Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bookfield, Sales School, Part 3

Eventually there was a knock on the door and it was the guys, Chip, Davie and Gregg, letting us know it was time for dinner. We all took the elevator to the lobby as one happy little group. Everyone was so energetic and upbeat. The five of us exited the hotel and struck out walking for the Shoney’s Big Boy about five blocks away. Like many groups walking together, we walked down the sidewalk in twos. I was next to Mary, and we chatted away happily about college life. Chip walked up beside us as if he wanted to talk to me. Mary moved in front with Davie. Gregg was ahead of us.

“How was your trip down to Nashville?” he asked looking into my eyes and smiling.

“The flight was okay, but the bus from the Hermitage wasn’t there and I had to pay for a cab.”

“That’s too bad. I hope it didn’t cost too much. At least you’re here with us now, and I’m glad that you came.” He put his arm around my waist in a friendly way. I returned the gesture, giving him a little pat on the side. It felt so supportive to have his arm around me, but I expected that he would withdraw it after a brief time. He didn’t. So we walked all the way to Shoney’s arm-in-arm. I wondered if he was flirting with me and the thought of it excited me because he was so damned handsome.

When we got to Shoney’s, Chip removed his arm from my waist before any of our group could look back to see. It just kind of left me wondering what that was all about. Chip sat next to me at dinner. We all had greasy hamburgers with fries and coleslaw. Chip and Gregg joked how they ate all of their meals at this Shoney’s last year because it was cheap, and it was the only place that served breakfast at six o’clock in the morning. We agreed to meet there the next morning, eat breakfast and return to the Hermitage in time for the seven o’clock meeting. We finished dinner and walked back to the Hermitage. Again I walked next to Mary. The men walked behind us, laughing and joking. Mary and I were still getting to know each other, and we didn’t pay particular attention to the guys’ conversation.

Mary and I went to room 515 together. According to the schedule, this would be our last opportunity to get a good night’s sleep. Also, we had to be up by at least five-thirty in the morning to meet the guys at Shoney’s. We put on our night gowns and lay down on the bed. She had already chosen the left side, which was alright with me. It was too hot in the room to have anything but the sheet over us. The busyness of the day was over and I started to think. I guess she did too.

“Sue, where do you think we’ll end up for the summer?”

“I don’t know. The furthest south I’ve ever been is the most northern part of South Carolina.”

“I’ve never been south before either. I mean except for this trip to Nashville. What was it like in South Carolina?”

“I don’t really remember. I was only thirteen and my family went to see a total eclipse of the sun.”

“Really, I’ve never seen that.”

“What I remember most was that it got twilight dark during mid day, the birds stopped singing and the passing cars put their headlights on.”

“I’m a little bit scared.” she suddenly admitted.

“Me too. But at least we’ll be together, and that we know for sure.”

She reached her hand out to me and we clasped our hands for a few minutes. It was very comforting to have her there close to me with all of the uncertainty ahead of us. I felt almost ashamed for asking for a rollaway bed and then telling her I did. I don’t think that she had asked for one.

The entire group, about 150 people met together Monday morning at 7:00 AM for the start of training. We all sat in the hotel conference room on folding chairs with our identical light tan sales cases at our feet. I sat next to Mary. The twenty or so sales managers were all seated in the front row. First we were welcomed while ‘Me and Mrs. Jones (we’ve got a thing goin’ on)’, an old song by Billy Gregg, was played over the loud speaker system. We then listened to a motivational talk. The person who gave the talk was upbeat verging on manic.

Some group sloganeering took place after that. A slogan would be cheered by Robbie and the managers, and the audience was asked to repeat it. We never repeated it loud enough for Robbie, though, and so the repetitions went on until I for one, was hoarse. It reminded me of the Marines, when recruits have to say, “Yes sir!” to the commanding officer as loudly as possible.

Next, the key factor in selling books, the approach, was demonstrated. On the risers at the front of the room, a working screen and storm door was set up. It was supposed to be Mrs. Jones’ front door. Robbie stood behind the door and played the role of Mrs. Jones, the potential customer. One at a time, sales managers had to go up onto the stage, knock on that door, give the approach and role play with Robbie. The first manager who went up would demonstrate the perfect approach. I strained to see and listened carefully. He knocked on the door three times and then retreated a few paces from the door. Robbie stopped the action and explained how essential this move away from the door was. We did not want Mrs. Jones to feel threatened when she opened her door. We wanted her to be drawn to us, to lean on the door, grasping the handle, straining to hear our every word. The demonstration continued. The manager said, “Hi there, Mrs. Jones! My name is Mark Treland and I’ve been calling on all of the church folks in the neighborhood. Just wanted to come by and see you. You all do go to some local church, don’t you? May I come in?” He made a slight gesture with his hand towards the door as if to precipitate it being opened. His delivery was slow, and deliberate. He used a southern drawl and his eyes twinkled in a friendly and sweet manner. His face looked sincere and focused as if Mrs. Jones was the only human being on earth that he had any interest in. He was absolutely mesmerizing and I was twenty feet away. Robbie gave the desired response. He, as Mrs. Jones, unquestioningly opened the door.

“Wow, could I do that?” I wondered to myself. The skits continued. The next manager came up to the door in a cocky manner and knocked. I guess he was really nervous and forgot to back away from the door. Robbie yelled from the other side, “Get away from my door or I’ll shoot!” Everyone laughed at the manager that had erred.

“Let me try again…” he pleaded, knocking on the door again and backing off.

“Next!” yelled Robbie curtly from behind the door. The audience laughed again. Every manager had to go up alone and face that door with Robbie behind it. None of them were allowed to succeed, and all of them were mocked for their failure. Robbie slammed the door in their faces, and screamed at them. At first the managers were confident, but as each one was mocked, the next was progressively more nervous when facing the door. Robbie explained that we should not be intimidated or personally offended by a door slammed in our faces. We should expect it. Every slammed door brought us closer to an open one, and a sale. Each ‘no’, brought one closer to a ‘yes’.

I heard what he was saying, but found myself deathly afraid that I would be called upon to go to the front of the room to give my approach, and be mocked, even though I knew in advance that only the managers would be called. It was clear to me however, that we were all vulnerable to public shaming, as was seen fit by Robbie at any time. I sure as hell was going to try to stay on his good side, and I guessed that that was the point of the opening demonstration too.

I was really glad when the group teaching part was over and we broke into little groups to practice the approach. We broke into work groups of four or five people plus a sales manager to role play the approach and later give the completely memorized book demonstrations to each other. I hadn’t completely memorized all of the book demonstrations yet. I knew the one for the Bible Dictionary and Family Bible Library, but was shaky on the Health book and educational set. The practice role playing was a good opportunity to learn the demonstrations once and for all, and there certainly was motivation to do so. To my relief, I was not the only one who didn’t know them all by heart. Mary knew them better than me, but she needed work on the Health book demonstration too.

We were taught to learn a southern drawl as soon as possible. The sales managers took turns coaching us using their past experiences. At any time, one could be called on to give a demonstration publicly or to Robbie entirely from memory. I feared this. It would be like a college oral exam in front of all of ones’ peers, no stress there. Right. All of the subsequent group events were high pressured. Sales managers who role played demonstrations in front of the entire audience were chided and debased for failure to sell books to the always difficult ‘Mrs. Jones’. Group repetition of Parchment slogans continued daily. We practiced saying, “You cute little bugger, don’t you ever die!” to ourselves. Chip’s group, including me, went to breakfast, lunch and dinner together. No free time was scheduled, and typically to complete all assigned work, we stayed up until 1:00 or 2:00 AM each day. Needless to say, we only got about 4 hours of sleep each night.

I remember telephoning my mother one night. I told her that I felt that Parchment was trying to brainwash us. I was surprised when she replied, “Well honey, you can always come home.” Enough said, I was determined to stay. I couldn’t stand the thought of giving up and going home in the first week, or ever. I’d never hear the end of it about my failure from Mom, and more was at stake here. I had to earn my independence; no one said it would be easy. Right then and there, I made a pact with myself that I would do what ever I needed to keep the job with Parchment and survive the summer. I didn’t need to be brainwashed to learn to judge for myself how best to succeed selling books. So some or most people might be brainwashed, but not me. I could remain intact, thinking for myself.

That night I asked Mary, “Did you know that the tactics that the company is using are the same kind used for brainwashing groups of people? Do you think that the company is trying to brainwash us?”

She replied in a somewhat frightening monotone, “I am sure that everything the company is doing is in my best interest...” I felt kind of like the body snatchers had gotten her.

During the whole week, Chip continued to be flirtatious with me. A day after the walk arm-in-arm to Shoney’s he asked me, “Did you like that? Did you like my arm around you?” This was followed by a longing look.

“Yes.”, I said and I returned his look. He reached out and squeezed my hand and smiled. He leaned forward and gave me a little kiss on the lips. His lips were warm and wet. My heart pounded with excitement and I hoped he couldn’t hear it. He looked around as if to make sure no one had seen us, then we parted to attend our next meetings.

Later that night he took me aside in a hallway and asked if I liked him, and if I wanted to tour the hotel with him. I wasn’t exactly sure what he had in mind, but said, “Yes.” I was so attracted to him that I didn’t really feel in control. We held hands as we walked down the stairs to the basement of the hotel. There we found a deserted storage room filled with discarded mattresses and broken furniture. We sat down on a pile of mattresses and started kissing seriously. His hands roamed over my body and I held onto his strong shoulders.

Suddenly Chip whispered, “Don’t you think God would like to see us as he made us?”

At first I didn’t understand what he meant, so I said, “Excuse me?”

“Like God made us, when we were born.” he repeated seductively.

It was as if someone had thrown ice water on me. What did God or religion have to do with what he apparently wanted? Twisted! I was put off by his abruptness, too. I didn’t really go with him exploring the hotel with it in mind that we would have sex. Apparently he did. A relationship or even a date would have been nice. I decided that the whole venture with Chip was a terrible mistake. He thought that this disgusting line would make me strip for him? It was so insulting. I also wondered what other women bought the line. I sat up and said, “That line works for you?”

“Um, what’s the matter? I’m sorry; we can just hold each other if you like.”

“I’m really tired Chip and I’d like to go back to my room.” I didn’t voice my disgust with his tactics, however, because he was after all my sales manager. He did not seem offended, nor did he pressure me. He gallantly walked me to my room, to make sure I was okay. When I got there I didn’t tell Mary what had happened because she had been friends with Chip for a long time and I had no idea what their relationship was.

During the week we also learned all the details we needed to know to sell books. We learned how to scout the territory, read mailboxes and memorize names, and make connections through local churches to the residents. We learned how to manipulate the customer by getting that first ‘yes’ that gained entry to their home. From the time they opened the door to when the books were delivered at the end of the summer, and final balance collected we would control their every response. We learned how to pressure and intimidate the customer into making a purchase and handing over the deposit, even if they really didn’t want to. We would begin to fill the sales slip out before any sale was agreed to. Delivery was a deliberate exercise in control. We were supposed to rush in the door, and begin unwrapping the books all over the floor with great excitement hopefully attracting any children in the house. Mrs. Jones would be too ashamed not to accept the delivery and pay us the balance after that. Every aspect of day to day selling and survival was covered. We learned how to ask Mrs. Jones to feed us for free so that she would be shamed into it by saying, “I’d give you a quarter, Mrs. Jones for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” was the recommended line. There was even a separate lecture for women sales people on how to not become a victim and how to spot and handle troublesome men. That lecture did not do much to allay my fears that being out and about all summer could make me vulnerable to God knows what.

The schedule for every sales week of the summer would be the same. On Sundays, all money collected from the previous week was to be ‘remitted’ to the company with the week’s sales statement. The ‘remitted’ money would be held in an account for each sales person. The sales statement included expenses, number of hours worked each day; number of demonstrations delivered each day, daily and total sales, and all deposits. Attendance at Sunday sales meetings was required. Failure to miss two meetings in a row was grounds for termination. On Monday morning one was not to eat until one had sold a book to get the money for breakfast (hopefully). Working hours were from 8:00 AM to 9:00 PM Monday through Saturday. The goal was for us to work at least 80 hours per week. We were supposed to sell books every week of the summer, leaving one or two weeks at the end of the summer to deliver the books we sold. Our last day of the summer was to be spent being debriefed back at headquarters in Nashville. This was also when accounts would be settled and we would be paid what was earned all summer.

The goal was to sell enough books during the summer to make money to live on, and have money left over to bring back to school. To do this we needed to knock on enough doors, and get into enough houses so that we could give 15 full demonstrations every day. Parchment had it all worked out that this formula would result in the basic number of book sales to meet the goal. To be able to make all of these demonstrations in one day we had to spend no more than 20 minutes in each house. “Pretend your sales case is a time bomb you are sitting on ready to go off in 20 minutes if you don’t get out.”, said Robbie. “Every ‘no’ leads to a ‘yes’. Every slammed door brings one closer to the sale. Work the territory like a spider spinning a web, be methodical and don’t skip houses. All territory is good territory, there is no such thing as bad territory.”

Some of the ‘trainees’ suffered under the stress of the week. I remember one young man sat on his sales case in a corner of the hallway trembling and repeating the demonstrations over and over to him self. Each time he made a mistake he would chastise himself out loud. He and a few others ended up dropping out during sales training week because the stress was more than they could bear. Gossip about these ‘failures’ was abundant. Mostly these people were ridiculed because they couldn’t cut it. We were better than they because we stayed on.

Any complaint about the training or schedule was not well received. As a matter of fact, any show of doubt, dissent or even weakness was rewarded with a private, or worse yet, public browbeating by Robbie or a sales manager. I tried my best to stay in line and comply with any directives. We were also taught that under no circumstances were we to share our weaknesses or pain with any colleagues and especially not with our roommates, as it was bad for morale and might spoil their sales too.

One afternoon we visited Parchment headquarters in an industrial park outside of Nashville. The halls were lined with photos of successful sales people going back for years. I think that they went back to the 1930's. The black and white photos from that time were all of white men with crew cuts and many with horn rimmed glasses. Further down the hall, the pictures were in color and I saw an occasional woman or black who was a star sales person. Minorities and women were very rare, and I wondered why.

Financial aspects were more rumored than covered out right that day. The scuttlebutt was that a good summer for first year sales people was $3,000 to $5,000 net earnings. Success in the second year meant net earnings of $7,000 to $8,000 per summer, although earnings of $15,000 and up were not uncommon, and sales of $20,000-30,000 were rumored for people who sold three or more summers. Of course, in the second summer one could be a sales manager and get a cut of sales peoples’ earnings from the company’s share. In other words, Chip was going to get a cut of Mary’s, Davie’s and my sales this summer.

There wasn’t really enough room for us to practice our demos inside the building and it was really noisy in the halls with all of the sales people repeating demonstrations to each other. Chip suggested that I go outside on the lawn with him to practice. At first I was a little suspicious of his invitation, but when I got outside, Mary and Davie were already out there. It was much more peaceful outside in the sunshine. Mary and I quietly practiced with each other, taking turns being the sales person, or Mrs. Jones. Mary was a kind study partner. What we were doing was not unlike cramming for finals at college. Chip took turns practicing with us and giving us the benefit of his experience. What I remember most about that afternoon was the killdeer swooping around the building in the bright sunshine calling, “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee…!”

Excitement started to build toward Friday night, when territories were going to be announced. There was whooping and laughing in the halls when people found out their location assignments. Some quietly voiced disappointment with a particular locale or selection of roommates. I was glad that since Mary and I were the only women in sales school this week we already knew we would be roommates. Parchment would never have men and women room together. Finally, Mary and I learned that we were assigned to Athens, Georgia, a small college town not far from Atlanta that was also home to the University of Georgia. We had the whole town and surrounding Clark County to ourselves, and would, of course, be roommates. Neither of us had ever been that far south before. The area was unknown to us, but at least we knew where we were going.

A ride had been arranged for us with other sales people whose territory was adjacent to ours in Oconee County (south of Clark) and we were to leave from Nashville early Saturday morning.

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