Although his ended tragically, Ernest Hemingway led an interesting life. Writer, outdoorsman, celebrity. He was also a salesman because he knew how to persuade in 6 words or less — “For sale: baby shoes never worn.” He was unconventional (he typed standing up), but he knew how to satisfy customers with his brevity and unique style of fiction. Scribner, his publisher, would place him among the top of its “salesmen.” In 2010, 50 years after his death, he sold over 350,000 copies of his books in North America alone. Readers buy his books not just because he is on schools’ required reading lists, but because they respect the brand.
Like writers, good salesmen display relevance to the buyer long before the buyer makes a decision. They get noticed by being unconventional. They flatter you, they kill you with originality. Listening to what your customers are saying humanizes the sales approach. It strips away all the formalities so that we’re left with nothing but ourselves and our need to interact. To tell stories and build trust with someone or something we don’t think we can live without.
Hemingway made his money by writing books. What about someone like my dad who makes his living by actually selling? Armed with a briefcase of life insurance products, a box of donuts, and a wad of $2 bills, he canvasses neighborhoods in Cleveland, like he has done practically every day for the last 50 years.
The $2 bills are for his grandchildren. He has 13 of them. At least once a month, he goes to the bank and exchanges his ordinary bills for 13 $2 bills. He places each bill in a separate envelope and writes the name of a grandchild on it. I think he even pencils in their names in his appointment book so he can stop by when he’s in the neighborhood selling insurance to his customers. These bills add up. I know my daughters have bought things, nice things, with them. Dad knows the value of a buck. He gives twice this amount to his grandchildren because he values them more than anything. In his eyes, they are unique — like $2 bills.
The donuts are for his customers. Maybe if their sugar count is high, they’ll buy more coverage, who knows? More than likely, Dad has found something he likes about them. He always tells me about the interesting lives his customers lead. He has file cabinets of folders dating back to the 60s. They are alphabetized snapshots of his clients. If there are more than 10 Robinsons, there is a good chance that most of them are related. He has sold policies to the great grandfathers and the great grandsons of many families. He has been there for births and he has seen his share of burials. Their stories are a part of Dad’s life, and Dad is part of theirs.
Like Hemingway, Dad is the talk of the town. I’m not talking about bullfighting or wrestling alligators — although my dad has run more than a few 10Ks. I’m talking about what people say about his character. “That father of yours is the sweetest, nicest man…” Or, “He did this for me and that for my son…” This makes me feel good. I hope that in some way it rubs off so that one day people might say something nice about me, about my work.
Dad is a prolific salesman because he likes his job. He is unconventional at it. He does it standing up. I don’t think he will ever retire. I think he finds his customers so interesting that he wants to make sure they are remembered long after they’re gone.
Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936, one year before Dad was born. I read this book recently and was amazed at how relevant it is today. In the book Carnegie cited examples of some of the most successful people of the time. They all had one thing in common. They were among the happiest, most genuine people on the face of the earth. Which makes me think that Dad kept a first edition of this book in his crib and started reading early.
Photo above: The Salesman at Rest. 1968. Cleveland, Ohio. That’s me in the high chair looking for donuts and $2 bills.