The shortage of effective basic sales training is taking its toll
By Jack Bobo
My first civilian job after World War II was as a salesman trainee for a major automotive and industrial supplier. My initial training consisted of working in the company repair ship, overhauling equipment that the company sold. From time to time I would inquire if there was not more to selling than what I seemed to be learning working with tools. At those times I was always admonished, “You’ve got to learn the basics. You can’t sell it if you do not know how it works.” Thus reassured I went back to my workbench and dreamed of clean hands, a white collar and my own territory.
My opportunity for a territory arrived unexpectedly. One of the salesmen had gotten tipsy before calling on our largest account and was promptly fired. I was told to wash my hands, put on a tie and report for a crash course in how to read the company’s voluminous catalogs. Three days later I was officially a salesman. Somehow, though, I felt a bit inadequate for the job. But the manager assured me that even though I might not know everything about our products, it was unlikely that I would encounter a prospect who knew much of anything about them. With that assurance I was off to conquer the territory.
On my way to my first call it suddenly occurred to me that I really didn’t know what to do when I got there, except to try and get an order. Well, I strolled into the office of the foreman of our local 7-Up bottling company with a 20-pound pack of catalogs in each hand ready for whatever the company might need. The poor foreman didn’t know what to make of this traveling store that had descended upon him, but luckily he was a kind man and opted to give a small order to boost an obvious greenhorn. The rest of the day was all downhill, for all I got with my technique was strange looks.
Fortunately, I got my first sales lesson the next day. I had lunch and played a game of pool with several experienced salesmen. With good humor they pointed out my mistakes and gave me a few tips about protocol. Not being very good at pool, the lesson cost me $6.50, a lot of dough in 1946, but it was well worth it. In time, I became well established, but I often have wondered how much more effective I would have been had I been given some basic sales training along with service in the shop.
Years later I made my way into the life insurance business, becoming a rookie once more. There were two other men in my indoctrination class, both of whom eventually failed, not because of a lack of product knowledge, but rather a lack of selling skills. I believe that my previous experience was all that saved me from a similar fate.