Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How I Finally Learned Sales

Selling things was something I long considered inferior to my intelligence, just as I figured I was too creative to really learn computer skills. But being of prime working age in the 21st century, those are both skills that come in handy again and again and again.

I have held many customer service positions--waitress, barista, waitress again, and finally vitamin-seller right now at a health food store. I have interacted with thousands of customers over the years, and right after college I found my lack of a powerful job rather depressing. A customer would ask me what my favorite side dish was at the restaurant where I worked, and I'd look at them with a blase expression and think, "Why has this person who has so much money chosen to put together that clothing combination?" or "Don't they know I'm a brilliant artist?" or "Has this person ever even seen a Woody Allen movie?" You can see this attitude time and time again when you walk into a Barnes & Noble or Borders--ask a salesperson for the latest bestseller and watch him raise his eyebrows--after all, he has a master's degree in creative writing and you don't.

So on the one hand you have unwilling salespeople who would rather be painting, or discussing politics, or drinking, or a combination of all three, and on the other hand you have the idea of the aggressive, fight-to-the-death salesperson. When we think of sales, we think of movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, where a group of men must play a desperate all-night game of lying and manipulation to make their sales quotas. We also think of door-to-door religious converters, and kids on the street holding clipboards who block your path by saying, "Do you have a minute for the environment?"

But this is a terrible business practice that only exists because aggressive, manipulative selling proves profitable among certain businesses. More credible businesses usually don't use these practices. I think about another sales job I had where I was a telemarketer for a few weeks. Our company was being contracted out by an obscure auto insurance company to find leads over the telephone. We had a script that we could not deviate from, that asked questions like, "How many cars do you have at your home?" The script never asked any yes or no questions like, "would you be interested in finding out about lower rates?" because the running wisdom was that yes or no questions allowed people to say "no" and hang up. Our bait was that we might be able to "save them money" over their current plan, but any American who pays attention to television would already know that they could compare rates on, and find the best deals there. Or, they might also know that Geico has really cheap insurance.

And there you have it--the most successful businesses in the U.S. never need to resort to manipulative selling practices, because they already have a great product. McDonald's can give you a hamburger in 60 seconds. Starbuck's gives you a strong cup of coffee that tastes the same each time. Geico gives you an online insurance quote and never has a salesperson call you. You would never find representatives from any of these companies stopping you in the street to buy their product. This is because they are at or near the top of their market. And if a company is resorting to aggressive selling practices, it probably has an inferior product.

But back to my experience as a salesperson--when I finally decided at my current job to pay attention to sales, I thought I would have to be like one of these manipulative guys in Glengarry Glen Ross. I thought I'd be trying to sell people the most expensive vitamins, and hypnotizing them into buying more than one product. But I soon found that people have a mind of their own, and will buy what they want to buy. And the more I worked there, the more I realized--the big secret of selling is liking and respecting people. That's it. So simple. No math involved, no analyzing of how much money I think this person makes.

It starts with a really simple thought, which I pulled from contemporary spiritual practices (but works for capitalism, ha), which works with any person in your life, regardless of whether or not you are selling something to them. The thought is, "I am talking to myself." If you understand the person you are talking to to be yourself, you will immediately be more concerned for them and more aware of their intelligence. Whenever I think this, I usually get an intuitive feeling of what they're doing in the store, it could be "I have a cold and I want to get out of here as fast as possible, just give me something," it could be "my girlfriend's all into natural products and wants me to stop taking antibiotics, but I think natural products are for hippies," or it could be "I have an hour to spend here and I want to find the perfect lipstick, because I've had a bad day." Selling things is not hard in Beverly Hills, but there are customers who want to spend $200 on vitamins and customers who want to spend $8. There are customers who don't want to spend money that day at all. And on a good day, provided that I'm not stressed out about my own life, I can help them all. Sometimes it's not about selling anything at all, but developing a relationship of trust with the customer. For example, sometimes I'll show a customer a couple of products, and they seem sort of doubtful, in which case I excuse myself to give her the privacy to decide for herself whether she wants those products or not. It's a real pity we don't work on commission.

But it's funny to me that being a successful salesperson is a simple matter of liking the people you interact with. That wisdom probably comes from the same place as, "do what you love, and the money will follow."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Do you like Colin Firth?

I was watching my favorite show, “30 Rock,” the other day, and the episode had to do with Liz Lemon, the highly successful 37-year-old single television writer, trying to impress an adoption agency so she could bring home a baby. She dresses in a terrible soccer mom outfit even Oprah would laugh at, and pleads with her staff to “act normal” while the agent comes to NBC. As she reflects on what her home says about her, she says, “I wonder if I should hide my Colin Firth movies. Maybe they would consider that pornography?’

And it hit me like a ton of bricks—I’m more like Liz Lemon than I thought. I had always looked up to her character, who gets cornflakes in her hair and passes time at galas by trying to eat as much free food as possible. But this was spooky, and I began to think—is there a Colin Firth type?

My crush on Colin Firth is a recent development; the only movies I have seen him in are “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Love Actually.” (Those are two fabulous romantic comedies in a genre that is usually lacking—if you were embarrassed by “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” raise your hand.) In both movies, he is supposed to be the anti-charming, awkward guy—in “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” he actually manages to scare the main character off because he’s so depressing. But it works for him well, I love actors and actresses who can make you laugh without ever cracking a smile or doing anything big and loud. Watch him bumble through the Portuguese language in “Love Actually” and tell me you’re not in love.

I like Colin Firth so much I have actually contemplated what I’d do if he ever walked into my store (at my health food store, we get a lot of celebrities). I envision that I’d ask him to sign part of my body, as if he were Derek Jeter or something, but probably I’d just stare a lot.

Firth’s life is interesting—his parents are professors, his grandparents were missionaries, and he spent part of his childhood in Nigeria. He speaks out politically for people who are being taken advantage of in third-world countries. And in an interesting gender role reversal, he’s married to an Italian film director and producer. She’s the brains and he’s the beauty.

Anyway, long story short, I think there is a Colin Firth type. Look at this picture of the actor getting coffee dumped on him. He posed for this photo to draw attention to the issue of unconscionable trade practices. But really, c'mon--it's a wet t-shirt photo, only with coffee. That's hilarious to women who grew up hanging out in coffee shops. Scroll down a little, and check out all the comments that have been posted by women, and you'll see that there is indeed a Colin Firth type. Firth is to bookish women what Princess Leia is to tech-geek men. The best thing is that none of the women seem to understand or care about the political content of the photo.

Well, how about this--if Firth shows up at my place of work, I'll tape a bag of fair-trade coffee to my body, and have him sign that?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kindergarten People

As many of you know, I recently began a credential program at Cal State L.A. to become a special ed teacher. As part of my first class, we must observe actual K-12 classrooms for 45 hours before the quarter's up.

I signed on with a kindergarten class near my home, and I also got suckered into being a teacher's assistant rather than "observer," so they're getting 30 hours of hard labor from me for free. Today was my fourth session with the class, and let me tell you--kindergartners are a knock out. A lot of you who have children may remember this from when your own were five, but the last time I was around such small children I was a babysitting teenager, and much more interested in teenage affairs rather than light-up sneakers.

There's one kid who cracks me up, Lucas, I haven't gotten much of a chance to talk to him, but I like him because he's just so well-behaved. The teacher assigns a worksheet and he gets right to it, no dilly-dallying at all. Today the kids were coloring in jaguars, and all the other kids were topping each other--"My jaguar has a pink jeweled crown and lives in a purple forest," "My jaguar is blue with silver machine claws," and Lucas sat there quietly and colored in an orange jaguar, living in a forest of brown tree trunks and green leaves. It's not that he's shy or maladjusted--he gets along with the other kids well and seems perfectly happy--it's just that he doesn't carry the normal ego trappings of a regular five year old. It's like he's just waiting to get to college so he can really show us what he's about. At lunch--this is the image that sticks in my mind--I watched all the kids picking at their lasagna, throwing bits of bread at each other, whacking each other, yelling at each other. Teachers surrounding them, directing them back to their seats, telling them to eat their apple slices. In the middle of the maelstrom sat Lucas, staring into space, diligently eating a seaweed (seaweed!) snack that had been prepared by his parents. I could just see his little mind working...I think it was saying,"Look at these idiots around me. Where did I leave that copy of the New York Times?" Probably the future of green technology right there.

Another girl, Jerlyn, is great because she has style that would have made her part of Oscar Wilde's inner circle. She says everything in a dramatic voice and already seems to have developed a sense of comic timing. We were talking about Halloween costumes a couple of weeks ago, and at first she told me hers was a secret. But she told me she would give me clues. "Well, she's very beautiful, she's very rich, and she flies all over the world." Is it Paris Hilton? I thought. "What is it? A princess?" I asked. "Nooo," she said,"a fairy." I guess fairies are rich in her world. Today, a few of us were looking at Myles' jaguar picture, and I commented that I liked the colors he had used a lot--bright tomato orange and turquoise. "Those are rock and roll colors," said Jerlyn."Do you want to know why he used those colors?" she asked. "Why?" "Because this" she said as she held up his drawing,"is a piece of rock and roll."

This is a fabulously fun time, so long as they don't have sharp objects.