The Traveling Businessman
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In a Big City. We will suppose that our traveling man has his headquarters in some big city—New York, Chicago, San Francisco, it does not matter—and that he has several calls to make before he goes out on the road.
There are two kinds of salesmen, those who make only one sale to a customer and those who sell something that has to be renewed periodically. The first sell pianos, real estate, encyclopedias, and so on; the second sell raw materials and supplies. The salesman whom we are to follow is in the second group.
He has—and so have most men who do this kind of selling—a regular routine that he follows, adding new names to the list and deleting old ones as seems expedient. At this particular time he has several old customers to visit and one or two new prospects to investigate before he leaves town.
It is unnecessary for him to make arrangements beforehand to gain access to the old customers. They know him and they are always glad to see him. But if there is a chance that the customer may be out of town, or if it is during a busy season, he telephones ahead to make sure. He prefers indefinite to definite appointments, especially if he has to see two or three people during the course of a morning or an afternoon; that is, he would rather have an appointment to come some time between ten and eleven or between three and four than to have one for exactly half past ten or a quarter of three. It is impossible to tell how long interviews will last. Sometimes when the salesman counts on staying an hour he is through in five minutes and sometimes when he thinks he can arrange things in fifteen minutes he finds himself strung up for half a day.
The new prospects—there are three on this particular morning—he handles in different ways. To one he has a note of introduction from a. mutual friend. To another he has written a letter stating why he wishes to call and asking when it will be convenient for him to do so. The third, whom he knows by reputation as a "hard customer" (in the slang sense of the word) who will have nothing to do with salesmen of any sort, he decides to approach directly, trusting to his own presence to get past the girl at the front door and whomsoever else stands between him and the man he wants to see. He does not write, because he knows that the man would tear up the letter and he does not telephone, because he knows that the man would not promise to see him and that if he were to call after such a telephone conversation his chances for success would be lessened.
Our salesman is careful with his appearance. He bathes and shaves every morning and takes special care that his linen is clean and that his shoes are polished. He does not ornament him-self with a lot of jewelry, and the material of which his suit is made is plain. He presents, if you should see him on the street, the appearance of a clean, solid, healthy, progressive American citizen. He is poised but he is not aggressive. He is persistent but he is not obstinate.
The best public speakers, it is said, never get over a sinking feeling of fear during the few minutes just before time for them to speak. It vanishes as soon as they get to their feet or a very few minutes afterward, and, strange as it may seem, it is this very fear that gives them their power on the platform. The fact that they have the dreadful feeling nerves them to strenuous effort, and it is this effort that makes the orator. In the same way the best salesmen are those who never get over the fear that perhaps they have not thought out the best way to handle the situation ahead of them. They forget the fear as they begin to talk to the prospect, but the fact that it is subconsciously present makes the difference between the real salesman and the "dub."
Did you ever get to the door of a house you were about to enter and then turn and walk around the block before you rang the bell? Did you ever walk around the block six or eight times? So have we. Especially on those Wednesday and Sunday evenings when we used to go calling. There are not many salesmen who have not had this experience and who have not, upon hearing that a prospect they dreaded was out, turned away from the door with a prayer of deep thanksgiving. All of which is by way of saying that selling is not an easy job.
The salesman whose career we are following for a short time always has that little feeling of nervousness before an interview. It is deeper than ever when he approaches the "hard customer," and it is not lessened in the least degree when he finds a painted and marceled flapper at the door who looks at him without a word. (Incidentally, she likes his looks.)
He takes out his card and asks her to give it to Mr. Green and-say that he is calling.
"He won't see you," the girl says.
"Will you tell him, please, that I am here, all the same? Wait a minute."
He takes the card and scribbles on it, "I want only five minutes of your time," and hands it to the girl again.
She carries it away and presently returns saying that Mr. Green is busy and cannot see him.
"I knew he wouldn't," she adds.
"He must be very busy," the salesman says. "When shall I be most likely to find him free?"
"He's no busier now than usual," the girl responds. "He's smoking a cigar and looking out the window."
"Will you tell him, please, that I am coming back tomorrow at the same time?"
The girl sees that he is very much in earnest. She respects him for his quiet persistence and because he has not tried to "kid" her. She would most likely have joined in heartily if he had, but he would never have got past her.
She goes back into the office and returns with word that the salesman may come in if he will not take more than five minutes. He thanks the girl and goes into the office where the "hard customer" is seated. He does not rise, he does not say "Good morning," and he does not take the cigar out of his mouth, but this does not disconcert the salesman. He wastes no time in preliminaries, but after a brief greeting, plunges at once into his proposition, stating the essential points clearly and in terms of this man's business. He knows what the customer needs pretty accurately for he has taken the trouble to find out. He is not broadcasting. He is using line radio, and everything he says is directed against a single mark. The prospect is interested. He puts the cigar aside. The salesman concludes.
"I'm sorry," he says, "but my five minutes are up. Will you let me come back some day when you are not so busy and tell you more about it?"
"Sit where you are," the other says, and begins firing questions.
Half an hour later the salesman pockets the order he wanted and makes ready to depart, feeling that he has found another friend. The "hard customer" is ashamed of his gruff reception and apologizes for it. "I've been so bothered with agents and drummers and traveling men that I've promised myself never to see another one as long as I live," he says.
"I can well understand that," the salesman answers. "It is one of the hardest things we are up against, the fact that there are so many fourflushers out trying to sell things."
He goes next to see the man with whom he has made an appointment by mail and finds that he has been called out of town on business. He talks with his secretary,who expresses a polite regret that they were unable to locate him in time to tell him that his visit would be of no use. He asks if there is some one else who can take charge of the matter, but the girl replies that all such things have to come before Mr. Thompson. He will not be back until next week, and by that time the salesman will be out on the road.
"I'll have another representative of our house, Mr. Hamilton, call," he says. "He will write to find out when it will be convenient for him to come."
The third man on his list is the one to whom he has the letter of introduction. This is one of his best prospects. That is why he took such pains to arm himself with the letter. He has no trouble getting inside. The man is very busy but he thrusts it completely aside for the moment. He does not have to say "Be brief." Our sales-man has been in the game long enough to know that he must not be anything else.
"Frankly," he says at the end of the talk, "I am not interested. I have no doubt that what you say is true. In fact, I have heard of your firm before and know that its reputation is good.
But I buy my material, and have for years, from Hicks and Hicks."
"It is a good reliable concern," the salesman responds, "and there is no reason why you should desert them. They depend upon you as much as you do upon them. But if they happen to be short of something you want in a hurry, please remember that our product is as good as theirs. You can depend upon it with as much certainty."
"Thank you, I will," the prospect answers and the interview is over.
Did the salesman act wisely? Would he have gained anything by proving that his house was superior to Hicks and Hicks? Not if the customer was worth having. This salesman never forgets that his part of the job is to build up business for his own firm, and not to tear down business for other firms. As it stands, he has in this case established a feeling of good will for the house he represents, and has placed it in such a light that if the rival concern should be afflicted with a strike or a fire or any of a hundred or two disasters which might lessen or suspend its output, the customer will probably turn to the salesman's house. And if Hicks and Hicks should sell out or go into bankruptcy the salesman will have won for his own house a steady customer of great value.
In the Sleeping Car. The wise traveling man —and our salesman is wise—always engages sleeping accommodations on the train in advance. This time he has the lower berth in No. 9.
When he comes in to take his seat he finds that a woman has the upper berth in the same compartment. He is reading a newspaper and she is reading a magazine. He says nothing until toward evening, and then he offers to exchange places with her. She thanks him cordially, explains that she was late in securing a berth and that this was all she could get. She is very grateful and the transfer is made.
He goes into the smoking car and meets there several men who are talking together. He joins them and the conversation runs along pleasantly enough until one of the number begins to retail dirty stories. Some of the others try to switch him off to another subject but he is wound up and nothing short of a sledge hammer will stop him until he has run down. Our salesman has a healthy loathing for this sort of thing. He has a good fund of stories himself—most traveling men have—and in the course of his journeyings he has heard many of the kind that the foul-minded man in the smoking car is retailing with such delight. He never retells stories of that nature, and he never, when he can avoid it, listens to them. He knows that he cannot stop the man, but after a little while he gets up quietly, and leaves. Another man follows him and the two stand on the rear platform of the train until time to go to bed.
Men who are traveling together often con-verse without knowing one another's names, and it is correct that they should. Only a prig refuses to speak to a man on a train or a boat be-cause he does not know his name. Opening conversation with a stranger is not always easy, and should be avoided unless it comes about in a natural way. The stranger may not want to converse. It is correct for a man who wishes to talk to another first to introduce himself. "My name is Hammond," he says, and the man to whom he says it responds by holding out his hand (this is the more gracious way, but he may omit this part of it, if he likes) and pronouncing his own name. The same rule holds when the travelers are women.
Our salesman goes to bed early.
Two men have the compartment across from his. They seem very much interested in each other, for they continue to talk after they have gone to bed. In order to make themselves heard they have almost to scream, and the raucous sound of their voices is much more disturbing than the sound of the wheels grinding against the rails. It is hard to sleep on a train even under favorable circumstances. Our salesman has a strenuous day ahead of him—most of his, days are strenuous—and the noise is keeping him awake.
He could throw on his bathrobe, climb down and remonstrate with the two men across the way. It would be correct for him to do so, but it would hardly be expedient. People who are thoughtless enough to be noisy late at night are often rude enough to be very unpleasant when any one interferes. The salesman has no. real authority over them, but the porter on duty at night is supposed to see that a certain amount of peace and quiet is maintained. The salesman rings the bell, and when the porter appears,. asks him if he would mind begging the two men across the aisle to lower their voices. The porter has had years of experience. He has developed a soft, pleasant way of asking people to be quiet, and in a few minutes the car is still except for the inevitable sound of the train and the snoring of an old lady near the end of the car. This last cannot be helped. It must be endured, and our salesman composes himself into a deep slumber.
Dressing and undressing in a sleeping car are among the most difficult operations to perform gracefully. There are no rules. Most men prefer staying in their berths to making the attempt in the crowded dressing rooms. Some divide the process between the two, but no gentleman ever goes streaking down the aisle half-dressed. He is either fully clothed or else he is wrapped in a bathrobe or a dressing gown.
When our salesman comes in to breakfast the next morning there is only one vacant place, a seat opposite a young woman at a table for two. He crosses over and sits down, first asking if he may do so. In well-managed dining cars and restaurants, the seating is taken care of by the head waiter. He never places a person at a table with some one else without asking permission of the one who is already seated. It is never permissible for a stranger to go to a table that is already taken if there is a vacant one available. The young lady bows and smiles. She has already sent in her order. They talk during the meal quite as if they had been introduced and had met by appointment instead of by accident. She does not introduce herself, nor does he introduce himself. When she has finished she asks the waiter for her bill. She pays it herself—our salesman has too much delicacy to offer to do so-and tips the water. Then with a nod and a smile she is gone,
This salesman is a chivalrous traveler, When-ever there is an opportunity to render a service to a woman (or to any one else) he takes pleasure in doing it. He does not place women under financial obligation to him, however, and he is careful not to annoy them with attentions. He has many times found a taxi for a woman traveling alone or with children when they have had the same destination; he has helped women decipher time tables; he has carried bundles and suitcases and baskets and boxes for old ladies who have not yet learned in all their long, long lives that the way to travel is with as little, instead of with as much, baggage as possible; and he has helped young mothers establish themselves comfortably in place with their children. But he has never—and he has been traveling a good many years now—thrust himself upon a woman and he has never embarrassed one by his attentions.
He does not "treat" the men whom he meets by accident during his travels. They often go in to meals together but each one settles his own bill, and when they come to the end of the journey they are without obligations toward one another. It is much pleasanter so.
The salesman does not, as a rule, tip the porter until he leaves the train, and the amount that he gives then is according to what the porter has done for him. If he has been in the car a good many hours and if he has had to ask the porter for many things, such as bringing ice water at night, silencing objectionable travelers, bringing pillows and tables during the day, not to mention polishing his shoes and brushing his coat every morning, he is much more generous than if he had been on the car only a few hours and had not asked for any special service. Unless the trip is long he never gives more than a dollar. Twenty-five cents is the minimum.
By Automobile. From an economic point of view this problem has come to be almost as large as the railroad problem, and the part the auto-mobile, including trucks and taxis, plays in business is growing larger and larger every year.
Motorists have a code of their own. They—when they do as they should—drive to the right in the United States, to the left in certain other countries. They take up no more of the road than is necessary, and they observe local traffic regulations scrupulously, not only because they will be fined if they do not but because it is impolite in Rome to do other than the Romans do. They hold out their hands to indicate that they are about to turn, they slow down at crossings, and they sound their horns as a warning signal but never for any other reason.
It is often necessary for a man who is trying to sell a piece of property to take out to look at it the man who thinks he will buy it. Needless to say, it is the former who pays for the trip. Other business trips are arranged by groups, the benefit or pleasure which is to result to be shared among them. Under such conditions it is wise (and polite) for them to divide expenses. These matters should be arranged ahead of time. If one is to furnish the machine, and one the gasoline, and another is to pay for the lunch, it should be understood at the outset.
In a Small Town. The salesman is now completely out of the metropolitan district. He is in a small town like hundreds of others over the United States. The hotel is very good in itself, but compared with the one in the city, which he has just left, it is inconvenient. He has better judgment than to remind the people of this. Instead, when he is talking to them—and he likes to talk with the people in the towns he is serving—he talks about what they have rather than what they have not and about what they can do in the future rather than what they have failed to do in the past. It is in this way that he discovers how he can best be useful to them.
He likes to work at the quick pace set by the big cities but he knows it will not do here. He goes around to see Mr. Carter. Mr. Carter is glad to see him, but he has had a bad year. The crops have not been good, the banks have not been generous, his wife has been sick, and one of his children has broken a leg. The salesman listens sympathetically to this tale of woe, leads the conversation away from the bad year behind to the good year ahead, and in a little while they are eagerly discussing plans for business in the next month or so. The salesman shows how he can help, and convinces Mr. Carter that the best time to begin is right now and gets an order for supplies from him. It has taken the better part of the morning, and Mr. Carter asks him to go home with him to lunch. The salesman would prefer going back to the hotel, but he knows that it will give Mr. Carter great pleasure to have him—his invitation is unmistakably hearty—so he accepts.
Before he came the salesman had discovered, through consulting the directories and by talking with friends of his who knew the town, who were worth going to see and who were not. Mr. Carter he had learned was immensely worth while and that is why he was willing to spend so much time with him. No salesman can afford to stop and talk with everybody who can give him the inside story of why business is no good. This salesman always finds out as much as possible about a man before he goes to see him. He never leaps blindly ahead when there is any way to get a gleam of light first.
Once in South Carolina he was anxious to get a large order from a wealthy old man who, he felt sure, would be a regular customer if he could once be persuaded to buy. The old man paid no attention to what he was saying until he mentioned the picture of a hunting dog that hung above the desk. The old man's eyes kindled. This was his hobby and he forgot all about business while he talked about hunting, and ended by asking the salesman to go home with him and spend the night. The salesman accepted gladly, and the next morning they went rabbit hunting instead of going back to the office. The salesman was out of practice in handling a gun but it was great fun, and the up-shot of it all was that he "landed" the order he wanted.
This method is pleasant but wasteful. The salesman never uses it except as a last resource.
Much of the success of this salesman (and of the others who are successful) lies in the fact that he can put himself so completely into the place of the man he is trying to sell. He talks in terms of that man's work, and he tries to sell only where he believes the sale will result in mutual satisfaction. He never says anything about serving humanity, but his life is shaped around this idea, which is, when all is said and done, the biggest idea that any of us can lay ourselves out to follow.
He is working for a firm that he knows is honest—no self-respecting man will work for any other kind—and he wants its financial rating to stand solid. He does not sell to every man who wants to buy. He investigates his credit first, and if there is to be a delay while the investigation is under way he frankly tells the man so, and assures him that it is for his protection as well as for that of the house that is selling the goods. "It is a form we go through with every new customer," he says. "If we did not we'd find ourselves swamped with men who would not pay. And that would work hardship on those who do." Every business man knows that this is the only way in which reliable business can be carried on. And it is reliable business that we are interested in.