2 Out of 3
I hated selling vacuum cleaners. I took the job because I wanted to challenge myself and have the freedom to explore the Hattiesburg area. It was a challenge just trying to stick with it, I had the freedom to explore and in general, it—well—sucked.
The Sales Manager was a small, sharp-faced man called Jake. Raised snakes and looked like one so you can guess what the salesmen called him behind his back. Jake had only one focus: sales. How many did you sell? was his constant greeting, even at 6 AM. Yes, 6 AM.
At first I was bothered by having to respond “None.” Jakes eyes would freeze, he’d blink slowly 3-4 times, like a… reptile, and he’d turn away as if I had ceased to exist. For all I know, to him I had. As the weeks went by, saying “None” was a pleasure, as it defied everything he stood for. (And because I was making money on the side. Details later.)
Paul was the office’s star, a slim, balding man with impeccable grooming in “formal casual,” his way of describing dressing well enough to be respected, but casual enough to avoid intimidation. Women loved him and he received several calls a day for “service.” He was happily married, though, and he did sell a vacuum cleaner almost every day. In the Renaissance, he would have been the Captain of the Guard with ladies writing him secret letters filled with poetic musings.
Billy Bob—and believe me, I wouldn’t make that up—was a paunchy good ol’ boy who loved huntin’and fishin’. He said his secret to selling a vacuum was to put it together in smart snaps and clicks. He told me once that when any guy saw him click them tubes together like armin’ a rifle, the guy was sold. Billy Bob called me an intellectual, which was always a bad word when he said it. Still, he gave me my first sale, a “college lady” who didn’t like his down-home country style. Sold her the vacuum in six minutes, the time it took for her to write a check and for me to carry the machine in.
Hank was an alcoholic who started drinking about 8 AM and sold most of his vacuums after 1 PM, when his tongue and belligerence got loose. There were days when he out-sold Paul, but most of Hank’s sales were canceled a day or two later. See, he’d get mad if he went through his spiel and you didn’t want to buy. In the morning, he’d smile and leave. In the afternoon, he’d threaten to take your old vacuum and throw it away. He often did. But he sold enough to stay in Jake’s terrarium.
Jim was the Service Manager, a veteran of the Korean War married to a Japanese lady. He spoke fluent Japanese, was a whiz with mechanics and read voraciously. I spent more time talking with him than selling, and because he was limited by Social Security and Jake knew it, we devised a system of taking Hank’s returned units, reclassifying them as inventory for parts and I’d sell them at half-price, splitting 50-50 with Jim. Suddenly, I was making $400-$500 a week and cavorting on Easy Street.
And Jake kept asking “How many did you sell?” Only now I was lying.
The best Jake-tweak happened on a Wednesday. I was pretending to go door-to-door (covering the scheme) when I stopped at a large Georgian (or Victorian?) mansion. My knock was answered with a shout and seconds later, the door flew open.
“What do you want?” A small man, dark-faced, sharp eyes squinting at me like I had slapped his favorite parrot.
I said “Good morning” and told him my spiel, noticing the large white wall-to-wall carpet in the foyer. Or living room. Whatever.
He shook his head. “We already have another brand. The wife loves it.” He started to close the door, then snapped “Do you play chess?”
I said yes and he invited me in.
That afternoon, I walked into the office and started to tell my story. At the point I stopped above, Jake jumped in and said excitedly “You let him win and sold him a vacuum cleaner!”
I scowled. “No. I won two out of three.”
Jake’s face fell. He didn’t even blink: he just walked away.
Billy Bob said he didn’t know how to play chess like us intellectuals.
Jim gave me a big thumbs-up.
Hank was snoring in the back room, propped against the wall.
Paul watched Jake leave, smiled at me and said “You’re not a salesman, Gil.”
I nodded and offered to play chess with him. He agreed, in exchange for the address of that house.
I beat him twice. He sold the lady of that house a vacuum cleaner the next day.