Snow: Making magic in sales requires ‘riding on a smile and a shoestring”

asnow@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2013 

Not long ago, three young men came to a friend’s door on a Sunday morning.

They were salesmen. Their product was religion – their brand.

I can’t think of a tougher task than talking people into swapping their faith for a faith that is foreign to them or talking to someone with no faith at all.

Successful salesmanship requires a special talent and charismatic fervor for the challenge, as well as the bravado to face the prospect of having doors slammed in your face – or worse.

As a salesman, I’d starve in short order. I couldn’t give away ice-cream cones in Hades. To someone who answered the doorbell to me, I’d likely began my pitch with, “You wouldn't want to buy a set of encyclopedias, would you? I thought not. Goodbye. Sorry to have bothered you.”

Perhaps my most memorable salesman was the “Pain King” salesman who came to the farm every few months when I was a kid. He sold an assortment of odds and ends. My mother bought little except a three months’ supply of Watkins vanilla flavoring.

One day, as the fellow was leaving, he backed into our well house, knocking it over and leaving his A-model Ford astride the well itself.

My older brother brought Mike and Frank, our two mules, and managed to pull the car off the well. I don’t think the salesman ever returned.

Salesman supreme

I recently dropped in at the nearby Lowe’s supply store and ran into an old friend who works there. Now there’s a salesman for you!

Jerry Napier and I go back a long way. He once operated a lawn mower sales and repair shop on Glenwood Avenue just beyond Crabtree Valley, even before there was a Crabtree Valley shopping center. Watching him work was pure pleasure.

One day a man with a little boy in tow walked in. “That’s a fine-looking young man you have there. He’d make a good trade on a new mower,” Jerry said cheerfully.

“Push model or self-propelled?” the father replied.

“Why, a fine lad like that? A self-propelled job,” Jerry said, as he fished a coin from his pocket and gave it to the boy.

“I'm so glad you dropped by. I've been having trouble with that gum machine over there,” he said. “You look like a smart young man. How about going over there and seeing if you can get it to work.”

The youngster walked over and inserted the coin. The machine spat out two gumballs.

“Now look at that. A young genius!” Jerry exclaimed. “Why, you just keep that gum, son, and I sure do thank you for fixing that old machine.”

On another occasion, a prospective customer examining an off-brand mower sighed, “I’d really like a Snapper but I can't afford it.”

Jerry jumped on the opening like a chicken on a June bug, explaining all the benefits of the Snapper over the other brand. He emphasized the mower’s ability to pick up the clippings so cleanly.

“Only trouble with this mower is your wife will want to keep it in the house so it’ll be handy when she vacuums her shag carpets,” he said.

The customer, of course, bought the more expensive mower.

Selling ourselves

Perhaps the most famous salesman is playwright Arthur Miller's tragic figure Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.”

After decades as a salesman, Willy was put out to pasture with a wife to support and no income.

After Willy’s suicide, his brother Charley explained: “Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut. He don’t tell you the law and he don’t give you medicine.

“He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back, it’s an earthquake. And then you get a couple of spots on your hat and you’re finished.”

We’re all salespersons of a sort. Our product is ourselves.

In wooing a possible mate, we sell ourselves as a worthy spouse or partner prospect.

The same applies during job interviews. How we sell our personality is almost as important as the meticulously composed resume we take along.

We have to be careful not to come across as a “back-to-school” bargain. Nor do we want to sell ourselves as the Hope Diamond. Somewhere between a push model and a self-propelled will do.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or

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