In 1974, my wife, Joyce, and I were both E-5s in the Army, stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas. We had been married for almost a year and hadn’t figured out how to make a baby yet. So when we weren’t in the desert outside of El Paso playing war games, we had plenty of time on our hands. One evening we answered a knock at our door and let in our first door-to-door salesperson.
At our dining room table, he sold us newlyweds a set of Presto Pride waterless cookware. After all, our combined pay and allowances put us in a comfortable tax bracket for the time. But he didn’t stop there. He proceeded to ask me a question that I would later ask many people: “By the way, have you seen me do anything that you think you couldn’t do, maybe even better, with a little training?” Before the evening ended, I had exchanged an additional $12 for a deposit on a medium-sized black attaché, the Presto Pride sample kit.
Presto! For the paltry price of a mere $12, the price of six adult movie passes or the cost of a tank of gas for our Chevy Laguna, I was in business for myself, but not by myself. The vision of being the pride of Presto Pride danced in my head. However, weeks later, as the sample case accumulated dust in the dining room of our base housing, it seemed to grow larger and larger. Eventually, it seemed that no matter where either of us wanted to walk, that darned case was in the way. One day, no doubt after tripping over that now oversized monster, Joyce said, “Either give that thing back, or go out and do something with it. But get it out of my dining room!”
On the Hunt
It’s funny how my fear of the unknown had changed that vision in my head. Now I figured I would dust it off, go knock on one door, just prove it was impossible, then come home. I figured I would then call that salesman and tell him to come pick up his coffin-sized case I’d have waiting for him on the front stoop. So off I went to find a likely suspect in one of the many apartment complexes that surrounded the military base.
Even back then there were plenty of “No Soliciting” signs posted by apartment management. Of course, I ignored them. In fact, my eye caught an unusually large sign posted right on the door of one of the apartments. As I remember, it said, “Absolutely no soliciting. We shoot every sixth salesman, and the fifth one just left! Do not knock on this door!” Perfect, I thought, I’ll be home in time to watch “Columbo.”
What happened next would have a profound effect on my 22-year-old self. In fact, it would not be hyperbole in the least to say that it shaped my life. If it had gone differently, I would more than likely have retired as a senior enlisted noncommissioned officer in the Army. A young lady, a nurse in the Army, I was to find out, invited me in. Before she allowed me to start my very first Presto Pride presentation, she called her roommate, another Army nurse, out from the other room and introduced us.
Although I fumbled though my presentation, they each ordered a set of cookware for their respective hope chests. When I asked about the sign on the door, she said, “Oh that thing, it was on the door when we moved in.” That was Sales Lesson No. 1. Somehow, I had just earned — in a little more than an hour and in that comfortable swamp-cooled apartment — what it would take me more than a week to earn in my green fatigues, working 18-hour days in the desert heat. One of the many lessons I would learn later is that the best time to make a sale is immediately after you have just made one. But for now, I just raced home to tell my bride the good news. I even forgot that I missed “Columbo.”
The Life of a Salesman
I was hooked on sales from that point forward. I became, and am to this day, a student of sales technique. I read sales books, listened to sales cassette tapes, and even paid to go to sales seminars out of my own pocket. My manager and future mentor at Presto Pride, Frank Capparelli, noticed I had a knack for sales. He taught me how to sell by painting pictures with my words.
Remember that briefcase-sized sample case? Besides having order forms and a couple of placemat-style presentation pieces, it also contained a shiny Presto Pride one-quart unit wrapped in a blue velvet bag. During that era, most waterless cookware companies sold their wares using the party method. They would have a prospect invite some friends for dinner, and literally cook a full meal for them. Luckily for me, because I still hate washing dishes, Presto was different. We “baked” a pineapple upside-down cake in the minds of our prospects, using that one-quart unit.
By the end of the presentation, as I deftly flipped the one-quart unit on its lid — which doubled as a stand — and slowly removed the unit itself to reveal the imaginary pineapple upside down cake resting on the lid, I asked my first trial closing question. Before the prospect answered, they often would lick their lips or swallow an imaginary piece of the cake. Talk about buying signs.
After writing up the order for the cookware, I would start my presentation for the set of Carriage House China. It came in a choice of pink rose or white lace patterns. Then, of course, most people wanted to add a set of Oneida 18/0 stainless flatware to complement their new purchase. The total was almost $700, which was close to the monthly income of many people back then. Although our China and flatware have long ago been replaced, Joyce, many of my relatives, and I trust some of my other customers still have a piece or two of Presto Pride.
As for us, we traded in our Laguna for a brand new 1975 Datsun 280-Z. It was probably one of the few on Fort Bliss not owned by an officer. After comparing my W-2 for three hours work per night, to our combined military W-2s, I left the Army in 1976. My first job out of the Army, was — you guessed it — a car salesman. But that is a story for another day.
You may ask what this story has to do with being a car salesperson or an F&I manager. If you do ask that, my answer would be, “I’m afraid you just don’t get it.”
George Spatt is the owner of GEMS, an F&I agency, and a 40-year automotive industry veteran. Contact him at [email protected].