Friday, August 18, 2017

A Salesman's Odyssey

A fictional story, inspired by true events!

“Do you know Adobe?” she asked.

“Yes! I’ve been using Adobe Creative Cloud for years now,” was my reply.

“What about InDesign?”

“I’ve used it for years. I used it at my previous job to create manuals, pack-in sheets and pamphlets. As a matter of fact, that portfolio you’re looking at was made in InDesign.”

“Have you ever done sales?”

“Well… No, but I used to answer the phone at work in an effort to try to help the salespeople out. I didn’t have access to QuickBooks or anything to enter orders with or to take money, but I endeavored to be courteous and to help the customer out as much as I could before sending them to the sales department.”

“Well, this is directly interacting with customers. You’ve never done that have you? I mean, would you be willing to do that?”

“Yes, I’d be willing to learn.”

This exchange happened eight weeks before my first (and last) job in the sales department of a small local newspaper came to a sudden end.

I should point out that nothing I told my future (and now former) boss (who I will refer to as “Mary Beth” from this point forward) was a lie: I have indeed used Adobe Creative Cloud (and specifically InDesign) for years, and I have never done any sort of sales, and believe it or not, I was genuinely willing to learn how to sell. But that was my problem, you see: I had expected to have training, and that was a mistake.

I had been hired to take the place of another employee (let’s call her “Sally”) who had been with the company for five years. That number was important, because I was attempting to fill those shoes quickly, and during the full two-and-a-half days of training (yes, I’m not making that number up) that I had with that employee, I learned that no one there seemed to know who their various clients actually were (often referred to in vague references of business names), that all of their graphic design was done in InDesign, that any “art” used in the paper was downloaded clip art, and that in 2017, with clear access to simple and numerous database programs, people still used a pile of index cards to write sales leads on.

But things really got tough after “Sally” left. I made an honest effort to track down who the various clients were, only to find out that much of the contact information I was given was grievously out-of-date, but I persevered. It was rough trying to go from a constantly up-to-date Adobe Creative Cloud InDesign on the PC to a horribly redacted version of Adobe Creative Suite on a Mac, which itself had not had an OS update in years, resulting in web browsers that no longer worked and weird program glitches that seemed to happen from time-to-time. It was made all the worse by the fact that “Sally” never had any formal training with InDesign and had never actually bothered to learn any best procedures while using it, resulting in files that were far more difficult to edit than they needed to be. Still, the few ads that I made from scratch were lauded by my clients, and that felt good.

The great unraveling

I think that I knew the end was coming when one of our biggest healthcare clients told me that they wanted to, “see what I could do.” I spent (probably too much time) crafting an ad that used their web page’s colors to great effect, coordinated fonts to look smooth, and colored text boxes with indent spacing so that they could be resized on the fly with the text, making future manipulation better. It looked professional, and I was proud of the job that I had done. The client wasn’t, and kept asking for revision after revision, until finally they gave up and said, “we’ll have our people do it next week,” indicating that I lost the sale for that week. I was crushed by this. “Mary Beth,” rather than being a supportive boss who could have listened and been supportive, decided at that moment to basically yell at me that I should have just done what “Sally” did, and had me look at their previous ad, which was a mess of colors, mismatched clip art, and about six different fonts willy-nilly throughout the page. That was when “Mary Beth” decided that the large clients were too important to entrust to me, and began taking them for herself.

This, of course, made my job even harder, because now I didn’t have the large client base that “Sally” previously had. What’s more, “Mary Beth” hired another salesperson (we’ll call her “Anna”) who was experienced, full of enthusiasm, and ready to make some sales… Until over the course of three weeks I watched “Mary Beth” whittle down “Anna’s” enthusiasm to the point the poor girl was just sick at the thought of coming to work.

Now before we go any further, I want to say that I don’t entirely blame “Mary Beth.” She is a capable woman, that much is true, having started several businesses from scratch. That is admirable for a mother of three with no formal training. The staff at the paper I worked for were great people, and the loss of “Sally” coupled with next-to-no-training and a steep learning curve for new employees really affected the cash flow. Because she suddenly had to take on so many of the responsibilities of her former protégé, she was understandably under a lot of stress.

That didn’t make her any easier to work with.

From this point on, “Mary Beth” would loudly affirm that everyone should have been making sales calls, that there should be no typing, just calls calls calls. But here was the reason that it took me so long to make those calls: I had started my own personal database of contacts, so that I could record short notes of who I called, what I said to them, and how they responded. This was important, because even though I was writing it down, “Mary Beth” would ask me if I had called a client out of the blue, thinking that I was not, but here’s the other thing: Almost none of the people I called ever answered their phone, and a fair few even told me to communicate via email only. Once I started taking these notes, I could look up a conversation in a matter of moments, rather than having to dig through the archaic paper lists that she had us using.

What’s more, “Mary Beth” began assigning us clients to call on, but she herself couldn’t keep a damn thing straight about whose client was whose, giving sales that I had made previously to the other salespeople. This culminated in a moment where “Mary Beth” began grilling me on who I was calling, accusing me of ignoring a client – that she had assigned to the other salesperson. At this point I almost blew up at her, telling her that her system wasn’t working, whereupon I was given an angry speech that “it’s worked for seven years now, there’s nothing wrong with it!” before she dimwittedly gave a client that I was actively working with to another salesperson not five minutes later (true story). After about three weeks of “Mary Beth’s” needling abuse, “Anna” quit, and quite honestly, I envied her… But I’m no quitter!

“It’s worked for seven years now, there’s nothing wrong with it!”
-Mary Beth, right before it didn't work

Selling ads for a weekly free newspaper isn’t easy, despite what “Mary Beth” would have one believe, but learning it under the gun is even worse. People (usually small businesses) pay good money to have a small ad put in the paper for weeks at a time, and very few get any traction from it at all (believe me, I’ve asked some of the people I’ve sold ads to in the past). When I worked for the paper, I was put in charge of employment ads, but if the position is filled they’re not going to advertise again. If they get no responses from your publication, they’re not likely to advertise again – ever. Even if a daily paper is expensive to advertise in, they’re more likely to use it because daily papers are typically delivered to the reader’s door, and not picked up at random gas stations. Moreover, employers will pay the extra money for an online option so that they not only get tech-savvy people, but because getting data from an online form is much easier for a large business to deal with.

The graphic design wasn’t easy, either. Don’t misconstrue that: There’s nothing magical or special about creating graphics for a newspaper, but there’s something difficult about making graphics for a paper that is run by “Mary Beth,” who would constantly state that “Sally used to make graphics while she was still on the phone with a client and have it sent over to them while she was still on the line!” Personally, in the nearly three days that I spent training under “Sally,” I had never seen her do this, nor noticed any indication that she ever had. I did once watch her painfully and ploddingly manually resize the text in the columns of a feature for almost an hour, a feat that took me about two minutes to do BECAUSE I KNOW HOW TO USE INDESIGN DAMMIT – sorry, that was uncalled for. I can believe that “Sally” never spent more than a few minutes with her graphics, however, because trying to make edits to them was a nightmare of shape layers acting as the backgrounds of text boxes, weird combinations of fonts, not a single paragraph style anywhere to be found, and a drunk freshman’s understanding of color theory. To be fair, most of her ads looked fine, though a few left a lot to be desired (she had obviously honed it with time).

So early in what would become my last week I began calling in volume. I stayed focused, which wasn’t easy with “Mary Beth” constantly coming over to tell me that everything I was doing was wrong and that “Sally” could have done it so much better and faster. “Mary Beth” sold an ad that her client sent to her in a Microsoft Publisher file, and she couldn’t figure out how to open it, but I had Publisher on my machine and told her to send it over. It took me about 10 minutes to create an InDesign file equivalent of the publisher one in our paper’s format from nearly scratch (it was seriously easy), but instead I was told that I had taken too long with it. Other little interruptions like this broke out throughout the week, and I got them all taken care of quickly, so that I could concentrate on my calls.

Simply using the list of contacts that I had built-up. Between Tuesday and Thursday, I had made around 70 calls, and sold three small ads, which wasn’t enough to meet my sales goals for the week. When I came in on Friday “Mary Beth” was already there, along with the editor-in-chief (I’m guessing that he was there as backup in case anything happened). She informed me that “It’s not working out, and I think you know that.”

I packed up my things and left, but before leaving, I told her, “You want my advice? Get “Sally” back. Double her pay if you have to, because you are LOST without her.”

My advice to anyone out there, learn to spot a “Mary Beth” before you work for him or her. These people are usually religious (in the sense of status and ease-of-offense, not necessarily the ‘love your fellow man’ bits) and very embedded in the community. They get where they are by smiling and sucking up to power, are very passive-aggressive, and in private are the most miserable people you’ll ever come across. I can’t explain it, really. Let’s just say that I once saw “Mary Beth” at an event which was fun and exciting, where she was a participant. If one was to take a photograph of her during this event with a telephoto lens, she would be glowering and look like the most bitter and hateful person you’ve ever seen trying to have fun. That is not a fun person to be around, and that is not a good person to work for.

And so my odyssey in sales ends. I’m not unhappy to be rid of it.

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