"First let me introduce myself my name is Renea Bennett. I am the daughter of Dave Bennett that was in your article and the sister of Bruce Bennett. Sadly they're gone now, but I do remember all the stories that they would tell particularly the one that you wrote about the pony, but it wasn't Bruce that that he wanted to buy the pony for, it was me. Bruce would have been about 20 years old, I was 13 and I never will forget getting that pony we named him Dusty. My dad made a curry comb that would fit onto the Electrolux. When Dusty would see that vacuum he would lay down in the yard so we could use the vacuum curry comb on him he loved it, he also loved malted milk balls. I have enjoyed reading this article so much and hope to hear from you also have a wonderful picture of all the men you mentioned at the Boca Raton, all in their white dinner jackets. I would like to share that with you thank you again for such an enjoyable read.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Door To Door Sales In Appalachia
Working As A Door To Door Salesman
As one of my first blog postings discussed, I grew up in a country store in Knott County Kentucky. I also began selling products door to door there when I was about ten years old. I continued to sell all the way through high school and later worked as a door to door salesman for the Electrolux company in Logan, West Virginia for about five years in the late 1980's. I loved the work, sometimes made wonderful money at it, and sometimes fought to keep from starving to death. But I never lost the love of what old time salesmen call "stone cold door knocking". There is no sense of accomplishment better than going out, knocking on the door of a complete stranger, introducing yourself and your product, and meeting a need for that stranger. On more than one occasion, I became long time friends with people I met doing direct sales.
Photo of 1 can of Cloverine Salve
Direct sales has been given a bad name at times by con artists, chiselers, cheats, and criminals. But it is an honest and honorable profession. Many people who have gone on to become internationally famous and admired have begun their careers as door to door salespeople including Zig Ziglar, Mary Kay Ash, and hundreds of others. I worked with a diverse group of old fashioned door to door salespeople in my time. Most of them had been in the business for years and would not have considered any other means of earning a living. At the time I began working for Electrolux in Logan, West Virginia, that office was filled with one of the finest groups of old time salesmen that has ever been assembled in America. There was Vernon Clark, Jay Casey, Jimmy "J. J. Jones, Vernon Mullins, Dave Bennett, Bruce Bennett, Frank Jarvis, Ed Compton, Don Porter and me along with a rotating cast of short term, temporary people who came and went regularly. Collectively that group of men had more than three hundred years of direct selling experience. They had sold everything "from soup to nuts" as the old expression goes. They had sold vacuum cleaners, cemetery plots, tomb stones, cookware, insurance, water softeners, Fuller Brushes, Avon, encyclopedias, Bibles, and a few things they found lying beside the road. They knew how to find a customer, get a sale, close the deal, and keep the relationship. They were full of experience, wonderful stories, and survival skills that had sometimes been honed under fire in wartime. They were also a very competitive crew. Frank Jarvis actually sold a hundred machines in a month once and won a pickup truck. Vernon Clark, Dave Bennett, Bruce Bennett, Ed Compton, and me all at one time or another were Electrolux branch managers. If you got to a sale before one of those guys you had to be working. Nearly every one of them were superb door knockers and strong closers. But by the time I went to work with them, several of them had stopped working primarily as cold canvassers and were either working part time or using their years of experience to gain sales.
Photo of an Electrolux Vacuum Cleaner With Power Nozzle
Jay Casey and Frank Jarvis were the only two I ever worked with directly. Most of them preferred to work purely alone. At the time I started, Frank Jarvis was listed as an assistant manager but really didn't like to train new people which was the main job of an assistant manager. Every new sales person at Electrolux was assigned to an assistant manager who was supposed to work directly with you for up to thirteen weeks and show you the ropes, teach you how to make a sale, how to do the paperwork, and how to close strongly. In short, they were supposed to give you a crash course in how not to starve to death. As payment, they received a percentage of each sale the trainee made during that first quarter which were known as overwrites. I was initially assigned to an assistant manager who was known as a good salesman but really had a great number of weaknesses including major problems with anger and dishonesty. He never really liked to train anybody but liked to draw the overwrites. I had sold a lot of things door to door before I got to Electrolux but I had never sold vacuum cleaners. I had a problem at first in closing. I just could not look somebody in the eye and ask them for five hundred or a thousand dollars. I did not do well initially and the assistant manager did nothing to help me. He actually cheated me out of the only sale I made while I was working with him by telling me and the customer that the price he negotiated was so low I would make no money on it and got me to let him put the contract in his name.
When I finally figured out what was going on, I asked Ed Compton, the branch manager to transfer me to another assistant manager. He put me with Frank Jarvis who only worked with me for a week. But that week made the whole difference. I was off and running after that. But the most interesting experience I had working with Frank did not involve selling at all. I had knocked on a door in Kermit, West Virginia, down near the railroad tracks, and an old man let me in who had no intentions of buying anything. But the old man was a signs following Holiness preacher as was Frank. We went in the house and I took out my demonstrator machine and began trying to make the sale. Frank and the old preacher began talking about religion. About the time I got the machine put together, they began to speak in tongues and pray. I finally realized there was no sale involved and put the machine up while the impromptu religious service wound down. Frank eventually left Electrolux and sold water softeners for several years for a former Electrolux manager who had gone into business for himself.
Ed Compton was also a preacher in the Church of God of Prophecy. He was a dynamo of a salesman. He eventually left Electrolux to preach full time. I also tend to believe he felt he was passed over for a Division Manager position. Ed was a brother to Lucky D. Compton, a small coal operator who tried to become a NASCAR owner in the 1980's just before he died of a massive heart attack. Ed was an excellent sales trainer, recruiter, and salesman. The service manager in the Logan branch at that time was Ronald Hitchcock who was also a minister in the Church of God of Prophecy and pastored the church of that denomination in Logan. For a time, Ron also went on the books as a salesman. He never was very successful as a salesman but was a good service manager. He was not nearly as dynamic a preacher as Ed or Frank either but he was well liked by his church members. He only received a minimal salary for preaching and had to work at another job to make a living.
Jimmy "J. J." Jones had sold vacuum cleaners about forty years and was a severe diabetic and somewhat aged with multiple health problems. He was already drawing Social Security when I met him. But he stayed on the payroll at Electrolux since his earnings never went over the wage limit Social Security allowed. He usually never knocked on doors anymore and used his years of contacts to pick up sales. But, in his prime, he had been known as a power house of a salesman also. He was also a devoted checkers player who knew where every little store and gas station in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky was located which kept a checker board on their premises. He would go to one of his checker playing spots and play checkers all day and pick up a few sales from people he met that way. J. J. lived most of his life in Mount Gay, West Virginia, which is located at the Mouth of Mud Fork in Logan County. Mud Fork is somewhat famous because Jesse Jackson spent a night in the home of one of his supporters there during his 1980 presidential campaign. Mud Fork was still somewhat racist at that time and for years after Jesse Jackson spent the night there a sign hand painted on a railroad bridge spanning the road up the hollow proclaimed, "Welcome to Mud Fork, Home of The White Man." Despite the sign, no mention was ever made by law enforcement of any serious threats having been made against Jackson. To my knowledge, there was also no proof of any kind of KKK or other white supremacist allegiance in the area. It is much more likely that the sign was simply teenage vandalism brought on by the unusual event of a presidential candidate coming to the area. Years before the Jackson visit to Logan County, Robert Kennedy had also campaigned in front of the Stratton Hotel in downtown Logan.
Vernon Mullins had been a salesman for thirty or forty years and was also a preacher in the Church of Christ, the non-instrumental music branch. He was a well known revivalist and also pastored a church for many years. He would be invited to a revival nearly every week somewhere and primarily sold to people he met in church services. He still managed to sell a good number of machines every month and his past customers were amazingly loyal to him. He always drove a car with an Electrolux sign on it and carried a few machines everywhere he went. He got a lot of sales from people who saw the sign in front of a church. He also had a reputation for being absolutely honest.
Jay Casey was also deeply religious but did not preach. He was a long time member of the Logan Baptist Temple. Jay had sold cemetery plots for many years and also was a lifelong salesman for West Bend stainless steel cookware. He deeply believed in stainless steel cookware and put his primary focus on that. But he had a strong customer base and liked to work both sides of the street. He and I worked together quite often for several years and I liked him a great deal. He was the only person I ever knew who could write a closing mathematical presentation upside down on a sheet of paper. He would turn the paper toward the customer and start his closing figures writing flawlessly the whole time he talked. Customers were so amazed by this ability that I tend to believe he got as many sales because of the trick as he did because of his sales pitches. Jay was also a terribly weak Electrolux man when it came to the physical demonstration of the machine. I had a very strong physical demonstration and the two of us worked well together. I would often go with Jay when he had vacuum cleaner demonstrations scheduled and do the demonstration while he did the sales pitch. I tried selling some cookware but was never very good at it primarily because I was not interested. Jay firmly believed in all the health claims made by West Bend and loved to sell cookware. He had also sold cemetery plots for several different companies and had loved to sell the cemetery business. He never sold cemetery plots during the time I knew him.
Jay and I were working together doing an Electrolux demonstration in a double wide trailer for a woman on Pond Creek in Pike County Kentucky not far from Belfry when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch. We had just begun to demonstrate a vacuum cleaner and shampooer to the woman who had her television on when the special report about the disaster started. We all three simply stopped, sat down and began to watch the story of the explosion. We must have watched the news reports for two hours until they finally made some official pronouncement that they were certain the shuttle had exploded and all crew members would be lost. Finally, we got up, resumed the demonstration and Jay got the sale for over a thousand dollars.
Photo of the Challenger Crew
Jay also got another sale of a vacuum cleaner and shampooer, known as a twin, in a trailer court in Boone County West Virginia just off Route 119 under very interesting circumstances. The buyer was a divorced man and Jay had a "lead" for the sale which meant someone had contacted the office for a demonstration. As we pulled in to the trailer park, we saw two other people going door to door. Since I thought it would have been overkill to start knocking on doors at the same time as the other two I went in the trailer with Jay. We had begun the demonstration when the other two people knocked on the door. Jay, who was closest to the door, opened it and one of the people said, "Hello, we are two of Jehovah's Witnesses, may we come in." Jay, as quick as a shot, said, "I'm Jay Casey, and me and this man is doing business. You need to leave and come back later." I was speechless and I am sure my mouth dropped open at seeing him throw two people out of a total stranger's home. But Jay shut the door and the customer said, "I appreciate that. I can't stand Jehovah's Witnesses. I'm glad you throwed them out." Jay's actions had little or nothing to do with his opinion of Jehovah's Witnesses. He would have done the same thing if they had been Baptists, Catholics, or Muslims. They were standing between Jay and a sale. Nothing more. Nothing less. Jay got the sale and I never pass that trailer court without thinking about that day. Jay had friends all over Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia he had met selling either cookware, vacuum cleaners, or cemetery plots. One of his closest friends, with whom he had sold cemetery plots, was a man named John Boone who claimed to be a direct descendant of Daniel Boone. I never saw John sell, since he was fully retired, but he was legendary in the area and eventually died in a nursing home in South Williamson, Kentucky. Jay and I used to meet Boone for lunch in one of the local fast food restaurants in South Williamson until he went into the nursing home.
Painting of Daniel Boone leading settlers through Cumberland Gap
On another occasion, I was with Jay in Williamson and had been out late the night before. Jay had a scheduled demonstration in an old coal camp house set high on the side of a hill in a small hollow at the east end of Williamson. I stayed in the car to try to get some sleep and Jay made the sale alone. He had only carried a vacuum cleaner in the house but had been able to sell a twin. He came out on the porch, which had plywood banisters about three feet high all the way around, and yelled for me to bring him a shampooer. I got the machine and climbed up the high front steps. To my surprise, about two feet from where Jay had been standing there was a marijuana plant in a flower pot which was nearly as high as the banisters. After we got back in the car, I asked Jay if he thought the credit would be approved and he wanted to know why I thought they might have credit problems. When I said they were drug users, Jay was shocked and had no idea the plant had been marijuana. The sale was approved and the people eventually paid off the account.
Photo of Coal Camp Houses
Not far from that house, Jay had a long time business relationship with an elderly woman to whom he sold cookware and vacuum cleaner parts from time to time. I knew from going there that several other people also lived in the house. But Jay never said anything about anything unusual in the housing arrangement. Later, at a time when Jay was sick or out of town, I took a service call at the house. The elderly woman invited me in, gave me a cup of coffee, and asked me to sit at the kitchen table. She began by saying, "I guess you want to know why all these men live here with me." I said, "No ma'am, that's not any of my business." But the woman insisted on going on with her informational session. She said, "These two younger fellows are my sons. And that man in the living room in there is my husband. The other old man you saw going upstairs is my first husband. He is the boy's daddy. He's pretty sick and can't take care of himself so me and my husband let him live here and pay us rent. He's the boys' daddy and I won't throw him out." On several other occasions, I took service calls at the house and the woman always invited me in for coffee and I came to like her quite a lot. I never had any opinion whatever about her living arrangements. But she had obviously wanted to make sure I knew what was going on and who was who in the house. It is also worthy of note that she was not the first or last person I ever knew who took in the parent of their children at or near the end of life in order to avoid having the former spouse die alone in a nursing home.
Jay and I worked together for several years and life on the sales circuit with him was always interesting. He always drove an older Dodge station wagon which he had painted a bright lemon yellow. All over eight or ten counties in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia people who knew Jay were alerted well in advance when he was in town because of the color of that car. Other than Jim Ferrell, discussed in another posting, Jay was my best friend in Logan County.
Vernon Clark had sold Electrolux most of his adult life and had been manager in both Logan and Clarksburg. All salesmen are good talkers. Most of them can tell a good joke or story if they so desire. Vernon Clark loved to talk and tell stories. He was garrulous, verbose, loquacious, and funny. He had a thousand stories and I wish I remembered them all. He was also a strong repairman and loved to make money on the side doing repairs in the field which was a violation of Electrolux policy. He was also a master bojacker. Very few people outside the direct sales business have ever heard the words bojack, bojacker, or bojacking. A bojack is a used machine which the salesman owns and sells on the side to make extra money. It may have been a trade in which the salesman didn't turn in to the company. It might be a machine a salesman had bought at a flea market, yard sale, or auction. A bojacker is a salesman who makes a large portion of his money selling bojacks. Bojacking is the act of selling bojacks. It was common for salesmen who bojacked to always be on the lookout for beat up, used, junk machines they could pick up and keep until they got a good trade in on a company sale. Then you switched the junker for the good machine and sold it for yourself. The money was all cash and a good bojack could pay your gas and lunch money for a month. Vernon always had a few bojacks and would rather sell them than company machines any day. Due to heavy bojacking and switching of worthless trade ins, about once a year the company would announce that they would not allow branch managers to accept trade ins which did not run or did not have cords. But salesmen regularly stopped at roadside dumps, yard sales, and auctions to pick up old Hoovers. The company always made bulk sales of trade ins to some small vacuum cleaner repair shop operator in Huntington or Charleston. They never made any money off the deal and good trade ins sold for no more than bad ones. But the company did not want to lose the sales volume generated by bojacking. If decent Electrolux machines were ever traded and actually turned in by the salesman, the company sent them to the factory to be rebuilt and sold as rebuilt machines at a cheaper price than new.
Vernon told some of the best selling stories I have ever heard. One I still use today in human interactions involved a sale Vernon had lost years before I ever met him. He said he got into a house with a young couple who also had an old woman living in the house. He said the old woman just sat in the corner and watched silently while he tried to make the sale. He said he was certain that he had sold the young couple five minutes after he started. But they wouldn't ever close the deal. Finally, as he was about to give up and go out the door, the young couple said "We love the vacuum cleaner but we ain't got no job and no money. Grandma draws a check and that's what we all live on. If Grandma wants it, we can buy it." Grandma, who had been ignored the whole time didn't buy it. Vernon always said you have to know what is going on in the house and "don't ever forget Grandma." Still today thirty years later, in group situations, I try to always remember Grandma.
The other interesting point in that story is that Vernon Clark missed a sale. He could usually smell money and had as high a closing percentage as any salesman I ever knew. He hated to miss a sale when he thought he should have gotten it. Once I picked up a cash sale which Vernon had missed not far from Chapmanville. I knocked on the door of a widow about seventy five and she let me in and told me she wanted to see a new Electrolux. I did the demonstration and the woman very easily bought the machine. She was very well dressed and quite attractive for her age. As she was getting the trade in out of the closet, she said, "You know Vernon Clark was here and I didn't buy one from him. I think he thought I was making a pass at him. I want a man but I don't want one that old." She also reached in the back of the closet and got a set of salesman's demonstrator steel balls and said "Vernon run off and left these. I think I had him flustered." Salesmen, including both Vernon and myself, often used a set of four large ball bearings nearly as big as tennis balls in a plastic tube that fitted over the end of a vacuum cleaner hose. As a demonstration, you spilled the heavy balls out in the floor and picked them up with the vacuum cleaner. They would go click, click, click as they popped into the tube and you could actually hold the tube off the floor with the machine running and they would not fall out. It was a very impressive physical demonstration.
She gave me the check and Vernon's steel balls and I took them in the office in my jacket pocket with the contract the next morning. The regular salesmen usually came in for a morning meeting and to pick up supplies. There was always a lot of joking and ribbing going on in the meeting. At that time, I was in the middle of a long run of good sales from a collection of widows and the salesmen had been kidding me about "leaning on the widder business". Widows often had insurance settlement money or new Social Security checks and were considered an easy market. I pulled the check and contract out first and Vernon said "I guess you got you another widder yesterday didn't you?" I answered, "Well, yes I did and it was one you missed out on Vernon." I explained who she was and where she lived and Vernon said, "Yeh, I believe I remember who she is." At that point, I took his steel balls out of my pocket and handed them to him and said, "You ought to remember her Vernon. You left your balls there." Naturally, it broke up the meeting but Vernon took it well even after I added the part about "not wanting one his age." But he never did admit to having been flustered in the woman's house. A few years ago, I went to Vernon's house in Mitchell Heights, West Virginia, and took him to lunch in Logan at Shoney's. He was in his late eighties and had quite a bit of damage from an earlier stroke and was not the same man. But we still had a good lunch and talk.
Vernon also told two of my favorite stories about his selling days before I ever met him. He said that in the days of cloth demonstrator bags he was demonstrating an Electrolux Model G in a house where the woman had several small children running all over the house. The house had wood floors and he said he was not having much luck getting a sale. He said he kept adding jobs the machine would do such as cleaning the beds, couches, and chairs. He said he even cleaned some of the curtains and suddenly noticed "a wad of flies just sitting in the corner in the floor." He said he looked at the woman and said, "Ma'am, you can even catch flies with this machine." He said as he was lowering the wand toward the flies the woman tried to stop him but it was too late. As the wand came down over the flies, he heard a heavy sucking sound in the machine and shortly thereafter began to smell feces. The flies had been sitting on a pile of feces where an untrained child had defecated in the corner. He said he had to take the machine home, wash the cloth demonstrator bag, clean the whole machine, and "run smell good through that thing for two days to get the smell out." Vernon loved to tell that story when the situation was right.
Another of Vernon's favorite stories was about a time, several years before when he had been working with Dave Bennett during a drive month. Drive months were in April and October and were usually a salesman's best months of the year. The company always either introduced a new machine model or put the most recent model on sale. Spring and fall cleaning also increased sales. Salesmen worked long hours, carried every machine in their cars they could get their hands on and made every deal possible because prizes were also much better in drive months. Vernon said he and Dave were working in some kind of old coupe that belonged to Dave and had taken the back seat out to make more room for machines and even tied a few trade ins and bojacks on the trunk. They got into a house and Dave was working hard to sell the deal. Finally, the man said, "Buddy, I'd love to have that thing but I ain't got a penny. The only thing I have is that pony out in the barn lot. Will you trade me that vacuum cleaner for that pony?" Vernon said he thought there was no way that deal would go down but Dave went to the barn to look at the pony and came back in the house with a bojack and traded it for the pony. Vernon said he was speechless and asked, "Dave, how are you going to get the pony home?" Dave said "Vernon, we'll haul it in the back seat." Vernon said what he had not realized was that Dave's daughter Renea was about twelve or thirteen years old and wanted Dave to buy her a pony. Renea Bennet has contacted me after reading this post. I had initially written it under the impression that Dave had traded for the pony for his son Bruce. Renea Bennet sent me this message, still found in the comments section of this post, about the pony:
The photo to which Renea Bennet refers pictures her father, Dave Bennet, and a group of other men in white dinner jackets at an Electrolux dinner in Boca Raton, Florida. In the fifties and sixties, Electrolux held an annual weeklong sales award convention in Boca Raton. Top achievers were given the trip, hotel, food, and convention as an annual prize. I am unsure who the other men in the photo are due to the poor quality of cameras at the time. If anyone recognizes anyone else in the photo, please send me a message and I will add their names. It is wonderful to have Renea Bennet find the story, confirm the pony story, and achieve some pleasure from the post. This is one of the best benefits of being a blogger.
Photo Copyrighted By Renea Bennett and Used With Permission
The car belonged to Dave and Vernon had no say in the matter. He said Dave went out and moved all the few remaining machines out of the back seat area and tied them on the trunk and led the pony to the car. "Push him in Vernon," Dave said and led the pony in the passenger door with his head pointed out the driver's side window. Vernon said he never even thought about anything until he got in the car and Dave drove off. Vernon suddenly said, "Dave, what do we do if he needs to raise his tail? You put his back end right behind my head." Dave laughed and said, "Vernon, you didn't think I'd put it behind my head did you?" Vernon said they had to stop for gas before they got back to Dave's house. A sleepy boy about fifteen or sixteen was pumping the gas and didn't seem to notice anything unusual about the car. But Vernon said as they drove away he heard the boy yell, "G.....n, that's a pony."
In the days I worked with Vernon, he never went out selling with anyone except Don Porter, the salesman who had been a service man when he first started with Electrolux. They usually travelled together and always sold high volume. Don was an excellent bojacker and repairmen. I am sure the two of them probably made more money from repairs and bojacking than they made from company sales. But Vernon would always sell just enough machines to pay for his insurance each quarter. In those days, if you sold twenty seven machines a quarter you received free health insurance. I am sure today that no direct salesman in America gets insurance and very few get any benefits at all. Before I left Electrolux, they were cutting back on everything, franchising independent dealers, and moving toward having no sales force employed directly by the company. Now they sell only major appliances through franchisees.
After I finally learned how to close from Frank Jarvis, I was eventually made an assistant manager and actually enjoyed training new people. Ed Compton usually assigned all new women sales people to me since I was not married or deeply religious like several of the others. Most of the other salesmen would not train women because they did not want to be seen in public with a woman other than their wives. My favorite trainee of all time was a young black woman named Damita Gilbert. She was smart, pretty, soft spoken, and had a wonderful style about getting inside homes for demonstrations. She was also a Jehovah's Witness which was her only serious drawback because it seriously restricted the amount of time she was willing to sell. She would only sell three or four days a week and would evanglelize the rest of the week. But when she was selling her only focus was on selling. We made a great good cop, bad cop team.
I was training Damita and a young white girl named Debbie Lambert in Naugatuck, West Virginia, the day she got her first sale. We were in a trailer court and both girls got demonstrations at the same time. I knew Damita had much better skills and went with Debbie to her trailer. The young couple who lived there were poor as dirt and I knew shortly after I got in the trailer that there was no sale there. But I stayed with her for about a half hour and finally said, "I better go check on Damita." The trailer she was in had been set up about four feet off the ground because that area flooded often. It had rough wooden steps and I just stood on the ground and knocked on the door. The woman came to the door and I asked, "Have you seen a young woman around here? I lost one a while ago." Across the room, Damita was sitting in a chair with a contract on her lap and grinning from ear to ear.
During the time I worked with her, I lost my voice once during January and February. I could talk just enough to knock on a few doors and get inside. But if I did a full sales pitch, I was totally speechless. Damita and I worked together during that time with me doing the physical demonstrations and her doing the sales pitches. She knew my technique so well that I could hit a point in the demonstration where I would ask selling questions and she would hit them on cue when I stopped the machine. We sold nearly as much that way together as we had been selling separately.
Once up above Matewan, West Virginia, in a little neighborhood called Meador, I got in a house late in the evening and had Damita and another girl with me. The old woman had a son who was apparently mentally ill who lived with her and answered the door. I managed to talk my way into the house by telling the old woman that I got credit for every demonstration I gave and I would not even ask her to buy the machine. She told me she had a good Electrolux but "if it will help you, I'll let you show it to me." I also asked, since it was getting dark, if she minded if the two girls came in to watch the demonstration. She said yes and the girls came in and sat on the couch. I did my usual physical demonstration and every time I took a test cloth full of dirt out of the vacuum cleaner instead of asking the old woman a selling question I would hold the test cloth close to her face, smile, and ask, "Did you know I was coming? Did you leave that in there on purpose?" Finally, after I had cleaned a section of her son's old cotton mattress on his bed in the room adjoining the living room, I asked the old woman again, "Did you know I was coming? Did you leave that in there on purpose?" By this time, the two girls who had always seen me work in my usual manner must have thought I had lost my mind. But the old woman looked at the test cloth full of dirt and asked, "How much is that thing?" I stepped between the old woman and the machine and looked as if I would not sell it to her unless she held a gun on me and said, "Now, did I ask you to buy that?" She said, "No, but I want it. How much is it?" I told her $649.95 plus tax and she went to get her check book. I remembered that I had an identical machine in the car which I had won in a contest and was waiting for a cash sale since I couldn't write it up on credit. I asked if she would mind to switch and buy mine and she agreed and wrote the check out to me for nearly $675.00 which was an awful lot of money in the 1980's. I folded the check and put it in my shirt pocket and began packing up the demonstrator. Suddenly, the son walked over to Damita and put his hand on her elbow and said, "Do you know when he knocked on that door I was getting ready to run him off? I thought sure he was one of them Jehovah's Witnesses." I nearly gasped and instinctively put my hand over the check in my shirt pocket. I was certain Damita would tell him the truth about her religion. If she had told him, I would not have said a word against. While I might not agree with her religion, the constitution gives everyone the right to practice any religion they choose. But instead of telling him, she looked him square in the eye, smiled, and said, "Oh, really?" And that was all she said until we were in the car on our way back to Logan. We laughed for fifty miles and to this day, if they are still alive, those two people have no idea that Damita was a devout Jehovah's Witness.
I had never used that particular technique for selling before and I never did again. But a few days later, Damita tried it and I will never forget it. She got in a house that was well into six figures owned by a very well dressed white woman who seemed to have a high opinion of herself and her circumstances. Damita started the demonstration and when she took the first test cloth full of dirt out of the machine, she held it in front of the woman's nose and said, "Did you know I was coming? Did you leave that in there on purpose?" Even before I saw the woman's expression change, I knew it had been a mistake. It instantly became a situation of comparative classes and races in the woman's mind. She turned cold as ice and Damita lost the sale. She realized her mistake about two seconds after I did. In about fifteen minutes, it was clear there was no sale in the house and we left. As we were driving away, Damita said, "Why on earth did I think that would work in that house with that woman?" I couldn't have agreed with her more.
We worked together for nearly a year and I was always proud to work with Damita wherever we went. We were a wonderful hard and soft selling team. We trusted each other and knew each other's style and often knew what the other would say before we said it. She was the best sales trainee I ever trained. I have no idea what ever happened to her. But I think of her often.
Once I was training a young man about twenty in Pike County, Kentucky, up near Phelps and Freeburn. I got in a house and actually sold a triple for cash, two vacuum cleaners and a shampooer. The deal was somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500.00 and my commission was over $300.00. As a part of the deal, I did what was called a T-Trade. In that transaction, instead of giving a cash off trade in, you gave the client a hand held electric dust broom which cost the salesman nothing in commission as a cash trade in would have. You entered the price of the dust broom, $89.95, on the sales total and subtracted $89,95 in the trade in line. As I was explaining how the deal worked to the customer, the boy I was training looked at me and said, "Why you ain't nothing but an old con artist." I made some joke and got through the rest of the contract. But when we were safely in the car and on the way out of Freeburn, I told him that if he ever called me a con artist in public again he would be walking back to Logan.
As I said in the beginning of this post, con artists, cheats, chiselers, and criminals have done a great deal of damage to the reputations of thousands of honest salespeople. Nearly all of the salesmen and sales women I worked with in Logan were scrupulously honest. But that is not the case with the employees of many other direct selling companies and especially the vacuum cleaner companies other than Electrolux. Most of the competition train their sales forces to set a fantastically high and fictitious price on the equipment when they go in the door. They then drop a hundred dollars or so every hour or so, stay in the house until the customer either surrenders from exhaustion or throws them out, and they still sell the machine for much more than it is worth. This also allows those companies employees to give what appear to be outrageously high trade ins on sales. Electrolux always set a firm price on each machine, placed strict limits on trade ins, and within that policy every customer got equal treatment. I grew up in a home where my mother had an Electrolux Model LX on runners. I have an Electrolux in my home today more than thirty years after I left the business. They are consistently the best machine on the market and, in the days of direct sales, their sales force and sales policy was the best and most honest in the business.
As I was growing up, I sold door to door in Knott County from the age of ten. I sold a variety of products including garden seed, Rosebud Salve, Cloverine Salve, Grit Newspaper, and graduated to vacuum cleaners as an adult. I loved the business. And if it was realistic in today's social climate, I would be willing to sell part time today. I learned a great deal about human nature as a salesman which I have used as a horse farm foreman, a therapist, a staff trainer, and an educator. But with the fear of terrorism, drug trafficking and related crime, and other 21st century social problems as well as the sales success of the Internet, it is unrealistic and often dangerous to be a door to door salesman. Most of the companies have gone out of the business. Most of the old salesmen and saleswomen are dead. But they should be remembered and the good ones should be revered.
I have told very few of my own selling stories so far and concentrated on those of the other sales people I knew. But now I will tell a few of my own favorites from my career. One of the first creative closes I ever did involved a Grit Newspaper I earned a nickle for selling when I was about ten. I always stopped at the Kentucky, West Virginia Gas Pumping Station on Beaver and tried to sell a Grit to the crew in their day room and office. I went in there one day and one of the men told me he couldn't read. I knew him and knew better. So I asked, "Well, can you smell?" He said, "Yes, I can smell. But what's that got to do with it?" I replied, "Well, this paper is all b......t anyway. If you can smell, you'll be all right." I got the sale and a good laugh.
One of the strangest experiences I ever had involved a woman in Boone County West Virginia who, I know now, was mentally ill. She let me in the house but I could see rapidly that she was "not quite right" so I did not bring in my demonstrator. She told me her husband, Little Willie, was dead. Then she led me to the bedroom door and pointed to a life sized, inflatable male doll dressed in bib overalls, a flannel shirt, and a hat. She said, "That's Little Willie's clothes. I lay there at night and look at that and I feel good. Little Willie used to call me his pussy cat." Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat out of the house.
Another time, in Lincoln County West Virginia, I had a woman about 65 just blatantly proposition me. I was a little past 35 at the time. She said, "I like to go to Huntington on the weekends. I draw a good check. I need a good man with a good car to take me to Huntington, go out to eat, and have a good time. I'll pay for everything." I did not take her up on the deal. On another occasion near the Boone and Logan County line, I ran into an old woman about the same age who was not so blatant but kept calling me back for useless service calls. I finally got the point and quit taking the calls.
Once between Man and Logan, I ran into every salesman's nightmare, a filthy house and a risque woman. She invited me in and asked to see one of the old, heavy duty Electrolux upright vacuum cleaners. She had me put the hose attachment on and after testing the suction, said, "Boy, I bet that would put a hickey on you." I managed to escape and, as I recall, the house had been so dirty I had to clean the entire machine before I could demonstrate with it again. I even went back home and changed my clothes and showered because I could not get the smell out of my nostrils.
But, thank God, not all of the forward women were dirty, old, or ugly. I was single at the time and actually formed relationships with two different women I met while selling. One I lived with for nearly three years But, I also learned to see the advances coming fairly well in advance and developed ways to handle them without losing the sale if one was actually there. Most of the women who wanted something more never wanted to buy a machine anyway.
It was also a part of your job at Electrolux to collect on the credit accounts you sold and to do repossessions if need be. Sales managers were ultimately responsible for the overall collection percentage and would coerce salesmen to collect and do repos on accounts where the salesman who sold the machine was no longer employed. The first time I ever did a repo, Ed Compton asked me to repo a machine in a coal camp on Pond Creek in Pike County Kentucky. I hunted for the man whose name was on the contract and had trouble finding him. Finally, I saw a deputy sheriff's car in front of a trailer and knocked on the door to ask if the deputy knew the man. He said, "That's me." I will never forget it. I told him why I was there and we eventually worked out the problem. It turned out that the deputy was married to the ex-wife of a former Electrolux salesman who had earlier owed her a sizable sum of child support. He had told her he would give her a vacuum cleaner if she would drop the demand for back support funds. He had somehow gotten the deputy's personal data, filled out a contract, forged the name, and not paid for the machine which led to the repo. It was an interesting first repo experience. In today's world, he would be prosecuted for identity theft. But the laws regarding identity theft did not exist at that time and nothing happened to the former salesman.
I also used to do a lot of what is called "selling on assumption". There are certain questions and phrases which, while being as direct as "how much" or "write me up", still clearly imply ownership in the customer's mind. When you hear a phrase like that, you reach for the contract book and start writing it up until they stop you. I was in a home in Mitchell Heights, West Virginia, and the woman asked every buying question in the book and I wrote up the contract as we went. But she would not sign it and eventually I had to leave. About a week later, she called the office and told the receptionist to "send a salesman up to my house but don't send that skinny fellow with glasses...he wrote up a contract before I told him I wanted to buy it". I lost that sale. But if I had to give back all the money I made by selling on assumption, I would still be in the hole.
I spent about five years selling for Electrolux until the coal business bottomed out in the late 1980's. I enjoyed nearly every minute of it. I learned a great deal about people and made some very good friends and decent money most of the time. I loved direct sales. The old time direct salesmen and saleswomen were fun to be around. Those were better times for most of the country and it would not be all bad if we could go back there again. But Thomas Wolfe said "you can't go back home" and he was right.