I’ve never been a very good salesman. The evidence goes all the way back to childhood.
At some point during my grammar school days I decided I wanted a guitar. I couldn’t play but Chet Atkins made it look easy. I found a flattop Silvertone in the Sears & Roebuck Catalog that looked mighty fine in the picture. The only thing standing between me and that guitar was a lack of funds.
My mother suggested that I sell Christmas cards. She had seen an ad explaining that you could make good money by providing this much appreciated service to your family and friends. It sounded like a failproof plan.
We ordered a kit and hit the road with our sample cards. Mama did the driving and I was to handle the sales. That strategy looked good on paper, but every time we stopped at a house I would suddenly have a tinge of lockjaw. I didn’t like the idea of putting folks on the spot to buy something they might not want. Mama did about 95 percent of the selling. I just wrote down the names, put their checks in the envelope, and said thank you.
Mrs. Marie Taylor placed a generous order. That’s the only home that I still clearly remember going to. Daddy ginned his cotton with her husband, Mr. Ernest, so maybe that influenced her purchase. Or maybe she needed more cards than most folks. I left there with enough money to buy that guitar and with the welcome relief that my career in Christmas card sales was winding down.
My next venture in sales came in high school. I joined the FFA String Band in the ninth grade. The other four guys were two years ahead of me. The band needed some money to buy some matching outfits. Our fundraising project was to sell ads that would be printed on the back of the Unadilla Blue Devil seat cushions. The ads would pay for the cushions which we could then sell for our profit.
I went with Michael Sullivan to Hawkinsville, knowing that he would take the lead on the calls. I don’t know who all we visited, but the one place that I remember was Clark Funeral Home. That’s where we got sprinkled.
As we headed toward the front door their irrigation system came on. It was probably on a timer, but I always wondered if they saw us coming and decided to have a bit of fun. Funeral home folks don’t get to liven things up very often.
Michael, Jerry McIntyre, Charles Jones, and Jerry Pickard sold enough ads and cushions that we took a trip to Ferguson’s Men’s Store in Cordele. We left there with everything from cowboy boots to string ties. With our black pants and white shirts, we were a stage-ready band. Not long afterward we played on a flatbed trailer for the grand opening of a Purina Store. They gave us some red and white checked shirts, further expanding our already impressive wardrobe.
With a sketchy history in sales, it came as quite a surprise to my parents when I decided to head to Texas the summer of 1971 after my freshman year at college. At Valdosta State College I became friends with Dick Kitchens, a Byromville native who was a few years older than me. He had gone to Texas the summer before and sold Bibles going door to door. He had made enough money to get my attention as well as that of my good buddy Don Giles. Selling Bibles in Texas sounded like an adventure that was custom made for two young and world-ready fortune seekers.
I came home one weekend and told my folks about our plans to head west. Daddy said that I was welcome to go to Texas, but he reminded me that I never did seem to enjoy sales. He said it was fine to spend the summer selling Bibles, but that he didn’t want to get a call asking for money for a bus ticket home. That sound advice came with a smile and with the kindness of a loving father. Don and I made the wise decision to stay in Georgia and work at Bluebird Body Company in Fort Valley.
Given that background, it was quite unexpected that my first job out of college would be in sales. With Burroughs Corporation in Tallahassee, Florida, I developed my go-to line, “I don’t guess y’all want to buy anything today, do you?” It was a highly efficient time management technique. I set a company record for prospect declinations per hour. Next week I’ll tell you more about how I did that.