Death of a Salesman
by Henri R. Goudsmit
When Debra Levy asked me to write a column for AGRR magazine, at first,
I freaked out (to use an expression my youngest daughter often uses).
I was told not to worry, because Penny Stacey, the editor, will correct
all misspellings, punctuations, grammar, etc. To make matters worse, English
is not my native language, and I had to learn so many languages in school
when I was young that I often speak in the wrong language to family, friends
Always a Salesman
You may ask, why I am writing this long introduction? You see, I have
not been a writer, nor a journalist nor an editor. I don’t even know the
differences among the three. I have always been a salesman. Yes, you are
correct, like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman.”
I was born nine years before the play was written. Two years later I had
my first sale—1,000 toothbrushes bought from a bankrupt pharmacy in Amsterdam
and sold to other stores. They must have trusted me, because they gave
me the money to buy the merchandise and hoped that I would bring them
back the toothbrushes. (I made a little profit, of course.)
I also have learned through life that you should always leave a margin
for the person to whom you sell. Everyone has to make a living. This also
counts for the stock market. Take a little profit and leave something
for the next guy. It also cuts down your risk.
Back to Willy Loman. Like his neighbor, Charley, said in his requiem:
“He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine
... A salesman has got to dream, boy.”
Before you sell anything, whether it is toothbrushes or a windshield or
a service you perform, your customer must trust you. You have to sell
yourself first and you have to believe in what you sell. Sometimes a little
luck may help. About 30 some years ago I worked for a company trying to
sell to a very large potential customer. The sales and marketing people
at this company had tried for years to sell to this customer, without
At one point during this time, I attended a meeting with my company’s
chief executive officer (CEO) and our sales and marketing team. (The company,
by the way, was a Fortune 500 company, and, to me, it did not make sense
that we could not sell our superb products to this prospective customer.)
During the meeting, immediately after I had volunteered to check things
out at the customer’s facility, the CEO and all the people in the meeting
agreed that I should pack my bags and make an appointment.
I called and found out that new suppliers can’t make an appointment, but
that once a week the company held an open day to see potential suppliers.
That day was the next day. Being nervous about my trip, I forgot all my
samples. On the plane, it dawned on me that after three years of overtures
by our salespeople, they must have received all our products many times
over. That quieted my nerves for a little bit. As soon as I entered the
waiting room, I counted about 100 people in front of me. I did not know
that you had to camp out in the middle of the night to see this customer.
Luckily not many people were going to see the buyer I was visiting. After
about one hour, I entered a room where the buyer sat way up high on a
podium and I was summoned to sit on a stool. It seemed my position was
about two stories lower. Little did I know that I would be out of there
in less than three minutes.
After I introduced myself, a voice from the back of the room said, “Son,
where are you from?” I guess the question was addressed to me and I answered
that our company was located in Chicago. The voice from the back replied,
“Never trust them folk north of the Mason-Dickson line.” Having been in
this great country just a couple of years, I had no idea what the Mason-Dixon
“With all due respect, sir, I am new in this country,” I said. “What is
the Mason-Dixon line?”
Then I heard this from the voice in the back. “Come to think of it, someone
that stupid has to be honest. Give the boy an order,” he said.
I thanked the buyer and the man in the back in the dark and went back
to Chicago with an order from Walmart, thanks to Mr. Sam Walton and my
lack of American history.
Two More Tips
Here are two other suggestions from an old salesman. Always ask for the
order and, when getting the order, leave quickly. I once visited a family
business and the former president, known as Uncle Jack, always was present
in the negotiations. He was a rock of a man, even in his eighties. (Later
I found out that he was an Olympic boxer in 1928.)
Uncle Jack told me that he once had a salesman who was complaining that
he did not make money on the sizable order he had just received from Uncle
Jack’s company. As the salesman started to leave, Uncle Jack said, “Let
me see this order. I will make some changes.’’
The salesman anticipated something great. Uncle Jack tore up the order
and wrote a new one. The salesman looked at the order and noticed that
the order was for exactly half of the original one.
When he mentioned this to Uncle Jack, Uncle Jack replied, “I really felt
sorry that you lost money on the order. Now you can go back to your boss
and tell him you are an outstanding salesman. Your loss is now only half
of what it would be with the original order.”
The moral of the story is not to come up with silly stories like not making
money and get out of there after the order. Sound familiar? Not in our
Henri Goudsmit serves as international editor for AGRR magazine.
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