In 1992, I was working for an extremely aggressive outside sales organization that was a B2B long distance phone service reseller.
I worked out of the Washington, D.C. office and the company was thinking of opening an office in Richmond, Va. Since I had been thrown out of most of the office buildings in the Washington, D.C. area, I jumped at the chance to prospect in new territory.
I was teamed up with Craig, another young and aggressive sales recruit. He had just returned from his corporate sales training class, so he was eager to try out his new “skills.”
The cold calling started normally enough. We went into a few buildings and went to the top floor so we could work our way down. Usually, we sold floor-to-floor. But sometimes, it was a game of cat-and-mouse. After business gatekeepers called security on us, we’d start a pattern of going down two floors and going back up one to avoid being caught.
We’d enter the business, ask the gatekeeper if we could speak to the person in charge of business communication decisions and wait for the reply.
If they said, “You mean the president?”, our trained response was, “That’s exactly why we’re here!” If they said, “Do you have an appointment?”, we answered, “That’s exactly why we’re here!”
(The answer was almost always “That’s exactly why we’re here.”)
It wasn’t a complete lie. We did have a reason to be there — to sell them long distance service — but we couldn’t just say that. We were taught to mislead gatekeepers and be very vague about what we were doing there. Many of them saw through us, but sometimes we’d get lucky and have a newbie at the front desk. They’d open the gates to the kingdom, and we could just walk in the office and head straight into the president’s office and hammer them to buy our service.
After being escorted out of four buildings, we decided to hit a few storefronts. It was usually a little easier to reach the decision maker in stores, but they were more spread out and not as efficient to canvass than office buildings.
But we wanted a sale. There was no way Richmond was going to blank us that day. We were going to one-call-close somebody that day, whether they liked it or not.
Here’s where things went bad.
Craig, who was itching to get a sale, was frustrated from being thrown out of buildings, so when we entered a copy store to cold call it, he was a little on edge.
We asked the first person we saw if we could speak to the owner and he said it was him, so Craig started his pitch. The man was not happy — he must have gotten called on a lot by outside salesmen. He cut Craig off and yelled at us to get out of his shop. Craig’s frustration boiled over and he swore at and insulted the shop owner as we walked out.
When we got outside the shop, we saw a motorcycle cop who just happened to be parked outside. Since we were pretty sure the owner was going to follow us outside, we ducked into a shop two doors down to hide. It turned out to be a women’s dress boutique.
We needed to buy time, but Craig couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand not pitching the lady. He couldn’t stand not making a sale.
This is what overly aggressive sales training does to new recruits. He had to pitch this lady. Common sense goes out the window when you are expected to sell with immediate results.
After he made his pitch, we were asked to leave the store in about two-and-a-half seconds flat.
The motorcycle cop was waiting for us, and so was the copy store owner.
“What y’all boys up to?” the police officer asked.
“Just working, sir,” I said.
As the son of an ex-NYPD homicide detective, I learned never to mouth off to a cop. Craig obviously did not come from a law enforcement family.
“Yes, we’re working sir, and right now we have to get back to work because our time is money and right now you’re wasting our time.”
Let’s just stop for a moment, shall we? This was not one of the role plays we did over and over in training. They don’t teach you to deal with this type of encounter — it’s just common sense.
“Sir, what my colleague is trying to say is that we have limited time to work today in Richmond, so unless you need us for something may we go?” I asked.
We had to give him our IDs and Craig gave him our CEO’s name and number, telling the officer that our boss demanded that we cold call and sell. I just kept telling Craig to shut up.
Since the worst thing Craig did was insult the owner and then the officer, there wasn’t any reason to arrest us, but the man could have messed with us.
“I better never ever catch you boys in my city again, don’t you ever come back, and tell your company president to not open an office here,” the cop said after giving us a harsh talking-to.
We left, and I told Craig we were lucky that the cop didn’t arrest us for being idiots. He still didn’t get it.
We were taught to be aggressive and hammer away in order to get the sale. Sometimes it went too far. In this case it did.
Sales should benefit the client first, and the salesman second. There is no place for insulting a potential client in our business. There are always going to be long days — frustrating days, and days where you don’t hit your numbers. But if you’re going to sell professionally, you can’t take it personally.
I had times early in my career where I let it get to me too, but I learned that prospective clients are gold and should always be treated with respect. Everyone should be treated with respect. That cop walked away with a negative attitude toward our firm, and while he may have never been able to prevent an office opening in Richmond, a successful business is not built on bad PR.
Be professional. Make your calls. Be courteous. Do sales the right way.