The sales profession is one-of-a-kind. There are ups and downs, ins and outs, and a whole list of goods and ‘bads’ that make it both rewarding and challenging. You will go through some trials, but my hope and prayer is that you don’t have to go through some of the ones that I endured. Check these out!
The Boss Comes to Town
I was at a sales meeting, and was sitting at a table with the Sr. Vice President for our business unit, who was someone that I had only seen his picture in company publications. We will call him Bob F. I don’t know why he sat at our table, yet we were all exhibiting our best manners.
During a lull in the meeting a sales associate of mine, who happened to be Black as well (there were 3 of us out of 62 sales professionals) began to criticize one of the local college basketball coaches. He was a venerable older coach who was not winning the ‘big one’ but was respectable.
The SVP listened to us from behind his newspaper, and then slammed his had down on the table and said, “How dare you criticize him. One day you will be judged on your record, just like him, and you should hope you stand up to the criticism.” He went on to say, “If you two would stop reading the sports pages, and start reading the financial pages, one day maybe you will amount to something!” He then stormed from the table.
I wanted to be rude in my response, but was calculated. As a single parent of three, I needed my job badly. It is unfortunate that someone is “judged” like that. He did not know either of us.
To this day, there is nothing that has ever infuriated me like that comment. He did not know, but I was reading a lot more than the financial pages. Whether I did, or did not, it was not his business. We were merely having a conversation within his earshot. What is larger than that was the perception that we were absorbed in the sports pages, which was something that I seldom read, or read now.
He made that assumption based on his perception, and how categorically wrong it was. Needless to say, he was long retired before I moved up in to a senior vice president and executive vice president roles, yet I have often relived how I should have reacted to him. I made sure that I respected our young professionals regardless of color and gave good constructive counsel without inserting my view of what they “must” be like.
Hello, I am Your New Sales Representative!
I was more than willing to accept, and take a chance on, any reassigned account, as it was a way to increase sales revenue. I needed new accounts badly.
This account was medium in size, and although complicated, well within my capabilities as a new sales representative. After much preparation I made my first visit to the account to make my introduction and discuss a change in pricing on the account. My sales manager accompanied me on the call, as the increased price was sure to be a touchy issue.
After the introduction it was obvious that the call was not going to be warm and fuzzy. The customer, who was an older individual, sat motionless with a foul expression even before the increase in price was discussed. Once pricing was discussed, the customer slammed his hand down on the desk and said, “This is bull _ _ _ _ , you are trying to put me out of business!”. “I will not accept this! Get the hell out of my office!” he ranted. We made a feeble attempt to explain the pricing but were told again to “Get out now!”
We gathered our materials and made a hasty retreat. The buyer followed us through the open office, full of his employees, ranting at us. On our drive back to the office, my manager and I discussed the call and it was obvious that neither of us expected the reaction, price increases were happening everywhere and ours was modest compared to others.
Upon arriving at the office the Regional Sales Manager (my sales manager’s boss) called me to discuss. The customer had called him and advised that he was ticked and that they were going to move their business if a change was not made. I told the Regional Sales Manager that I had done everything possible on the pricing. He said to me “It is not the pricing that he wants to change, he wants you off of the account. He advised that he was not going to work with you based on your race.” I knew from the conversation that he was sparing me the actual comments made.
Then came a statement that changed my life. He indicated that he told the account that if that is the way you feel, “He is our sales representative, and if you work with us, you will work with Michael. If not, we will, at your suggestion, terminate your account.”The account ‘fired us’ later that day he indicated that he was moving his business and never would return.
Lunch With “the Guys”
I highlighted this situation in one of my Black Sales Journal articles over year ago. Sales is historically one of the loneliest professions. Countless hours of cold calling in high-rises and industrial manufacturing complexes and numerous hours on the phone tend to put you in the mood for some type of camaraderie. This was usually reserved for paydays.
We ‘lunched’ at local restaurant exchanging stories. There were six of us, and I was the only African-American. At that time, I was the only Black sales professional in an office of more than 30 sales professionals.
The subject of automobile accidents came up and here’s the dialogue that followed:
“People are driving crazy these days! On the way to the office this morning I almost got hit by a car load of nig…” He paused before the word could be completed. There was not a person at the table that did not know what he was going to say next. There was also not a person at the table that was not quickly and silently embarrassed. You could see them thinking, “What in the heck is he doing?” I don’t know what normally happened when I was not at lunch with them, but today I happened to be there, and the comfort level was just a little too high.
The table fell silent, and I felt I needed to reinforce what happened by allowing the silence to be deafening. My associate exited to the washroom, and everyone turned and looked at me. I thought that was interesting, but it was an expected reaction. One of my associates said, “I thought you were going to clock him!” I responded, “Then you don’t know me at all.” You could cut the tension with a knife at that point.
Had I not been there the conversation would have continued. Had I not been there tension would not have enveloped the table.Had I not been there no one would’ve been embarrassed. Being there served as a stark reminder that things are often different when you are not around!
When he came back to the table, I took the opportunity to say, “so what happened next?” Letting him know that I heard everything he said clearly and succinctly. He paused in obvious discomfort. As everyone else had a sandwich stuck in the throat, I gave him a less than threatening stare and finished the last bite of my food.
Later that afternoon at the office, several individuals present at the lunch came over to me and told me how uncomfortable they were. But… I know that had not been present there is a strong possibility that no one would have been uncomfortable with the language that was used.
I think it is better in this day and age, but the underlying problems can still exist for some professionals of color. I think the key is to never overreact. Coworkers, customers, and upper management all showed to be a challenge at some point or other. I can only emphasize that I worked with an outstanding company, and with a wonderful group of people, on average, and was blessed with customers that I still consider friends to this day.
Make the best of all of it, and always learn from others. Always be prepared!
Your comments are welcome. You can reach me at Michael.Parker@BlackSalesJ0urnal.com.