Life is a big grinder sale

Selling them is the same
Selling them is the same

Everyone has to learn to sell, even New York Times bestselling authors like Elizabeth Gilbert. In fact, her sales skills were a big part of what made her such a success. I read Eat Pray Love when I was getting ready to write Ahead of the Curve, my book about Harvard Business School and trying to figure out how to write a memoir. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gilbert was wonderful company all the way through her strange journey – and I subsequently read her earlier book The Last American Man, about Eustace Conway, which is flat-out great.

She was profiled in the NYTimes magazine last week by Steve Almond, and the piece started with a story about selling:

When Elizabeth Gilbert was in fourth grade, her teacher, Ms. Sandie Carpenter, announced a fund-raiser. Students were asked to sell grinders — New Englandese for “sub sandwiches” — to pay for a class trip. There was never any question whether Gilbert would participate. Still, door-to-door sales of a perishable foodstuff can prove intimidating, even to a zealous 9-year-old.

So her mother, Carole, initiated a training program. She made Gilbert go outside and close the front door. Gilbert then had to knock, introduce herself and explain what she was selling and why. “Our family’s going on vacation next week,” Carole might announce. “What if we want the grinders two weeks from now?” To which Gilbert would generally respond, “I don’t know!” and start crying. “Back it up,” her mother would say. “Try it again. Get it right, kid.” And close the door.

They did this, Gilbert recalls, for what felt like a whole afternoon.

A decade and a half later, Gilbert took an elevator up to the offices of Spin magazine to ask for a job. Her only connection at the magazine was having met the publisher, Bob Guccione Jr., at a party once. She had no experience as a journalist — her degree from N.Y.U. was in international relations — and enough good sense to be terrified. The doors to the elevator opened. Gilbert took a deep breath. Come on, she told herself. You’re Carole Gilbert’s daughter. Go do this!

The receptionist was, to put it gently, unmoved by her appeal. A concerned secretary appeared, then a personal assistant. Gilbert politely refused to budge. Guccione eventually agreed to see her but had no recollection of having met her. Look, he said finally, my assistant is going out of town for three days. You can do his job. At the end of this stint, Guccione pulled out his wallet, handed Gilbert 300 bucks and wished her good luck.

Some months later, Gilbert placed her first short story in Esquire, which published it with the subtitle “the debut of an American writer.” She sent the story to Guccione with a note that read, “I told you I was a writer!” He called and offered her an assignment on the spot.

The lesson was obvious. Life was just a big grinder sale. Your job was to knock on the door and not to leave until your ambitions were met.

I recently spoke to an audience of interior decorators in Naples, Florida about selling. They’re not selling books or articles, or grinders, but visions of what people’s homes can look like. Many had chosen their profession because they loved the products and the work of designing, but once in it found it was a business and they had to sell. Finding a way to do that, to treat selling as the means to turning your passions into a living, as Gilbert has done, is really the whole trick.

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Cal Worthington – sometimes all it takes is a jingle

ImageA wonderful obituary in today’s NYTimes of Cal Worthington, a car dealer and salesman who for decades bombarded California with his madcap television commercials. 

Like so many great salesmen, he was born dirt poor. Selling was his route out, and he embraced it with all his heart:

In relentless campaigns that treated television viewers to as many as 100 commercials a day, Mr. Worthington proclaimed the virtues of the latest gem on the lot while, for example, strapped to the wing of a soaring biplane or standing on his head on the hood of a car — a visible demonstration of his motto, “I will stand upon my head until my ears are turning red to make a deal.”

 

In the background, a chorus of male voices and frantic banjo pickers sang a jingle to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” each of its many verses ending with the tag line: “Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.”

The madness only escalated. When a rival dealer began using a pet dog in his television advertisements in the early 1970s, Mr. Worthington rustled up a gorilla and told the audience: “Howdy, I’m Cal Worthington and this is my dog Spot. I found this little fella down at the pound and he’s so full of love.”

 

Spot reappeared as a hippo, an iguana and a snake, but never a dog. In other Spot spots, which ran until the 1980s, Mr. Worthington rode Shamu the killer whale at an aquatic theme park while waving his cowboy hat, chauffeured a tiger in a golf cart and sat astride an elephant. All the while, the Cal chorus belted out the promise of fabulous deals:

 

If you need a better car, go see Cal.
For the best deal by far, go see Cal.
If you want your payments low, if you want to save some dough,
Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.

 

The exuberant cheesiness of Mr. Worthington’s ads made him a folk hero, as much a part of California popular culture as Woodies with surfboards on the roof or Orange Julius stands. He was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show,” where Johnny Carson performed ad parodies. He appeared as himself in the 1973 Jack Lemmon film “Save the Tiger” and was the model for the car salesman played by Ted Danson in the 1993 film “Made in America.” He even infiltrated Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice.”

Amazingly, he never owned a car, preferring to borrow them off his own lots. The obituary ends with this: 

“I never much liked the car business,” Mr. Worthington said in 2007. “I just kind of got trapped in it after the war. I didn’t have the skills to do anything else. I just wanted to fly.”

 

A couple of his ads:

An interview with him: http://youtu.be/nQlgFdyJYuQ