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It turned out there really was a person named Leslie Leland. She came from Thief River Falls, Minnesota, I think. Apparently the mothers and fathers of northern Minnesota had different ideas than I did about what was just too much repetition of sounds for one name. Apparently there was a town named Thief River Falls also. That was a little surprising, but only until you took into account that there might be a Thief River.

Anyway Leslie was one of the top sales agents and also performed some other functions such as placing help wanted ads and answering them at the motel when not performing other duties. Leslie was my first trainer.

A trainer is supposed to do the job with you and in front of you, showing you how it’s done. He or she should help you learn how to approach a house, begin the conversation, complete the sale (“get the check”), and complete enough sales in a day to clear quota, preferably by a wide margin. A trainer should share detailed product knowledge germane to the diverse needs of various kinds of customers who might be encountered on territory. And this is very important: A trainer is supposed to demonstrate enough ease and confidence to enable the newbie to step comfortably into the role of a successful sales agent. The trainer is supposed to make it all seem easy while simultaneously inspiring you to work energetically and with great confidence in order to fulfill your own ambitions of making quota (or exceeding it) each and every day.

But sometimes it’s hard for the trainer too.

There Leslie and I were one early summer morning in southeast Cedar Rapids. She was carrying a spray bottle and a rag and a ducket (That’s what we called a plastic portfolio and notepad) and pointing out items to notice as we approached, evidence of what kind of lifestyle and particular applications might be important to mention in a sales talk. I don’t recall this particular house, but for example, if there is a tricycle, you should get ready to talk about how well our products remove mud stains from children’s pants. If there is a boat, discuss removing river scum.

Suddenly Leslie stopped short. I don’t know what she had seen that startled her. By now we were close to the door but had not yet knocked. Wide-eyed, clearly very uneasy, Leslie said to me, “What will we do if this is where the black people live?” And there was a big silence. She was the trainer, and she had no idea what to say or do next.

I remember thinking that we were sales people, right, or trying to be, anyway. And that meant we were supposed to sell. In this case, we were supposed to try to sell soap to whomever lived here? What was the question?

I’m not sure I trust my memory – it was thirty years ago – but I think finally I’m the one who raised my arm and knocked on the door – as much afraid as Leslie was but for different reasons. I wasn’t as concerned about the race of the people inside as I was about having no idea what I was supposed to say or do regardless.

I don’t remember what happened next, so probably no one was home and we went on to the next door. I think if an African American person had answered, I would remember the interaction that followed. And if someone of any other race had answered I would probably remember that, but I’m not sure.

I realize now it is easy to be smug. I had growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee. I had met African Americans, been in a few of their homes, which were kept clean. Obviously black people would want to buy the best cleaners in the world as much as anyone would.

But Leslie had worked in a lot more farmlands than towns, and maybe there were very few African Americans in Thief River Falls in the 1980’s. Maybe she had as much cause as I to feel experienced and new.

I do think that while she faltered it was I who knocked. I tried very hard to be brave and to do the right things – and knocking had been defined as the “right thing.” You were not supposed to pass by houses too readily. Just not feeling at ease was not a good enough reason. And it was the kind of thing I would have done. I was such an all-in kind of person. I might weigh options and wring my hands up to a certain point, but once I crossed a line, I tended to commit strongly to a prescribed goal. I suppose I still do. As it applies here, I was not a natural sales person, was not confident and easy-going. But where others might have backed away, I knocked whether I felt prepared or not.

I don’t want to stay too long with this one incident with Leslie. I will quickly insert that there were many things wrong with this narrative, by some standards. One you may already know if you know anything about sales culture.

Trying: We were not supposed to try to sell. We were supposed to sell. No trying nothing. There are doers and tryers in the world. We were to be doers. Even in my earliest days, I had already received that message.

Soap: Although we were a soap crew, we really did not sell soap. Soap leaves a film. Amazing was much better, leaving no residue whatsoever if mixed properly. Nor was it a detergent. Detergents have specific chemical properties. It was a cleaner, a biodegradable, non-toxic cleaner safe for use in barns as well as homes. But we were a soap crew. Oh, well.

= + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + =

I may have skipped ahead a day or two, after my arriving in Cedar Rapids to training that day in southeast Cedar Rapids, because I wanted to include early that there really was a Leslie Leland, and yes, we did sell soap. I mean cleaner.

Going back a bit, I was set up with a room in one of the hotels on Sixteenth Avenue. I can’t recall what name it was called by then. I think it was even before it was an EconoLodge, but that might have been it – anyway, it was the one with the many-angled roof near Edgewood Road.

There not being any available female roommates, I had a room to myself. That did also mean that I would be charged the full cost of the room, not half. Room rent was almost always $20/day or $140/week per two people. People don’t always believe it when I tell them that was typical, but Ronnie Matus was very good at negotiating with innkeepers, and that standard amount held for many years. Paying cash for so many nights’ room rent would also help conclude the deal.

When I arrived, all was very quiet. I half-recall it as being a Sunday, and that might mean all the crew members were out for their day off (not even having to travel, or “jump,” this week). But often crew members stayed in for their leisure hours too. Preferences just varied. If I did arrive on a weekday, they might all have been out on territory, and maybe I just wasn’t around during check-in that day.

So I met some of my new workmates the next morning during start-up time. There were several, not what I would come to consider a full crew of twenty or more, later. I didn’t understand this yet, but this was a fairly new crew. I think it had been in 1982 that Ronnie had re-entered the business after a hiatus, hiring some first few agents who first spent an initial training period with G, then returned to Ronnie to pass on what they had learned. That is, they spent time with G and his crew to learn soap sales for this Ronnie’s first venture to soap from magazines. A lot of magazine crew managers had added soap crews to their business or were starting to do that in those days. There were also some who stayed with only magazines and probably some who converted entirely to soap.

Now it was only 1983, and Ron Matus had not yet formed a large crew after his time away. There was Leslie, of course, and her boyfriend/fiancé Jeff. I think there was also Ted G., a somewhat older person – probably in his mid or late twenties, though memory is sketchy. There were Todd, I think, and a couple of other guys whose names I don’t recall right now, and Don. I believe it was shortly after his break-up with someone I never met, a person named Jenny I think, whose absence from that community was very much felt, still. Fred might have been around too, but not staying at the hotel. He had family in Cedar Rapids then.

As I write, I realize I don’t recall much conversation with these particular very first crew new crew acquaintances beyond the things that Leslie and also Todd said during training. Probably I was shy and didn’t say much. Also in the mornings sometimes agents can be quieter and focused on getting their day going compared to the evenings when they come in, and in my memory this group was a quieter group anyway. I do recall telling one of the guys that when I had first arrived at that Ramada Inn room, Ronnie’s first words had been, “I’m not Leslie,” and the agent had grinned and said, “Yeah, and you said, ‘No shit!’ “

Not there that first week were some other people who joined up with the crew early that summer: Karl, Mike, Jim, Terry. Those still were very early times of the crew, and they were with us even then I think. Or if not then, surely by midsummer.

That morning, people were loading up their cars with gallons and half gallons of Amazing concentrate, some 20-lb sealed buckets of laundry powder (This was a detergent), and some quarts of Wash and Wax. They got these out of cardboard cartons in the hotel room where they were stacked up one side of the wall just as they had been at the Ramada in Des Moines and would be in many other rooms in the future. From the other side of the room, agents were gathering 2-ply carbon copy receipt forms and brochures and labels as well. From their personal items, they had their own duckets, a couple of pens, a spray bottle and a few rags. Most – all who would be driving that day – also had roadmaps with markings in highlighter to indicate their assigned territory. Some probably also carried a calculator. But pricing and bundling were kept pretty simple. A calculator was not necessary.

Agents were carefully filling their spray bottles with the right portions of water and concentrate. The plastic bottles did not come with labels, but there were large rolls of self-stick glossy labels printed in two colors. Most agents were carefully applying these to the bottles prior to departure, as they loaded them into their cars, but a few only tore a bunch off the roll to take with them, applying them to bottles at odd moments during the day, I suppose. Most had also wrapped a label around their spray bottles also.

Some were also getting draw money from Ronnie or discussing with him their needs for more territory. I could tell that their perceptions on this tended to differ from his. He was pressing them to work the territory they had fully before moving on, and they were convinced they already had done so.

Something was done about breakfast. I don’t recall that this group often ate together, but individuals or pairs made their own arrangements. If eating at restaurants, crew members – and managers – would favor those with simple meals and fast service, but I remember more breakfasts together later, with other crews.

I, wanting to be very economical, had purchased some non-perishable food – peanut butter, crackers, prunes, I think – to keep in the hotel room or carry with me. I also thought these were nutritious foods, and I was trying to do the right thing in that way. Leslie probably bought an egg sandwich from McDonald’s or something. And then we were out on territory training, as I have described. Well, I only described one house. There were other houses, and Leslie did knock on many doors, did show me a lot of introductions and demonstrations of product, and a reasonable number of actual sales, in addition to that one difficult time that stands most in my memory now, that I’ve described already.

= + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + =

I trained with others too. Training was often loosely defined. An agent making few sales might go out on territory for a day or two with almost any agent making more sales in order to observe, gain momentum, and learn some new approaches to improve his or her production. (“Production” meant his or her volume of sales.) A manager would make arrangements, but the definition here for “trainer” is pretty open. Todd was more of a hotshot agent than a trainer, but he did some training. He was working farmland, so maybe that was I wound up out on the farms that day, with the assumption that whatever I learned could be transferred back to sales in town.

Todd was young. He was in a good mood. He drove very fast through those narrow country lanes, some paved, some not. I, also young, thought he was probably driving too fast but was not very worried about it. It would probably be okay, and probably seemed good enough. As he sped past one stop sign at – what was it? – 80, 85 mph? or “only” 70-75? – he quipped, “Sorry, officer. I’ll stop twice at the next one.” At the time I thought that was hilarious as well as impressively witty. Don’t get the wrong impression though – this is a fond memory, not a romantic one. A lot of agents were like that. In some hard-to-explain way I admired them for their good-humored recklessness, their easy warmth and informality, but I was not in love.

Anyway, Todd certainly did sell a lot of product that day. I paid attention, tried to identify and remember some of his winning strategies, but it all seemed to unfold so naturally. I never did get a handle on what it was he said or did to make it work.

He didn’t always say the same thing. He’d knock on the door and tell whoever answered a couple of things about the product and crack a few jokes, and all of a sudden, as it seemed to me, they were writing checks. At one of the houses there were two dogs. At first they were kind of trotting around the car while Todd told the housewife something about Amazing and cars – maybe that with no residue on windshields, the dust from the gravel roads wouldn’t cling to them anymore, or how the bright the whitewalls on the tires would be after being cleaned with Amazing – and then I realized the dogs were engaged with each other by the door of the sedan in a way that I, in my inexperience, found distracting. I tried to concentrate on the sales talk, but already the lady was taking out her checkbook and asking Todd, “So that’s ‘Pay to the order of… ?”

And then we were whizzing down the country lanes at a speed that would have concerned some of the adults in my life back home. I don’t recall Todd getting into a collision ever. Not everyone who drives like he or she is looking for an accident has one.

I never did learn how to sell at Todd’s levels, but I couldn’t say the quota was unrealistic. He and many others were clear proof that it could be met, day after day. So I took personal responsibility for my own, lower numbers.

The Job Interview  (back)  |  The School Bus  (forward)

Crew Life as I Experienced It


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