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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Must reading for every salesperson

By Dick Hirsch

The newspapers are struggling but each still has legions of loyal subscribers, and among the most diligent readers are the sales persons. As you certainly must know, those people usually masquerade under all sorts of titles. Often they are described as account executives, special representatives or sales engineers, among other descriptions. But the basic mission has never changed: write orders for business, either by finding new customers or seeking ways to develop additional business from existing customers.

With that as an assignment, being well-informed is essential. Thus, it is easy to see why reading a newspaper is a real advantage since its business section is filled with news and feature stories about companies that might be prospects. In addition, there are the weekly columns of personnel items regarding new appointments and promotions, which provide invaluable intelligence information for sales people. The dedicated ones comb through the paper regularly, looking for potential leads on sales opportunities.

I occasionally feel a touch of melancholia since this column offers little, if any, of such actionable information for salespersons. I sympathize with them and support their assignment, since production stops in any organization when the sales force falters. I have always hoped that group of readers derived enjoyment and perhaps sustenance from these pieces, but I wished for a way to encourage them in their work.

I found a way in the airport last week, as I looked around, trying to spot the travelers with luggage that had no wheels. There is a story in those suitcases that every sales manager should clip and save to show to the members of his or her team of salespersons, or whatever else they are called.

It’s the story of Marvin Sandow, whose company, U.S. Luggage Co., manufactured and sold suitcases. They were traditional in construction and style, probably the kind that I once had, sturdy, covered with leather, and somewhat heavy, even when empty. Although he owned the company, Sandow was a salesman at heart. The legend is that, while returning from vacation in the early 1970s, he noticed a man taking a heavy piece of machinery through an airport. It was sitting on a dolly and the man just pulled it along, in an action that struck Sandow as almost effortless.

He wondered whether there wasn’t a way to apply that approach to a suitcase, and at his factory the following week, he had a pair of casters removed from a trunk and screwed into the bottom edge of a suitcase. He then attached a strap to the handle and experimented with it, pulling it around in his office. He was at first delighted with, and then inspired by the concept, so inspired that he immediately phoned the luggage buyer at Macy’s in New York, one of his best customers. He made an appointment to show his prototype.

We’re getting to the important part for all the sales people.

Sandow arrived at the meeting, demonstrated his invention for the buyer, and the result was dreadful.

“No one is ever going to pull a suitcase around at the end of a strap,” he reportedly told Sandow, who was shocked at the hostility of the response. However, salespersons learn to deal with rejection, so although he was surely disconsolate, he was not discouraged. After simmering for a few days, he decided to call a Macy’s vice president, a risky strategy since it involves jumping to a high management level. Sandow made an appointment to show his experimental model.

The VP was immediately entranced with the idea of a rolling suitcase. He pulled it around his office and called for the luggage buyer, one of his subordinates. “How do you like my idea for a suitcase that rolls around?” he reportedly asked, knowing well that the man had already rejected the product. It is impossible to know exactly what the buyer’s opinion really was, but his response was predictable.

“That’s a great idea,” he said.

Bingo! Macy’s gave Sandow a huge order for all of its stores. That was in 1972, and the rolling suitcase became a major hit, changing travel practices worldwide. Actions variously described as lugging, toting or schlepping were replaced by rolling. Sandow licensed other manufacturers to use his patented approach and became a wealthy man.

There is an obvious lesson here. Salespersons please note: Marvin Sandow may not be famous but he didn’t give up; he persevered, found success and changed the world.



At 3:47 PM, Blogger Brian said...

I found this to be very interesting. It has a good message too. The message is not just in the business world either. It can apply to life.


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