that natural, unforced conversation between human beings that I discovered they had just finished building a new house and wanted new furniture for the living room. I took that opportunity to lead into conversations about their new dining room, their new bedroom, and the kid’s rooms. During those conversations they shared that they had been thinking about going ahead and buying all new furniture, but were undecided. I took that opportunity to show them my favorite groupings for each room. By the end of their visit they had decided to go ahead, take the plunge, and fill their new home with all new furniture.
When you’re speaking with a potential customer, try to look beyond the immediate need to uncover ways that you can help them further, keeping in mind at all times that the conversation is all about them, and not about you.
Sales is a relationship, not a transaction
I shared with you earlier how every day customers walked into our store, bypassed the salesperson who’s turn it was to be on the door, and asked specifically for Barbara. I began to see this happening for myself as well in the final days of my short tenure with the company but wasn’t there long enough to see it come fully to fruition. Barbara, on the other hand, shared with me her secrets to repeat business.
First, Barbara understood and practiced all of the above principles. She was authentically Barbara. She succeeded by unselfishly serving the needs of her clients. And she always engaged in conversations, not only to find more opportunities to meet needs and close sales, but to learn other more personal information about her clients. Afterward she would consistently send birthday cards or a wedding gift when she knew a client was engaged. She would send notes of congratulations when she knew babies or grand-babies were being born. When new items came into the inventory that she knew fit a client’s style, she would drop them an email or send a card with a picture of the item and an invitation to come take a look.
In every sales endeavor, whether it’s furniture, or automobiles, or jewelry, or products and services to help a fellow businessperson succeed in their own enterprise, building a relationship through authentic thoughtfulness, kindness, selflessness, and a genuine desire to help make their dreams come true will take you beyond a single transaction and help you stand out as the go-to person in that client’s life.
Bill is a veteran of the newspaper industry since 1995 and has served in various roles of circulation leadership, on an editorial board as an occasional columnist and editorial writer, interactive co-director, and as a classifieds sales director with experience spanning five different newspapers owned by large national companies such as Gannett, Knight-Ridder, and McClatchy as well as privately owned media companies in the Midwest, South, and Inland Northwest.
Bill’s greatest joy and fulfillment comes from helping others which in recent years has taken the form of industry-specific consulting and training and career coaching both inside and outside of the newspaper industry. During a hiatus from the newspaper industry from 2001 to 2005 Bill participated in and led 6 humanitarian teams in the countries of Bolivia and Ecuador. He returned to South America in 2010 and spent time in Columbia as well. All of these trips were to engage in work related to the rescue, care, and empowerment of impoverished children and families.
Bill loves to teach, coach, write, lead teams, implement ideas, and help others be successful in whatever endeavors make their hearts come alive. He also loves chicken wings, ice cream, beaches, convertibles, and classic rock.
With core competencies in staff development, team leadership, idea generation and execution, P&L management for increased profitability, data analysis and reaction, and operational efficiency, Bill has the ability to quickly assess the health of your organization, identify opportunities for improvement, work with you to develop an actionable strategy, and coach your team through execution.
As an experienced public speaker and conference presenter with an emphasis on circulation and audience strategies, personal and professional growth, leadership, and team building, Bill is also available for speaking engagements, seminar presentation, and conference participation.
You can learn more about Bill at www.billhuffhine.com.
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