A Road Salesman
In the early part of 1979, I became a salesman for Agra-Sun Systems, Inc. and learned how to close a big-ticket sale.
Although I was still enrolled as a freshman at OBU, the need for more money was my priority. I had a new car (1974 Thunderbird) and an active lifestyle to support. I responded to an ad in the Oklahoma City paper that promised an opportunity to make substantially more than I had been accustomed to. Agra-Sun offered a week of unpaid training. I accepted.
Agra-Sun ran a slick, high pressure sales office on Lincoln Avenue (Now MLK) in Oklahoma City. They sold grain storage bins and farm buildings directly to farmers. They ran ads in agriculture related publications and operated a boiler room to generate leads for the salesmen. Bins and buildings were either sold installed or drop shipped directly from the manufacturer. A huge map on the wall that divided the country into counties was used to display the number of leads available in each county. I was particularly impressed with the owner of the company, who arrived from the main office in Sioux Falls, SD while we were in training. He had piercing, cold eyes that could intimidate almost anyone. He bragged that his AMEX bill always exceeded $10,000 per month. He was a successful salesman and I admired him.
The training consisted of basic grain storage knowledge, memorizing a standard pitch, and learning a few basic closes. Much of the training was focused on the application and use of these closes. The primary technique employed was the "telephone take-over" to get approval to make the prospect an associated dealer. I immediately realized the power in the techniques I was being shown and was an attentive student. That Friday afternoon, we were given leads and cut loose. A prize of a new pair of cowboy boots was offered to the trainee with the first sale. I won the boots.
Selling the bins seemed easy. I would drink coffee at the kitchen table with the farmers, while we discussed his vision for his farm. We'd go outside and walk off the area where he imagined a bin might be. We'd paint visual images. They show me their new tractor. We'd share FFA stories. We'd become friends. Back inside, I work up some estimates based on what I'd learned about his desires and needs. I'd show him and unfold the bottom, revealing a contract, ready to sign. Then I would ask for the order, ask for the order, and ask for the order again. I had learned all the subtle sales tricks with the pen, pennies, and silence. Sure, I was tenacious, but the farmers typically liked doing business with me. When I left, we were still friends.
The late 70's were good times for farmers and credit was easily available. Land values were high and the government was encouraging farmers to borrow. Often the farmer owed the local bank so much that another $10,000 for a new bin would only require a phone call. I was amazed at how many farm houses had swimming pools. Farming was big business. Some of the most interesting conversations I had with customers were regarding the differences between the farmers that borrowed for new tractors, buildings, and bins and those that continued to live in the same old house and use the same old tractor. I felt many of these guys were really spending more than they could consistently produce. Turns out that I was right. Still, I would take their checks and leave everyone happy.
My career with Agra-Sun only lasted a few months. Although I made numerous sales in North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, I wasn't quite prepared for life on the road. I had some excellent experiences and thoroughly enjoyed the travel, particularly the occasional impromptu sales meetings held in a convenient motel room somewhere. Still, more than once I found myself stranded at a hotel room waiting on a draw to arrive, so I could buy gas to make the sales calls. Luckily, the sales were there and I never had to wait too long. Nevertheless, the experience made a significant impression on me.
When I quit in the summer if 1979 and returned to Shawnee, I was changed forever. I still didn't quite view myself as a sales professional, but I would never view other salesmen the same way again. I was on to their game. A sales negotiation would never again be something I would avoid. Instead, they would always be challenges to be met head-on, an opportunities to learn the techniques of others, and a chance to validate my own self-image as a worthy adversary.
My only regret is that I never really knew what happened after the sale. Did the customers receive what I promised them? Were they satisfied with the product? The office on Lincoln Avenue is long since gone. I've looked for Agra-Sun bins whenever I drive through farmland, but I've never seen one.
Copyright © Ronnie Oldham 1998. All rights reserved.
Revised: April 01, 2011.
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