You Gotta Sell

My friend Rich Marin’s May 30th newsletter/Blog post, which you can read here, is about his grade school sales efforts which were focused on winning free trips to summer camp as a kid. It made me think of my own early introduction to sales. When having lunch with my friend and fellow Arizona Commerce Authority EIR Tom Blondi today, we concluded many business person success stories likely featured learning to sell as a key element, even when those careers involved non-sales disciplines. Getting people to do what you want them to do with them thinking it is their idea and preference is important in a great number of endeavors.

Growing up in Fairmont, Minnesota in a family with similar financial hardships to Rich’s, I spent hours thinking of ways to acquire money. I wanted a stereo, a nice shirt, and a motor scooter. With so little money in our family, if I wanted any of these things, it was up to me. My first efforts, mowing lawns during the summer and shoveling snow in the winters, proved difficult. My younger brother Leif was better at it than I was, and so we often got these jobs together and shared the profits. But I was not a good worker. An inability to stay focused on the job could have been the result of a couple of factors — health and ADD. An underlying heart problem would get spotted on a high school physical when I was 15, but this was grade school and there was no explanation for my lack of stick-to-it-ness and stamina other than laziness. As a cub scout, I began getting “Boys Life” magazine. It was there I spotted an ad to become a representative for True Grit magazine. This magazine was sold by over 30,000 children collecting dimes from more than 700,000 American small town homes in the 1950s. An ad in Richie Rich comic books suggested that Richie’s father got his start in business selling True Grit newspapers. Seeing the ad and reading of Richie Rich’s adventures, it was a short leap to imagining myself with incredible wealth, living in an expensive mansion, and having everything money could buy.

Soon I was going door-to-door, signing up subscribers, collecting money, and delivering newspapers every week. It was long work for little pay, but dramatically preferable to shoveling snow. Next, I learned of a company that would pay me to sell greeting cards with a family’s name pre-printed on the cards in gold ink. Compensation was prizes redeemable when certain sales levels were met – a new stereo, a neat belt, model cars, and airplanes, and other products designed to stimulate the imagination of young boys. I was a star! In retrospect, I’m sure our neighbors shrank in horror when they saw me coming up the driveway – “Oh no, what is he going to try and sell us now?” Over time I learned to say things to get people to buy – “I only need one more order to get the big prize,” or “Imagine what your friends and relatives will think when they see your family’s name, handsomely engraved in golden ink at the bottom of this year’s greeting card.” For the most part, I was unaware of the lessons I was learning, except for this one that I learned something about myself: I had to first convince myself the product was great and a good deal before I could sell it. I was never able to generate any enthusiasm for selling something I didn’t personally believe in or feel was a “good deal.”

In high school and college, I found inspiration from motivational creeds by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and Zig Zigler, which I’ve written about here. My first commissioned sales position with a good bit of genuine sales training came when I joined Minneapolis-based Schaak Electronics. Dick Schaak had taken over Schaak Electronics when his father died in the early 1970s and built it into a multi-store chain selling audio products. The reprint from the Minneapolis Star Tribune with Dick’s picture and the headline “Double-millionaire at age 34,” inspired me then and I still have it. Towru Nagano, one of Dick’s steadiest lieutenants, was in charge of sales training. While creating little that was original, Nagano pulled together an impressive sales training program, borrowing from the leading sales experts of the day. Unlike some of my contemporaries at Schaak who did not take training seriously, I soaked it all up and was soon winning sales contests right and left. I was named “Rookie of the Year,” and won cash awards and once, even a new motorcycle. Nearing the end of the 1970s, I’d climbed from assistant manager to store manager and eventually to managing several stores. I stuck with Schaak through its 1976 bankruptcy, learning a host of business lessons in the process. I was drafted to help Schaak move beyond audio sales and into selling computers from Apple, Atari, Cromemco, the IBM PC, Ohio Scientific, and others, creating a new group of stores called Digital Den.

Accepting on of my first sales awards at Schaak. A corner of Towru Nagano’s face is visible on the right.

While books espousing new sales techniques have never stopped popping onto the market each year (The Psychology of Selling, Strategic Selling, Perfect Selling, Secrets of Closing the Sale and Spin Selling), the sales process hasn’t changed much. Most critical is the initial conversation which was called “qualifying” when I learned it. This is the step when you find out from a prospective buyer what it is they want. Good salespeople tend to extend this part of the process, and as it turns out, it is the most important. Done correctly, a prospective buyer will explain what they want to buy, what color and features, what he/she is willing or able to pay, when they want to buy it, and from whom they wish to buy. But it requires the salesperson to shut up and listen, sometimes difficult for extrovert salespeople eager to demonstrate their breadth of knowledge. But, if you’ve done the qualifying step correctly and for long enough, the “sales” part of the process, is easy. It’s just saying “Here is what you want,” and explaining how it meets the needs that were outlined in the prior conversation. If done correctly, the sale is simple, easy, quick, and satisfactory for all involved. Salespeople get bad reputations when they attempt to sell people things they don’t want and don’t need.

Like Rich Marin, over the years I have found this fundamental understanding of the sales process has served me well in many ways. Every job interview was a sales job as was every board meeting. Sales experience taught me more than anything else that listening is critical to every successful interaction. Whether greeting cards, stereos or myself, I succeeded when I listened to what my buyer said.

First speeding ticket in my Lotus

 

With my purchase of a 1969 Lotus Elan in 1971, I became the only Lotus owner in Rochester, MN. As such, I was occasionally pulled over by the police, mostly to answer questions like, “What kind of a car is this?” or “Who makes Lotus?” However, when I tried to outrun one of those cops, things changed. This is the story of how I got out of a speeding ticket written for “120 mph+.”

A first drive in the Lotus Elan had left me stunned.  I’d never experienced anything like it.  Rounding the curves during my test drive near Munger Imports at the far end of 4th street in Rochester, MN, the car not only seemed to hug the road, it felt like it had been launched from a slingshot as it accelerated out of each corner.  I instantly realized I’d need to have a lot more time in this car to be able to drive it well, clearly a far better car than I was a driver.

Finding a buyer for my Triumph Spitfire, I bought this mysterious and wonderful vehicle, a car I still own nearly 50 years later. The night in question occurred during my first year with the car. I was returning home from a manager’s meeting at Schaak Electronics HQ in Minneapolis.   It was a warm, clear summer night as I headed south on Hwy 52, a four-lane divided highway. Just south of Cannon Falls I somehow attracted the attention of a car full of guys, perhaps high school age. They made the classic male testosterone-fueled aggressive automotive gesture – pulling level with my driver’s window, moving parallel with me for a bit while revving the engine. Then they’d floor their accelerator and speed off.  After a few hundred feet they’d slow down, allow me to catch and pass them, then they’d repeat the process again, while I kept my speed consistent at 60-65 mph and attempted to ignore them. This maneuver was repeated several times, sometimes with guys in the open windows facing me yelling obscenities.

About the 4th time this occurred, I’d had enough. As they dropped back again, this time when they were level with me, I dropped the gearbox from 4th to 3rd and floored the accelerator. If you know nothing about cars, let me briefly explain the concept of weight to horsepower ratio (PWR). You simply divide the power output of a vehicle by its weight. For example, in a car that weighs 2000 pounds and has 250 HP, the PWR will be as follows: 250 / 2000 = 0.125 hp for every pound of car. My memory says they were driving an older 4-door Impala. Those cars weighed in at 3,600 lbs dry. Add fluids and 4 average-sized farm guys and you’re looking at 4,500 lbs, easy. The 1960 Chevy Impala 4-door sedan was powered by a 235 cubic inch, 135 HP engine. On its best day, the Elan had only 115 HP, so the Impala out powered it by 20 HP.   However, here’s the big difference. The Elan weighed only 1,550 lbs. Even with my 150 lbs, I weighed less than half what they did. With horsepower that close and weight that much different, and with both cars already moving, the term “leaving them in the dust,” came to mind as I rapidly pulled away up to about 90 mph, when I shifted into 4th and again pushed my foot to the floor and kept it there until the car was not accelerating any more. As my friend Brett Engel who owns a racing version of the Lotus Elan said, it really wasn’t much of a contest. “Even without the radical difference in weight, your Elan has far better suspension, better weight distribution and lower polar inertia, and far better aerodynamics.”  (Note: The Lotus Elan is such a magic car, at the end of this story, you may wish to head over to my blog to read about it. Here is a direct link the section of my blog about the Elan, which I’ve updated for the publication of this story.)

Watching the headlights of them behind me, I gradually slowed down. But the guys in the Chevy were soon back, apparently wanting to make another run at it.

At this point, I saw the sign near Hader where Hwy 57 would take me directly south to Kasson, MN in Dodge County, were I had recently bought a house. As they raced their motor and rapidly pulled ahead of me only to quickly return level with me once again, I waited and then braked rapidly to make the exit off to the right, onto Hwy 57 south. If you think a light car like an Elan accelerates quickly, you would be correct. But it’s nothing compared to how quickly it will stop. The Elan’s 4-wheel disc brakes slowed me to an easy turn off speed while the Impala had no chance of making the turn. Although they tried to stop, their car continued straight on Hwy 52, where the next exit was at least a mile down the road. Even they knew enough to not try backing up on an Interstate highway at night.

As I drove south on Hwy 57, I saw nothing for the next 10-15 miles and gradually relaxed. No sooner had I concluded they were history, than I saw a set of headlights rapidly coming up behind me. Now I was worried. This was no longer a large, wide, forgiving Interstate but a rural, 2-lane blacktop. As the headlights approached, I sped up but kept watching behind through my rearview mirror. Sure enough, as my speed increased, so did the car behind me. Remembering my prior encounter on the Interstate and guessing now that perhaps alcohol may be involved, I decided to get out of there. I knew I had a long straight away ahead that dropped gradually down to a bridge and then an uphill stretch, also straight. I decided if I was going to lose them, now was the time. As I hit the downhill stretch and their lights dropped out of sight, went down a gear to 3rd and felt the rush of acceleration for a few seconds as I floored it, and then shifted back up to 4th. The Elan’s little twin cam engine howled with delight as I accelerated down the hill. I felt I was closer to flat out than I’d ever been. At this speed, the Elan feels almost more like an airplane wanting to lift off the ground. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead as I threaded the slight narrowing of the road and flew across the bridge. With my foot still buried to the floor, and half way up the hill on the other side, I risked a quick glance in the rear view mirror. That was when I saw the rack of lights on top of the police cruiser pursuing me. “Aw Shit,” I thought, “I’m in for it now.”

Cresting the top of the hill, I immediately utilized the Elans stopping prowess and pulled off to the side of the road. Far off the side of the road, as I had an idea of what would happen next, and it did. A police car crested the hill at high speed, saw me as he raced past and frantically applied his brakes. It still took at least 100 feet before he could stop. He backed slowly up and I watched him as he pulled his car in front of mine and got out. By this time, I’d exited the Elan and was leaning against the driver’s door.

The first words out of his mouth were, “What the hell kind of car is that?” and “Why the hell were you driving so fast?” Failing to come up with any better excuse, as calmly as I could, I related my I-52 experience and my thinking he was “one of those guys,” back to try and run me off the road. I may have left out the part of me blowing them off on the Interstate. But I explained that I feared for my life and was in a panic, attempting to get to the police station in Mantorville to seek refuge.

I’ll say this. He listened to my tale, although I’m not sure he believed any of it. He finally wrote me a ticket for “120 mph+,” saying, “I don’t know how fast you were going, but my car’s odometer (a Ford Police cruiser) only goes to 120 mph and you were pulling away from me, so I’m saying 120+. I took the ticket and drove the rest of the way home. God, I was in trouble. The next day I called Bob Suk, the attorney who’d helped me with some real estate deals and told him my story. I asked him to represent me on this ticket as I was pretty sure they were going to throw the book at me, at the very least, a big fine or maybe, even jail time and I needed a lawyer. I had no idea or reference for this sort of thing.

Dodge County Courthouse

And now, boys and girls: do you remember the old adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart – and to always tell the truth? When I called the Dodge County court house to plead Not Guilty and get my court appearance date, I was told they’d need to call me back. A week went by and I heard nothing. Then my attorney called the following week and said he’d set up a meeting with the judge at the Dodge County court house and gave me the date and time. On the scheduled day, I met Bob Suk in the parking lot of the Dodge County courthouse and he explained a few things. It turns out that Dodge County could not afford to have its own prosecuting attorney. As a result, they contract with Rochester’s legal community for this service. Rochester attorneys take on this typically light workload as an adjunct to their regular practice, rotating the responsibility every year to someone different, so one person wasn’t always the same one to be burdened with this task. Well, guess who’s turn it was to be Dodge County’s prosecutor that year? Ah yes, you are correct. It was my attorney, Bob Suk.

It seems he called the judge and explained that one of his clients was faced with a serious moving violation charge and, since it was his client, he’d have to recuse himself on this case, as he would be defending me and could not act as prosecutor. To prosecute me, Dodge County would have to find an interim prosecutor, contract for and pay that person. The prospect was a huge headache and a paperwork nightmare and so the judge had asked if we could meet to see if there might be some way out of this mess. Suk told me that once in the judge’s office I was to only answer the precise questions directed to me and nothing more. “Steve, I know you like to talk, but this time you need to shut up and only answer the questions.” As we entered the judge’s office, I saw the police officer who’d written the ticket sitting there, in his uniform. I thought, “Well, this can’t be good.” After introductions, the judge asked the officer to recount what had happened that night that led to him writing me a ticket for “120 mph+.” After describing the circumstances, the judge asked the officer if the defendant (me) had offered any explanation for my driving behavior. The officer recounted what I’d told him about my encounter with rowdy guys in an Impala and I had told him I’d been speeding as I wished to find a police officer in Mantorville. The judge looked at me and asked, “Is this what you told the officer?” and I replied in the affirmative. He then asked me if it was true and again, I said yes. He looked around the room for a bit, then said, “Well, Mr. Larsen, we’ve decided to let you off with a warning this time, but we don’t ever want to see any more driving behavior like this again, is that clear?” I said “Yes Sir,” and a few minutes later we left.

Before I could congratulate Mr. Bob Suk on the result, he said, “Do you know why that just happened?” I said “No, what do you mean?” Bob explained, “Last week when I spoke to the judge, I relayed the story you told me about your being pulled over. That officer just told the judge the exact same thing. When that happens, judges feel they’re getting the truth, and you get points for that with some.” I smiled. Then he said, “But I’d still watch your speed around here. They’re going to be keeping an eye on you.”

Epilogue: If you’d like to know about my Lotus Elan, a car I am approaching a 50 year ownership history with, do follow this link.