Selling encyclopedias door-to-door taught me 5 crucial facts about selling

5 min read

Let’s start with a caveat emptor. I hesitated writing about this subject because so many have made their life’s work researching and writing about the art of selling. But like a good bottle of bathtub gin, selling something door-to-door distills all your need-to-know sales’ moves down to a very few crucial basics.  

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

When I arrived in Washington, D.C. to attend grad school at Georgetown University, obtaining a job was my first order of business. Eating was requisite, after all. My father had cut me off financially because he thought graduate school was an unnecessary luxury and feared that I would become a “professional student”. The U.S. was in the trough of a recessionary cycle and jobs for a freshly graduated coed in the field of agriculture were hard to come by. The only offer I received after college entailed working with dairy farmers in upstate New York. Not exactly my “cup of milk”.

Scouring the classified ads of the Washington Post with a vengeance, my resume clutched in one hand, and a map of D.C. in the other, I discovered an intriguing opportunity: selling encyclopedias door-to-door. It felt like I could get behind this job, this product, because my family possessed a full set of encyclopedias and growing up on a farm pre-internet, it was invaluable for my brothers and me. The heavy leather-bound books gave us a window to the rest of the world. All four of us devoured its dog-eared contents as though they were the latest bestseller.

I landed the job and thus started my training period. I’ve written about this experience before, but not in the context of what it taught me about selling. And in some ways, that’s the most important part.

Because if you can sell something in this manner, you can sell anything anywhere.

Photo by Magaly Vasquez Montaño on Unsplash

I realize I’m dating myself, but keep in mind that this was a time of landlines and the only computers were those as big as a small car. However, these ideas can apply to any product, any method of selling, and during any time period. Here are the five most important lessons I learned.

Ask for a “yes”

The most important thing in selling is getting the sale. Period. Some call it closing. Same thing. I called it, signing the contract and giving me a deposit check. Whatever you call it, just know this truth going in. Amazingly, some people don’t even ask for a yes when they’re selling. Tell yourself that you must get that sale and pitch like your life depends on it. And if you need the sale to eat like moi at the time, your life does depend on it.

There are many great resources to close sales. I like, “The Asking Formula,” by John Baker. It’s a short read, self-published and it lays out a formula to get to yes that’s simple and easy to follow. Everyone in sales should read this book. It’s not cheap, but worth every penny.

Develop “warm leads

There is a school of thought – particularly in cold calling – that if you call 100 people and get ten meetings you’ll get one sale, or some similar formula. So if you want ten sales, you have to call 1,000 people. I don’t like those numbers. There are only so many hours in a day. The company I worked for taught me how to generate warm leads. That is when the people you’re calling and pitching have already expressed an interest in the product.

I was lucky because my employer already came up with a pretty ingenious method to do that. But if you are working for yourself, or your employer hasn’t had that forethought, you can do it on your own. And you can do it much more easily with online selling by developing sales funnels and newsletter/email/social media followers. Instead of putting your time into calling thousands of people, spend it instead on developing a unique, creative method of developing warm leads.

A warm lead can be obtained as easily as asking a current client for a referral. What I did for selling encyclopedias was to arrange magic shows in elementary schools (yes, I became a part-time magician). I wasn’t Penn or Teller, but I could keep preschoolers engaged. This was quite ingenious looking back on it. My cold calling became calling schools and offering a magic show. That was an exceedingly easy sell. Most schools were eager for someone to entertain their young students for an hour for free. The only thing the teachers had to do for their magic show was send home an information slip to the parents. If they were interested in a set of encyclopedias on a very affordable payment plan, they could fill out the form and send it back to school. A week after my magic show, I would swing back around to the school to pick up the warm leads and then call the parents to set up an appointment to come to their home. Instead of 100 calls for ten meetings, I made sixty calls for thirty meetings.

Have a prepared sales pitch

Make sure it’s well written and memorize it. Here again, my company wrote the sales pitch. To be sure, it was a canned pitch probably similar to a timeshare type of pitch of today that we all know and hate, but it worked. It was similar to a slideshow presentation, spiral bound and laminated with a lot of scary statistics about the then current, pitiful state of education, complete with beautiful images of kids reading and so forth. There were also important questions included: Do you want your kids to learn to read? Do you want your child to graduate from college?

Write your own sales pitch and make it a superb and compelling story. If it’s in writing, make sure it’s perfect – no typos or grammatical errors. Refine it. Practice it. Film yourself if you’re giving it in person.

I wrote a post last year about the effectiveness of telling stories in the context of raising children. It’s called, “The Power of Stories, and the Legend of Nancy Gump.” There is also a wonderful article I recently found by Morgan Housel, “Best Story Wins.” Whatever you write, make it memorable.

Be passionate about your product

If you don’t believe in your product, no one else will and no one is going to buy it. Be authentic. People will know when you’re not.

Because in those days, there was no Google, a kid’s only resource was the library, with limited access, or a set of encyclopedias! I’ve already mentioned how much I loved our encyclopedias growing up and here I was at Georgetown University as the first person in my family to go to college. How could I not be passionate about this product? I made it personal. I wove my story into the blank spaces of my canned sales pitch.

Calculate the percentage of successful sales at each follow up try

Almost all of my sales were made on the first visit. Following up was time consuming and its chances of success were so rare that if I didn’t get a signed contract that very night, I spent my subsequent time going after other warm leads.

Your product may be more complex and require more time and education with potential customers. In that case, I would suggest that there is still an optimal number of calls before it becomes not worth it. To ascertain that number, keep a log of your calls and it will become obvious. For example, if you see that 80% of your sales are made after the third follow up, then don’t waste your time calling a fourth and fifth time. The other 20% of your attempts would be better leveraged by new calls, new clients.

If you’re selling online, it’s even simpler. You will have a multitude of sales information at your fingertips. The truth is always in the numbers.

I’ve often said that doing this job taught me more about sales than just about anything else I’ve ever done in business. It was thankless in many ways. It was uncomfortable going to people’s homes late at night in Washington D.C. and sometimes more than a wee bit scary. I had to learn my way around the city. The Thomas Guide became my best friend (no GPS, right?). And my car at the time was not even equipped with air conditioning or a radio.

The best part is, I actually made a stellar income that year between college and grad school. In fact, I was so effective in my job, that a competing encyclopedia company stole me away after six months with a significantly higher base salary. The following year, I was awarded a research and teaching fellowship at Georgetown. I resigned from my encyclopedia job, and I will always be grateful for the selling lessons learned there that I have used in a myriad of ways throughout my career. I actually enjoyed writing about this and reflecting upon my sales skills and sharing the most important things I learned along the way. I would be happy to hear about some of my readers’ thoughts and sales practices, as well. So please comment below.

Cynthia Wylie Cynthia Wylie is a hard-driving entrepreneur with a successful track record. She was raised on a farm which taught her the habit of hard work from an early age. Her recent startup, Bloomers Island has become the standard bearer brand for children to live healthier lives and make healthier food choices as well as inspire in them a love of gardening and nature. She has received two patents on her seed starters, SeedPops which have been sold in over 5,000 stores in North America including Target, Nordstrom and Costco Canada. The first five books of her nine-book series have been published with Rodale Kids, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Previous companies where she was a partner/co-founder include X-Large Clothing, the seminal streetwear brand, and Maui Toys, the activity toy company recently sold to Jakks Pacific. In addition to starting and selling companies, Ms. Wylie does business consulting with The Project Consultant. She focuses on raising money, turnaround actions, and strategic and tactical planning in operations for small manufacturers. She is a founding member of the Startup Founds Group in Silicon Beach, a group designed to process issues and problems that all startups inevitably face. She started her career in Investment Banking writing private placement memorandums and developed an expertise in helping companies to raise money, including over $1 million in seed capital for her latest company. Her B.S. degree is in agriculture from Pennsylvania State University and she has an M.A. in economics from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. She is the part-owner of her family farm in Western Pennsylvania. She raised four children and loves writing, reading, learning foreign languages, and growing plants and companies.

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