You Gotta Sell

My friend Rich Marin’s May 30th newsletter/Blog post, which you can read here, is about his grade school sales efforts which were focused on winning free trips to summer camp as a kid.  It made me think of my own early introduction to sales. When having lunch with my friend and fellow Arizona Commerce Authority EIR Tom Blondi today, we concluded many business person success stories likely featured learning to sell as a key element, even when those careers involved non-sales disciplines. Getting people to do what you want them to do with them thinking it is their idea and preference is important in a great number of endeavors.

Growing up in Fairmont, Minnesota in a family with similar financial hardships to Rich’s, I spent hours thinking of ways to acquire money.  I wanted a stereo, a nice shirt, and a motor scooter.  With so little money in our family, if I wanted any of these things, it was up to me.  My first efforts, mowing lawns during the summer and shoveling snow in the winters, proved difficult.  My younger brother Leif was better at it than I was, and so we often got these jobs together and shared the profits.  But I was not a good worker.  An inability to stay focused on the job could have been the result of a couple of factors — health and ADD.  An underlying heart problem would get spotted on a high school physical when I was 15, but this was grade school and there was no explanation for my lack of stick-to-it-ness and stamina other than laziness.  As a cub scout, I began getting “Boys Life” magazine. It was there I spotted an ad to become a representative for True Grit magazine.  This magazine was sold by over 30,000 children collecting dimes from more than 700,000 American small town homes in the 1950s.  An ad in Richie Rich comic books suggested that Richie’s father got his start in business selling True Grit newspapers. Seeing the ad and reading of Richie Rich’s adventures, it was a short leap to imagining myself with incredible wealth, living in an expensive mansion, and having everything money could buy.

Soon I was going door-to-door, signing up subscribers, collecting money, and delivering newspapers every week.  It was long work for little pay, but dramatically preferable to shoveling snow.  Next, I learned of a company that would pay me to sell greeting cards with a family’s name pre-printed on the cards in gold ink.  Compensation was prizes redeemable when certain sales levels were met – a new stereo, a neat belt, model cars, and airplanes, and other products designed to stimulate the imagination of young boys.  I was a star! In retrospect, I’m sure our neighbors shrank in horror when they saw me coming up the driveway – “Oh no, what is he going to try and sell us now?” Over time I learned to say things to get people to buy – “I only need one more order to get the big prize,” or “Imagine what your friends and relatives will think when they see your family’s name, handsomely engraved in golden ink at the bottom of this year’s greeting card.”  For the most part, I was unaware of the lessons I was learning, except for this one that I learned something about myself:  I had to first convince myself the product was great and a good deal before I could sell it.  I was never able to generate any enthusiasm for selling something I didn’t personally believe in or feel was a “good deal.”

In high school and college, I found inspiration from motivational creeds by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and Zig Zigler, which I’ve written about here.  My first commissioned sales position with a good bit of genuine sales training came when I joined Minneapolis-based Schaak Electronics. Dick Schaak had taken over Schaak Electronics when his father died in the early 1970s and built it into a multi-store chain selling audio products.  The reprint from the Minneapolis Star Tribune with Dick’s picture and the headline “Double-millionaire at age 34,” inspired me then and I still have it.  Towru Nagano, one of Dick’s steadiest lieutenants, was in charge of sales training. While creating little that was original, Nagano pulled together an

Accepting on of my first sales awards at Schaak. A corner of Towru Nagano’s face is visible on the right.

impressive sales training program, borrowing from the leading sales experts of the day. Unlike some of my contemporaries at Schaak who did not take training seriously, I soaked it all up and was soon winning sales contests right and left.  I was named “Rookie of the Year,” and won cash awards and once, even a new motorcycle.  Nearing the end of the 1970s, I’d climbed from assistant manager to store manager and eventually to managing several stores.  I stuck with Schaak through its 1976 bankruptcy, learning a host of business lessons in the process. I was drafted to help Schaak move beyond audio sales and into selling computers from Apple, Atari, Cromemco, the IBM PC, Ohio Scientific, and others, creating a new group of stores called Digital Den.

While books espousing new sales techniques have never stopped popping onto the market each year (The Psychology of Selling, Strategic Selling, Perfect Selling, Secrets of Closing the Sale and Spin Selling), the sales process hasn’t changed much.  Most critical is the initial conversation which was called “qualifying” when I learned it.  This is the step when you find out from a prospective buyer what it is they want.  Good salespeople tend to extend this part of the process, and as it turns out, it is the most important.  Done correctly, a prospective buyer will explain what they want to buy, what color and features, what he/she is willing or able to pay, when they want to buy it, and from whom they wish to buy. But it requires the salesperson to shut up and listen, sometimes difficult for extrovert salespeople eager to demonstrate their breadth of knowledge.  But, if you’ve done the qualifying step correctly and for long enough, the “sales” part of the process, is easy.  It’s just saying “Here is what you want,” and explaining how it meets the needs that were outlined in the prior conversation.  If done correctly, the sale is simple, easy, quick, and satisfactory for all involved.  Salespeople get bad reputations when they attempt to sell people things they don’t want and don’t need.

Like Rich Marin, over the years I have found this fundamental understanding of the sales process has served me well in many ways.  Every job interview was a sales job as was every board meeting. Sales experience taught me more than anything else that listening is critical to every successful interaction. Whether greeting cards, stereos or myself, I succeeded when I listened to what my buyer said.

The Schaak Electronics’s store sales team: Greg Donovan, Mark Freeborn, Steve Larsen, Bill Cordell, Mike Tieden, Dan Knappe


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5 Responses to You Gotta Sell

  1. Thomas D Blondi says:

    Great story, Steve. That advice is still very relevant today. The pictures add just the right touch of reality to those days!!!

  2. Jackie says:

    I REALLY enjoyed this article Steve.

    When I was in my late teens I realized that I could use my love for selling in a creative and effective way through teaching, and boy did it work!!!

    I too grew up in a home where money was scare.

    Realizing in my very early teens that the only way that I was going to have money on my own was to work for it, so

    I mowed lawns, shoveled snow, cleaned the homes on my street, sold imprinted cards and babysat!

    My favorite activity was indeed selling!

    When I was in my late teens I realized that I could use my love of “selling” in a creative and effective was through teaching, and boy did it work!!!

    Consequently, I spent my professional life getting paid for doing a job that I would have happily done for free ♡

    Again, I really enjoyed your article.


  3. James Edgell says:

    I worked for Digital Den in Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg, Ill, from 84-85, my first technical job, now I’m a CTO! Miss those simpler days, I had a lot of fun working there.

    • Steve Larsen says:

      Great to hear from you, James. By 1984 I’d moved on from Digital Den to Control Data. Digital Den was my entry into the tech world as well, and where I spent the rest of my career.

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