I confess. I used to sell vacuum cleaners door to door.
It was 1973, and I had just returned to Cape Cod from Amherst, Massachusetts, where I had finished my junior year in less than stellar fashion. I was getting married in September, so I was looking for a job—any job.
While standing in line in a convenience store, I met two guys who started telling me how much money they were making and asked if I had a job. I didn’t, and when they said I could make up to $1,000 a week, I was hooked. They told me come see them the following morning and they’d get me started.
The next day I arrived bright and early and ready to go. The sign said Kirby Vacuums, but I had never heard of them. Never mind, I’m going to be rich. I head in to meet the sales manager, figuring he’d get me started with the training.
“Are you the new guy?” he asked. “I guess so,” I replied. “Okay, get in the car and we’ll get started,” he said, as he pointed to a Lincoln Continental. Obediently, I got in the car and waited for him. Finally, he slid in behind the wheel and we started driving.
“Okay, kid,” he said, “here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to drop you off in a neighborhood with the vacuum, accessories, and order book. You’re going to knock on doors and try to sell the vacuum, and when you do, give me a call and I’ll talk you through the whole process.” He dropped me off in a quiet residential neighborhood and left me with an order book and a large, heavy box with the equipment. I just stood there as I watched him drive away.
Since I had no real clue what I was supposed to do, I grabbed the presentation book, sat down on the curb and started to read. I learned a lot about Kirby vacuum cleaners that morning, but I still had no idea what I was supposed to do, so I sat there … all day. Around 5:00, Frank, the sales manager came back to find me, and there I was—right where he’d left me. When he asked what I had done all day and I told him, he shook his head sadly. He told me that he wasn’t sure this was the right business for me, but to show up again the next day and he’d give me one more shot.
Again I arrived early and got in Frank’s car. As we headed out, he asked me if I wanted to sell three vacuum cleaners? Of course, that’s why I’m here, I thought. Here is exactly what he said:
“If you want to sell three vacuum cleaners, you have to knock on a hundred doors. If you do that, you’ll sell three machines. A good salesman will sell five, and a great salesman will sell seven or eight. Now what I want you to do is to grab your box and your books and then run up to the first door on the street. When I say run, I mean run, because I want you to be out of breath when you ring that bell. When the woman answers, I want you to say exactly this: ‘You don’t want to buy a vacuum cleaner today, do you?’ If she says no, then grab your stuff and run to the next door and do the same thing. Sooner or later, someone will invite you into their house. Go on in and show them the damn machine. If they tell you they want to buy it, call me and I’ll talk you through it.” That was my entire sales training.
Since I had nothing better to do and he wasn’t coming back to pick me up until 5:00, I figured I’d better try to do what he told me. I grabbed my stuff and ran up to the first house. Ringing the bell I tried to catch my breath. When a woman answered, I repeated what Frank had told me to say, and she slammed the door right in my face. Okay then, off to the next house. I did this for about four hours.
Exhausted and sweaty, I was ready to go back and sit on the curb again until Frank came to get me. Knocking on what I thought was going to be my last door, I repeated my spiel and stood there staring at her. “What kind is it?” she asked. When I told her it was a Kirby, she said that she had heard of them, and could she see it. In a daze, I followed her into the living room and opened the box. I had no idea how vacuums worked, but the lady took pity on me and showed me how to put it together. She then started to vacuum her rug. When she’d finished cleaning, she asked me how much it cost, and I told her I had no idea, but if I could use her phone I could call my boss and find out. She led me into the kitchen and handed me the phone, and I called Frank. True to his word, he talked me through a bizarre sales presentation: He’d tell me what to say, and I’d repeat it to the woman and then tell Frank her response. Eventually we got all the paperwork done, and I had my first sale. Later, when Frank picked me up, he congratulated me on becoming a salesman. Puffed with pride, I knew I could do this.
It wasn’t long before I learned that I hated selling vacuum cleaners—but I did learn a lot about both people and sales. I never did make $1,000 a week, but I did pretty well, and had some money in the bank when I got married. I also learned that a lot of the stories you hear about door-to-door salesmen and lonely housewives is true. But that’s another blog, and maybe I’ll tell you, maybe I won’t. You can keep a secret, right?