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Witnessing Stupidity

The Roller Coaster

Alesia began the following Monday morning with a compulsory training session for her five new employees. Safely out in the field and structuring my day as I found fit, I was not required to attend, but encouraged to stop in some time during the week to meet everyone.

On Wednesday afternoon I dropped in to deliver a sales contract and make introductions. Her new charges included two men and three women who were apparently hired, not so much for their sales abilities, as they were for where their homes were positioned geographically, with the idea that everyone could work close to home and have a territory they owned exclusively.

Being her first employee, the top of the totem pole, as it were, I was offered the unique privilege to fall into the role of Sales Manager and run a crew. It would start small with only one employee. She gave me Mitch.

Mitch happened to be a nearly identical clone to another Mitch I had worked with at Yellow Book, where I sold yellow pages advertising for nearly nine years, my longest tenure in any position. Mitch (either one) was difficult to endure. Their personalities were abrasive and it became apparent that the only reason they were hired was that they showed up for their interview and would not leave without the job in hand. Such tenacity may be admired or loathed depending upon your position. Each of them dressed rather slovenly, as if they had slept in their clothes and had just repositioned their necktie to appear fresh. Both had the same goatee style beards and short curly, graying hair, slightly balding and wore glasses. Each of them had multiple business endeavors involving graphic design and marketing they were able to present along with the rest of their sales kits, so when they met a prospect they had much more to offer than just yellow pages or direct mail. While both Yellow Book and Buy Tampa Bay offered internet advertising, so did the Mitches. Both of them could get magnets made for your business. Mitch from Yellow Book could even have them delivered with the phone book. It was no stretch of the imagination to say that they could do anything because they could. They could do anything anyone could do for themselves if they just turned on a computer and searched for it. So by tromping door to door amid strip malls and quiet neighborhoods, they found fledgling businesses which required such assistance and acquired clientele accordingly.

Each Mitch emitted a strange first impression. Both were in their late 40’s, married, from New Jersey and donned an accent that had no hint of New Jersey in it at all, rather it was a deep, undefined, slightly Yiddish dialect akin to that of Benjamin Netanyahu. YB Mitch was Jewish, but I never learned BTB Mitch’s heritage. While YB Mitch adapted quickly to sales in Florida (I trained him too), BTB Mitch constantly reminded me of the way they did things in New Jersey and the way he liked to do things, taking virtually no direction from me.

A key part of training all personnel in door to door sales is the art of the canvass and grid management. These elements work hand in hand. Without having a proper canvass plan with technique for prospecting and lead elimination a grid will not be managed at peak efficiency. Doors will not be knocked upon and money may be left on the table. YB Mitch took such advice with a grain of salt and happily wandered along Central Avenue with me while BTB Mitch found the door to door concept difficult to wrap his mind around, touting the strengths of personally telemarketing to save gasoline and ignoring the essence of the grid canvass, which was to knock on every door. His argument was that he could reach more people in a shorter amount of time. He chose quantity above quality.

In sales, I was taught and agree wholeheartedly that face to face contact is preferable to reaching out as a strange, unknown voice on the phone. You can assess your prospect better for genuine interest and discern quickly a waste of time from what is not. Face to face contact allows both parties to size each other up and decide whether or not this is a person they would enjoy doing business with. The telephone leaves much more to the imagination of both parties and miscommunication becomes commonplace. Unless business is to be remotely conducted in its entirety, the telephone should be, for the sales person, a tool for appointment confirmations and updates, nothing more.

YB Mitch had sales experience and took to canvassing quickly. He also had a knack for speaking another language. Not another language like Greek or Spanish or Hebrew, but a rare unspoken language shared among computer geeks. There are rare unspoken languages for every select interest group. Engineers have a language. Sports enthusiasts communicate a particular way. Virtually every person on the planet belongs to a clique, whether they know it or not, who speaks their language. When you are speaking to somebody and don’t get them, you don’t speak their language. When you share common interests and dig what the person across from you is saying, you do. I have found myself unable to speak many languages. When dealing with people I just don’t get I move on rather quickly because I known I am wasting time.

YB Mitch and I walked into a laptop computer repair shop where I had an appointment with the proprietor and gave the man a full and complete yellow pages sales pitch tailored to his business. Being seasoned in my position I made a fair assessment of the business, offered a reasonable advertising package at a fair to low rate and turned my prospects objections around into positives, but he still said “No.” I was completely done talking but he and Mitch kept droning on about CPUs and RAM. It was boring. I was done. There was no sale here, so I thanked him for his time and walked out on him and Mitch. I waited outside for a few minutes for Mitch to finish his conversation. Mitch leaned out the door and said “Mike, bring your stuff.”

I walked back in to complete the sale I had abandoned. Because Mitch spoke his language, something happened when I left the room. I don’t know what exactly and may never understand it even if I were to read a transcribed copy of their conversation, but Mitch told me he said “Why don’t you just try it?” and that’s when the sale was made.

I found it somewhat stunning. Mitch continued to make sales and do well, dawdling along with his brusque personality. He won sales contests and was awarded accolades for top performance. Some thought customers bought from him just to get him to leave.

I myself had fared well among my peers, being the first one after the McLeod USA buyout in 2003, to achieve Sales Professional of the Year for the West Coast Florida Division, so I was no stranger to success. But Mitch’s success was incomprehensible to me. The only thing I could attribute it to, and many others’ success as well, was that ability to speak another language. People buy from those they like and identify with and there were more people like Mitch out there than I had imagined. Mitch plowed himself into your life. Despite his initial obstinate manner, he got to know people enough to remember their spouses and children’s names, their likes and dislikes and discuss things pertinent to them, not himself. In effect, he would learn your language.

BTB Mitch had no such talent. Although he emitted the same initial first impression, he did not listen and made it clear that he preferred not to. Since our goal was to sell online coupons and I had years of advertising sales canvass experience, I was absolutely confident in my ability to discern a solid prospect from an unlikely one. A restaurant, for example, held more promise to sell a coupon to than an attorney, so law firms, concrete material companies and architectural firms, anyone who would never offer a coupon, was avoided. Although the goal of door to door canvassing is to visit every business, common sense and experience aids in refining which doors are approached. In explaining this to BTB Mitch, he countered with his complete bag of tricks, the other services he offered, stating “But I have more to show them than these coupons, besides, you said we should knock on every door, right?”

Alesia, why did you hire this moron?

There is nothing wrong with having a complete product line in advertising. Even while I sold yellow pages I dabbled in billboards, promotional items like pens and hats and local TV commercials. I even built a couple simple websites. But when I knocked on your door for the company I worked for, I started with my primary focus, yellow pages. Anything else I had to offer would be secondary and only as an enhancement, something I would offer in addition to yellow pages to an existing client so as to minimize competing interests. If you didn’t buy my yellow pages, I wouldn’t help you with anything else, but loyal customers were offered more if they desired.

BTB Mitch’s primary focus was his own business right from the start. He had difficulty grasping the face to face introduction. I explained to him “We are here to make an appointment. Just walk in and say, ‘I just stopped in to see who I would talk to about your advertising?’ That’s it.” You take it from there and make an appointment or get a name and phone number and try back later. Or just leave after a firm “Not interested.”

I have always trusted that a person who tells you up front that they will have nothing to do with you is telling the truth. Some sales people prefer to see it as an opening for dialogue countering with “What are you not interested in?” just to start an argument. On days when I felt rather feisty, contending with compounding rejections, I would sometimes relate to the non-prospect “Oh, I wasn’t asking whether or not you were interested. I just came in to sell advertising.” A smart remark like this knocks people back and they don’t know how to respond. Always at a loss for words, they said nothing, I would step away offering “Have a good day.” and waltz out the door. If I couldn’t get a sale at least I could get a temporary sense of superiority through my wit as satisfaction.

After watching me for a few in and outs on US-19, gathering a couple cards and nearly setting an appointment, it was time to let BTB Mitch get his feet wet. I would try one door, he would try the next. He saw what I was doing. I told him keep it simple. Just walk in and say, “I just stopped in to see who I would talk to about your advertising?” just as I had been doing. Does he do that? No.

Mitch walked up to the girl at the counter of a storage facility and railed off into a full blown sales pitch without so much as getting her name. He had no idea whether or not she was a decision maker or would have any genuine interest. I watched him go through a broken two minute monologue that included our direct mail, internet, Puzzle Pages and his mad skills as a graphic artist. He trailed off into a muttering stammer, not knowing what to say and finally stopped talking in the midst of an incomplete sentence. The counter girl appeared somewhat confused. She passed him a business card and told him, “The manager isn’t here right now, but I can give him your information if you want to leave something.” Mitch’s response was to plop every folder and handout he had just showed her onto the counter and ask her to pass it along. He smiled, thanked her and exited the store with pride.

“That went pretty good.” He exclaimed.

Really? I thought. This is his idea of pretty good? What would he consider an absolute crash and burn?

I pointed out all of things that he did wrong and went ahead with more simple introductions every other door and even made an appointment for him at one place. It was futile. He could not be taught or persuaded to learn. His ability to absorb knowledge seemed non-existent. Mitch kept doing the same thing over and over again. Not prospecting, just pitching. Every place he walked into he barely introduced us and started to sling advertising immediately. At one shop the lady he chose to verbally accost interrupted him quickly to say she did not work there. Lucky her.

I felt like a sculptor equipped with a chisel and a pile of sand. There was no way to win, no way to work with what I had. If my livelihood was to be reliant on Mitch and whoever else Alesia hired to be on my “team” (because they would work for 60% commission and no promise of anything) I would have to keep selling on my own and seeking other work. The revolving door was now motorized. I would certainly not be the only one in search of greater rewards.

Everyone Alesia hired and trained along with Mitch was gone in ten calendar days, except for Mitch himself. The time and money she wasted on recruiting, training materials and handouts would have been better spent if she had given me the salary I asked for and let me hire others on salary as well. This way she would not have had Mitch and the like dabbling in her business while trying to foul one of their own. It became apparent that everyone working for her, including me, could not get hired by anyone else. This ill realization sent me back to the internet to search for another job.

I almost forgot that I was still technically employed at Sylvan Abbey, the cemetery. The parent company, Stewart Enterprises, was still covering my health insurance since they neglected to dismiss my employment, even though they cut off my base salary and refused to pay me. My pay stubs were recorded with negative balances. I was still entitled to unemployment insurance for every week that I earned nothing from any source, no matter how much time I dedicated to either job. When a commission was earned I reported it and that would cancel out the unemployment check for that week. The most I was entitled to from unemployment was $186 per week, so I always had at least that much to work with.

To get the most out of everything I had going for me I devised a plan where I would search for work and apply for jobs every morning until 11:00 AM, then head out to canvass prospects and make a few more attempts to train Mitch until 3:45 PM, completing my day by heading to the cemetery to troll for prospects and make phone calls until 5:30. It was a solid schedule I could stick to.

I avoided crossing paths with Sandra and stopped attending sales meetings altogether. Alesia only needed to see me when I was bringing her a sales contract and the State of Florida required I report at least five job prospects every week I filed for compensation, which I did diligently. To my astonishment, this routine began yielding fair results. One week I sold two new BTB accounts and a grave, securing my positions and still allowing me to fall back on unemployment the following week, when I sold nothing.

This roller coaster, however, was steadily dropping momentum. Eventually I would find myself back at the exit with only memories of the thrill. Unemployment would only last a few more weeks. Unless I found a major score at one or both sales jobs there would be no more coasting. Then what?

When I worked for Yellow Book we had a fair salary, no true quota and people bought yellow pages advertising because it worked. It was easy to stay employed until people stopped using phone books. Even YB Mitch stayed employed for a couple years. When he announced that his wife had become pregnant, his sales manager Kim, an older lady who epitomized the bubbly blonde stereotype, was elated with this and arranged an office baby shower for Mitch and another woman on her team who was pregnant. This bothered my manager, Dave. When our teammate Doug’s wife had become pregnant there had been no such fanfare for him. Dave and I did not participate in these festivities. Knowing Mitch as we did, we could only imagine what kind of parent he would become. Dave was father to two boys and confided to me “I don’t know what it is. I just don’t trust him.”

Yes, Mitch was annoying. He made sales in spite of himself. He attempted stand up comedy. I went to a club to watch him to see if there was some comic side of Mitch I had not yet considered. There was not. His bit was sad and barely laughable. His best joke was a poorly delivered question. “Why is my can of Rust-o-leum all rusty?” I too could not visualize him as a parent.

Not being a parent, like me, puts you in a position of non-discussion when people start talking about their kids. There is no way to relate. I don’t have photos or stories to share. There is no restructuring of daily life for soccer practice or appointments with pediatricians. Being a non-parent simplifies a lot. The subject changes quickly when somebody asks “Got kids?” You say “No”, move on and generally don’t ask any questions about theirs. That is my tack. If I am not related to them it feels like prying and a little creepy. Why would a man without children want to know anything about yours? I could not imagine.

It was probably discussions like this between Mitch and Dave that put Dave on edge. Mitch was the kind to ask everyone about their children. Dave could not reconcile that curiosity with any genuine interest on Mitch’s part. It was like he was trying to get information for some nefarious reason you would rather not know. They obviously spoke different languages.

I have a medical condition where I can not eat when I am annoyed. My hunger remains, but my body shuts down. It also happens when I get excited for some reason. I know this about myself better now than I did a decade ago. The trouble is swallowing. Food stays in my throat and gags me. It is sometimes scary and has proved to be quite an embarrassment several times. I excuse myself and cough up whatever won’t go down. When eating I prefer to do so alone or with minor discussion. No heavy subjects or opinions allowed at my dinner table, my body just can’t handle it. I avoid food at parties and take smaller portions at dinner with friends. Maybe it is because I want to say something so bad that my body forgets how to eat. I have still not seen a doctor for this condition but have learned to accept it, chewing my food longer and relaxing when I swallow. It is amazing how the human body will sabotage itself when stressed. Like most people, I like to delude myself into thinking that I am immune to stress, but when my focus is distracted from the simple task of eating, a subject requiring deep thought and the discourse that goes with it could kill me.

Over the course of a day with a business associate you will, most likely, inevitably need to stop and eat lunch. I have worked with people who would not stop for lunch and even some who did not drink water, dehydrating themselves to avoid public toilets. I drink a lot of water and have no trouble finding and using public facilities. I also like to eat lunch. Sometimes it becomes the highlight of my day. I shared lunch with YB Mitch many times and after a while became accustomed to his interrogatory and expositional style of discussion. He talked a lot. This made it hard to focus on my chewing and breathing, so I did avoid meals with him when I could.

Like YB Mitch, BTB Mitch also maintained a steady pace of dialogue and argument that just didn’t seem to end. Like Dave, I just did not completely get along with these guys, but I found myself working beside them, so they had to be dealt with and I needed to eat. Both of them enjoyed argument, taking whatever subject happened to come along and examining it from multiple viewpoints.

Many people enjoy discussing the news. I do not. I like to watch the news, to listen to a story and learn what happened and maybe even exclaim “Wow!” at some things, but for the most part, I prefer to absorb it rather than discuss it. The Mitches would never do that. No matter the subject, they would explore every angle, however mundane or inconsequential. They shared opinions on subjects that had absolutely no bearing on their lives and had a knack for discovering everything I lacked interest in or could not relate to. Still, images they conjured set my mind racing to respond, exciting my salivary glands and shutting down my ability to talk or swallow, making it impossible to convey that I just did not care what they were talking about. If I could have burped I would have felt much better.

Although YB Mitch was difficult to speak with there was never any reason to wish him any misfortune. All in all, he was okay. Some would say “He’s a little strange.” and leave it at that. It was obvious to everyone that he was more focused on himself and his auxiliary business agenda than he was on selling yellow pages. Some would say they saw through his conversations, when he focused on others, as a way to find buying signals and sell something else. Dave considered him a poor actor feigning genuine interest in who he spoke with or the world around him. I was apt to concur. This may be what disturbed Dave most when we learned how his eight month old son crawled away and drowned in the pool as Mitch worked diligently in his den on some advertising project.

He returned to work, accepting condolences from the men and hugs from the women, somehow standing stoically, as if nothing had happened. There was no hint of sadness, shock, dismay or mourning. Everyone found this disturbing. We avoided Mitch after that. I never had lunch with him again.

It had to have been that my final memories of YB Mitch played into my thoughts of BTB Mitch and prejudiced me in some way because they were so much alike. Going to lunch would be dreadful, I thought, and it was. I chose an Indian buffet. The food was exceptional. Butter chicken and Rogan Josh to die for. Had I been alone and able to concentrate on my meal I would have been fine.

But then Mitch asked me “Got kids?”

I knew the curve was coming, having been on this roller coaster for a while now, but I didn’t expect it to be so jarring. The timbers rattled and shook the car. I could hear the screams of the uninitiated behind me as I clenched the safety bar. My stomach contents rose up from the negative G force I thought I was equipped for. I shook my head “No.” Then another sharp curve almost bounced me off the ride.

“Me either.” Mitch replied, “But we found out last night my wife is pregnant.”

I was going to be sick.

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