Don't Drop the Ball


Dave’s story of a stranger just rattling off all her problems is certainly something I imagine many of us can relate to.  Even though this can be annoying, Dave reminds us that sometimes people just need someone to talk to.

A tale of two people

So I'm going to tell the story of two different people that I've met at different times in my life. The first one I'm going to call Gary because I haven't asked him if I could tell the story and I don't know how to find him. The second is named O. French Ball, and I interviewed him before I wrote this post, and interestingly enough that is his given name.

First I’ll start with the story of Gary.

When I was young I started a new job, and within a few days I was warned about Gary. Apparently he would stop by and talk your ear off and distract you from your work, and “everyone” found it very annoying.  So much so that they had this internal code and they would use to get out of talking to him.

When adults act like 13 year-olds

I remember thinking my new coworkers must be as mean as Junior High girls, then I met Gary. I fully underestimated just how frustrating a person can be. He did like to hang about and talk your ear off, sometimes for an hour or more. And if you came in early or stayed late, there really was no point. You simply couldn’t get anything done. I really can’t even remember what he’d ramble about, but I know I didn’t find it interesting.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to be cruel to the guy. I kind of felt sorry for him. Pity isn’t a good thing either, I knew that, but he was SO annoying, it seemed almost pathetic.

One day I remembered a lesson from one of my child psychology classes. Kids (and I’d argue adults as well) will always find a way to get their needs met, even if the result isn’t as they hoped. With kids it often looks like a child misbehaving when they want attention. They get attention, but often not what they were hoping for.

Maybe Gary hung around talking incessantly because he needed to be heard?

So I started listening to him, I mean really listening. I’d ask questions, dig a little deeper, and I was surprised to find someone I genuinely cared about. Eventually I learned that Gary felt invisible, ignored, unappreciated, even judged. He wasn’t self-aware enough to see his part in it, but some of his assumptions were spot on.

Who do you think you are?

You see Gary was our custodian. He believed that most of our coworkers thought they were better than him. He thought his first wife left him because she was embarrassed about what he did for a living. To be honest, I can’t say he wasn’t wrong. Growing up I remember teachers saying, “Go to college or you’ll end up cleaning toilets. Is that what you want?”

My pity turned to empathy. I’d never been a custodian, but my first job in high school was at an Arby’s in my hometown. Occasionally I did have to scrub toilets there, and I didn’t like it one bit. Although not a custodian, some people did treat me like I was somehow beneath them.

Fortunately I had options. My family always encouraged and believed in me. College was a given, I never thought for a moment that I’d work in that capacity for the rest of my career. I could only imagine what it would be like to be a 45 year-old man who was treated like a second class citizen every day.

To compound things I eventually learned that his current wife was battling cancer. When I left the job she was still alive, but the prognosis was that she only had a few months to live.

Grown up “Gossip Girls”

Thank goodness I didn’t listen to my “helpful” new coworker because I learned a valuable lesson in humility. Gary had private struggles that most people never saw, and I learned that could be true of anyone.

Once upon a time my career took a weird twist and I spent some time as a General Manager at an appliance and electronics store. Despite what I should have learned from Gary, I felt like Gary. I had a masters degree and was working in a job that I deemed to be beneath me. My best friends at the time were working at NASA, Deloitte, The Detroit Institute of Arts (my former employer), and various other prestigious and exceptional places. I was ashamed, I did NOT put the job on my LinkedIn profile.

I know this makes me sound like a terrible snob, but it’s what I felt at the time. Now I realize how much that job taught me, both good and bad. It crystallized for me what I believe about sales, business ethics, and corporate culture. (And it’s on my LinkedIn profile now.) However, one of my most striking memories is of another person who just needed to be heard.

The “Up System”

First though, I have to back up and explain a little about the sales environment in that store. We operated on something loosely referred to as the “Up System,” it’s not a trademarked sales program, but variations of it are used in nearly all commissioned retail sales environments. (Cars, furniture, electronics etc.)

Although retailers are slowly moving away from it, many companies still pay salespeople commission only with no base pay. (The data doesn’t support this as an effective method in case you’re wondering.) Thus, if you don’t sell, you don’t eat, or pay your mortgage, or put gas in your car. You get the idea.

How it works

The salespeople have a list or chart that determines the order in which they serve customers, and they are highly motivated to sell that customer. In addition to the stress of only making commission, most companies track the “close rate” of their salespeople. That means the ratio of customers to sales by sales person.

It works like this: the salesperson whose turn it is to get a customer when they come through the door is “Up” (hence the name). The next person on the list is “on deck,” not unlike baseball. (GO METS!!!--that was for Dave.) Typically the salesperson is expected to take care of that customer until they leave the store regardless of their interest in buying a product.

The sales manager (and psychologist) in me knows that no one comes to a store to simply look around. Even if intangible, they have some level of interest in what you’re selling otherwise they’d be somewhere else.

I’m just looking

Still, we all know the drill.

  1. Customer walks into store.

  2. Salesperson says, “How can I help you?” (Or some variation thereof even though I trained them to be more human and less salesy.)

  3. Customer says, “Just looking.”

Unfortunately, at this point the salesperson sums up their customer, and makes a judgement call. (Another word for this is prejudice.) They decide whether or not they think that person is going to buy. That process is fraught with flaws, not the least of which are the salesperson’s inherent biases and/or privilege.

Introducing Rev. O. French Ball

This exact scenario is what happened when a gray-haired man walked through the doors of our store. The salesman, who had far too many times in the past “wasted” valuable sales time helping “old people” pick out VCRs (FYI-low profit margin & commission), was less than interested in his “up,” and so he “dropped” him.

“Dropping” a customer is technically against the rules, however most salespeople don’t want to waste their time on “ups” that aren’t profitable, so in practice (and to the chagrin of sales managers everywhere), they “drop” customers so they can get back in the que for a new one. And so, Rev. Ball was quickly dropped by his salesman.

I watched all of this go down and kept an eye on the customer. From his body language I could tell that he was looking for something in particular, and no one was helping him. I walked up and said, “You seem to be looking for something, can I point you in the right direction?”

Playing a 78

He was looking for a stereo receiver, he even had the model number. I walked him to the appropriate area even though I was pretty sure we didn’t have what he was looking for. We didn’t have that model in stock, in fact it was no longer available, but we had several others. I quickly learned why he needed that model in particular--it was compatible with his turntable.

Before long we were both reminiscing about the days when music was on real records and French adamantly asserted that CDs and MP3s couldn’t hold a candle to the quality of a good record. (He reiterated that point in our recent interview.) He loved to listen to classical music, and I couldn’t disagree, it simply is more magical on vinyl.

And John Wesley brings us together

Somewhere in the course of the conversation he mentioned that he was a United Methodist minister. I asked where, and he mentioned a town near where I grew up. I told him that I was raised Methodist, but was about to marry an Italian Catholic. I don’t remember what he said, but it was a carefully measured compliment to the Catholic Church followed by, “So are you going to convert?” I told him, “No,” and he had a twinkle in his eye when he replied.

Almost as cool as the flying nun

In the course of what likely was more than an hour I learned that he’d lost the love of his life a few years prior, and I could tell that this loss still hurt. He talked about his four kids, his career before ministry, and somehow we figured out that he knew my father. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a pilot too?!

He did buy a receiver, and it wasn’t even compatible with his turntable.

Honestly, we didn’t make that much money on that sale, however he became a loyal customer. More importantly, that day he sought me out on Facebook, and we’ve been friends ever since. When I asked him what he remembered about that day he said, “I guess I remember it as the day I met a new friend, I barely remember what I bought.”

Whether lonely and unappreciated, or unfairly judged, at the end of the day everyone wants to be heard, known, appreciated. What could be more important than that?

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I’m @GrazianiTJ on Twitter and I’ll be using the hashtag #ArtOfPeopleProject, and invite you to join me in your own project.