Basic Training – “A Life In Sales” – Advanced Excerpt

This is a special advanced excerpt of Joe’s untitled non-fiction work, (working title: A Life In Sales) which will be published in 2017.

Basic Training

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.

We are what we repeatedly do.

Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”  

—Aristotle

Trans Pacific was a small division of PennCorp Financial. PennCorp was a conglomerate of smaller entities built onto the skeleton of the ancient Pennsylvania Life Insurance Company. PennCorp’s home office was close by in Santa Monica, but oh so far away from Trans Pacific’s outpost at the Van Nuys Airport way out in the Valley. The president of PennCorp, Stanley Beyer, was recognized as a wunderkind in the industry. He had become consummate at the art of building shareholder value under the tutelage of the company chairman, Joe ‘J.D.’ Bain. Beyer had methodically turned the sleepy old-line life insurance company into an accident insurance cash-generating machine.

Beyer drove sales growth by borrowing a few proven principles from the legendary W. Clement Stone and then adding a few tricks of his own. Beyer pocketed humongous performance bonuses and had begun conspicuously consuming. In 1979 he was living in Bugsy Siegel’s old mansion in Beverly Hills, right next door to Burt Bacharach. He wasn’t bashful about letting everyone know that he’d just commissioned the famed architect, John Lautner, (Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégé) to build a ten thousand square foot mansion on a promontory point in the swankiest part of Malibu. The home would later be valued at over twenty million dollars.

Apparently, there was a lot of moola in the little accident insurance policies that we were selling. Trans Pacific was a star cash cow for the parent company. The rent for the Spartan office in Van Nuys was cheap, and annual production increased by double-digits each year. Anything the agency directors, Bud and Norb, did to keep the premium dollar flowing was fine by Stanley Beyer. As the story went, both Bud and Norb were once part of the home office executive-level team in Santa Monica, but both had been exiled for different reasons. Apparently, Bud had been banished because of his direct and caustic nature—he had no filter and was not PC. Norb had been deported for the opposite reason, he was too PC. Norb was a board member’s brother in law who had no opinion—nothing to add to the conversation.

The product that transformed Trans Pacific into such a profitable division was called, “Safe Drivers.” The Safe Drivers policy was a $39.00 instant issue accident plan that covered the policyholder whenever they were in a car, bus or truck, anywhere in the world, any time of day. The policy paid the claimant cash if they were in an accident. There was a schedule of benefits including a small monthly income if they couldn’t work. The field force of Trans Pacific would canvass the business parks all day long, offering the low cost, high benefit plan, door to door, to business owners and their key employees. When the five o’ clock bell rang, the agents shifted from the business parks to the residential neighborhoods, looking for any sign of a self-employed person. Any work truck with a phone number on the side was their excuse to walk up to the door and knock.

We were making Stanley Beyer, J.D. Bain and the other shareholders of PennCorp wealthy beyond belief, $39.00 at a time.

After I came from my interview with Bud and reached the realization that I’d applied for a license to sell insurance and would need to pass a state exam, I cracked the books and began to study. If I told you that I wasn’t a very good student, it would be an understatement. My study and test taking skills were horrible. It was not my thing. I failed the test twice, but squeaked by on my third attempt. The third try was my last chance as far as Bud Cole and Trans Pacific were concerned. When I walked into the Trans Pacific office with the hard copy license there was more than one sigh of relief.

Trans Pacific was my first outside sales position and also my first commission only experience. Things would be a little different than the car business. In that previous gig I had a base salary. It wasn’t much, but if you showed up and had a bad month, you could still swipe a paycheck and pay the rent. The other big difference was that in the car business, people walked in the door. Even if you stood in one place—your feet glued to the ground, eventually somebody would cross your path and ask, “Hey, can you sell me this car?”

Outside sales didn’t work that way. You could show up at the office each morning, but nobody was going to hand you a paycheck—they may hand you a cup of coffee and a jelly donut, but not a paycheck. You had to go create your own paycheck. You had to actually put down the donut, get in your car and go find some people to talk to. Nobody was going to walk into the break room at Trans Pacific and ask, “Hey, anybody want to sell me some accident insurance?” A transformation would have to take place in my head. I’d need to form new habits and that would require a great deal of discipline. Simply put, I’d have to drag my sorry ass out into the field every day if I wanted to make a living.

But before I’d get the chance to make my first field call, there was basic training.

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The training room at Trans Pacific was also the meeting room and the break room. I was told to be there at 8:30 am, “sharp.” I snuck into the back of the small room at 8:28 am. I took off my suit coat and draped it over a folding chair in the back row, near the coffee and donuts. I grabbed a maple bar and sat down. I did a quick head count—fourteen people including me. I scanned the room trying to determine if Trans Pacific hired a certain type of person. Out of the thirteen other people sitting there, I could see no prevailing pattern of race, color, creed or gender. Later that day, one of the few young dudes in class—a guy I made friends with, Larry Story, said, “eighteen to eighty, blind crippled or crazy, it looks like they’ll hire anyone around here. I couldn’t disagree with my new friend. There was a guy in the front row that must have been seventy-five or eighty years old. He walked with a cane and had two humongous hearing aids sticking out of his ears that looked like 747s.

Our trainer entered the room from an adjacent side door at 8:30 am sharp. He walked to the middle of the room, glanced at his clipboard and used his index finger to silently count the bodies. When he was satisfied he walked to the back door. He closed it and locked it.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is William Darnell and I’m going to be your instructor for basic product and sales training. You are to be here on time every day this week. The door will be locked at 8:31 am each morning. We will take a lunch break from noon until 12:59 pm and then we’ll resume class at 1:00 pm sharp. You’ll be excused at 5:00 pm each day. Please don’t ask to be excused earlier than that.”

He circled the room looking each one of us over as if he was a drill sergeant inspecting his new batch of buck privates. After he surveyed us he removed his rather thick horn rimmed glasses and wiped them off methodically, posing to look us over again. I would later learn that Darnell was retired military and had reached the rank of sergeant in the Marines. He wasn’t a tall man, perhaps five-foot-nine, but he was fit and muscular. There wasn’t anything warm and fuzzy about him. His presence said, “I’m here for business…and I hope you are too.”

Monday—day one—was spent learning about our company, its history and our flagship product, Safe Drivers. We were all handed a voided out policy and asked to follow along as Darnell read it word for word. After lunch he chose several people randomly to come up to the board and list as many of the limitations and exclusions of the policy as they could recall. I faired pretty well at that pop quiz but some others didn’t. After a short afternoon break we were all handed a five-page script. It was the scripted sales presentation for the Safe Drivers product.

Sergeant Darnell told us, in no uncertain terms, that we would not be allowed to represent Trans Pacific in the field until we had “memorized the company presentation word for word.” I looked at Larry and we both looked down at the five-page script, shuffling through the stapled, purple-inked mimeographed pages. I quickly estimated that there were several thousand words to the script including common prospect objections and all of the required rebuttals to those objections. Larry meekly raised his hand and asked, “Mr. Darnell, do you mean you want us to learn the script—be able to get through most of it—be able to use this as a guide when we are out there pitching?”

Darnell snatched off his glasses, glared at Larry and asked, “Is that what I just said, son?”

Larry, now sweating, answered, “Well, that’s why I’m askin’, cause you said, ‘word for word’ and there’s a lot of WORDS in this presentation and the objections and rebuttals and I just figured you meant we need to learn the general meaning of it and stuff and be able to get through it…”

Darnell cut Larry off and launched on us. “Look, your job this week—during basic training—is to memorize this presentation word for word. Your only job is to know this script backwards and forwards by the time we break camp on Friday evening. I didn’t say that you could just ‘get through it’ or learn the ‘general meaning’ of it. You’ll learn this presentation word for word—be able to give a presentation without missing a beat and then offer a scripted rebuttal to each of the most common objections we’ve listed. Do this and you can begin to represent Trans Pacific in the field. If you don’t learn this script you’ll be back in my class next week…and the week after that if necessary. Any more questions?”

You could have heard a pin drop. The old guy in the first row was squinting up at Darnell with a glazed expression on his face, like he’d just been addressed in a foreign language.

“Okay, now pair up and start working on your memorization and role-playing. Start with the introduction and the first three paragraphs. Chop, chop…we still have fifty minutes left on the clock today.”

It was the most intense week I’d ever spent in a classroom. It was the first time I could ever remember actually giving a crap about what I was studying and learning.

It was Friday, just after lunch. There were eight people left in our class. Six people had already quit—just walked away before they ever got started. Larry and I had our own little wager on who was going to make it through the week and who wasn’t. By Friday I was $3 in the positive on our pony race. I nailed the first three quitters. One of the guys was forty-something—a real big mouth braggart who’d sold everything under the sun in his illustrious career. I knew he’d wash out quickly. The second quitter was a woman, probably in her thirties, who questioned everything. “Why do we say that? Wouldn’t it be better if we said this?” Larry and I couldn’t wait till she raised her hand to interrupt and question Darnell. It was awesome to watch the sergeant get so ticked off. His face turned red and the veins in his neck popped out. She bailed on day three.

I had also picked the old man with the two humongous hearing aids to drop out, but come Friday he was in the front row, ready to give his presentation. I had to applaud that, but watching the shrinking down of our class was a great lesson to me in and of itself. It signaled to me that the commission sales game was a vastly different endeavor than a W2 position with a base salary. The people sitting in the seats on day five truly wanted to be there. We’d made a definite decision to do the work and to win. Observing our basic training week helped me understand that a commission only sales force was truly a volunteer army.  

Larry and I had also made a pact to nail it. We decided to do some role-playing together after class. He was twenty-two and I had a fake I.D. so each afternoon after class we slinked over to the airport bar and we sat there repeating the words over and over again.

Hi, are you the owner or manager of the business? Great. Can I ask you a funny question? Are you a safe driver? Do you have a pretty good driving record? Great. Then I think this will interest you too. We’ve already written it for most of the business owners in the area here already. I’ll show it to you. Now for $39 we don’t promise you the moon but we do offer you four very important benefits…

After four nights at the airport bar, probably over a dozen Miller Lites and too many shots of Cuervo Gold, we could recite the presentation and all of the rebuttals, word for word, in a coma. When we showed up on Friday we were locked and loaded. We would be graduating out of basic training that Friday afternoon. The acid test for graduation was delivering a flawless presentation to sergeant Darnell and overcoming at least two of his objections. Bud Cole would step into the training room to watch the final exam. Larry and I did nail it. After I completed my presentation, Darnell took off his glasses, put his arm around my shoulder and told the class, “That’s what this presentation is supposed to look like.” I caught a glimpse of Bud Cole in the back of the room. He was leaning up against the back corner with a little smile on his face. He winked at me, nodding his head in approval.

By the end of the day six of us would be moving on, including the old guy, which surprised the crap out of Larry and me. The two people that didn’t make it were crushed. One younger girl, just out of college, kept getting flustered and began crying during one of the role-plays. The other person that failed was this really sweet guy named Jatinder. He struggled with the English language.

The week of basic training taught me one very important thing—something that proved to be essential to my philosophies as a sales trainer later in my career. Darnell demanded that we memorize that darn script word for word before we got out of his class. He knew we’d change words or tweak a phrase once we gained experience and found our voice. But he and the company wanted to make certain we had a proven track to run on as we got started. They knew that if we memorized the presentation and used it, we would have some measurable results. After that, we would then begin to internalize it—understand the psychology of it and as we grew more comfortable we would personalize the presentation—make it our own.

Trans Pacific also knew that if they were haphazard with their training, allowing people to slide with a presentation that was a bit off track, they could become WAY off track in a hurry. This would occur as a new salesperson started to stumble, lose confidence and then experiment in their flawed bubble. When I later became a field trainer I always asked a person to learn their front talk and presentation word for word first—have some success with it, before they began experimenting.

Larry and I, of course, celebrated over a few beers during happy hour over at the airport bar. We even got a few of the others to join us. We were all stoked to start field training. Darnell had told us that we’d be assigned to a sales team and manager on Monday.

Monday couldn’t come soon enough.

Okay…this is the end of the excerpt! I hope you enjoyed it.

I’m having fun with the composition of this book. It’s an opportunity to revive some classic stories, ones that I’ve been asked to tell, but didn’t really have a place for, as they don’t fit in a typical non-fiction, how-to book about sales or leadership. We released one other short excerpt a few weeks back.

Feel free to read that previous excerpt by going to the link below:

Losing My Sales Virginity

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Joe Buzzello is a nationally recognized expert on direct selling and sales leadership. He has built legacy sales teams and experienced unprecedented success in individual and business-to-business markets as well as the network marketing industry. Joe has held executive level positions for Fortune 500 companies, but he has never strayed far from the art and science of selling, which he loves. In early 2014, Joe began writing, speaking, and coaching through his platform, www.joebuzzello.com and The CAP Equation©.

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2 comments on “Basic Training – “A Life In Sales” – Advanced Excerpt”

    • jbuzzello@buzzellogroup.com

      Thanks, Micah. Putting this book together has been so much fun. Now I gotta’ finish it!

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