BUSINESS How I Learned to Sell

Today they are symbols of success in sales. But there was a time when the names of Ross Perot, Mary Kay Ash, and Ebby Halliday did not open doors. Here are the lessons they learned from early failure and success.

Ross Perot:

Perseverance Pays Off

In August 1957, upon completing my four-year term of duty in the Navy, I joined IBM as a sales trainee. With a starting pay of $500 a month, I began the company’s data processing sales training program. After 18 months, I was ready to hit the pavement as an IBM salesman. Having a young family, I was chomping at the bit to start selling so I could make some commissions.

A prime prospect in my territory was Southwestern Life Insurance Company, which had been called on by many IBM salespeople prior to my coming aboard, but to no avail. In fact, IBMers had called on Southwestern so many times that a directive was sent to the front doorman that no IBM salespeople were even allowed to enter the building. Knowing this made me all the more determined to sell our data processing service. After several attempts to get past the doorman, I was finally able to get my foot in the door. I suppose the doorman just got tired of saying no to me. Over a period of time, I met with the company’s top managers and eventually had them all sold on IBM-that is, with one exception: Ralph Wood, the chairman of the board.

The stalemate presented a problem, because Wood refused to see me. I knew that if I was ever going to make the sale, he was the guy I had to win over. Without his approval, there wouldn’t be a sale!

I started to think of ways to meet with him, and then I remembered something that was mentioned in our training class. We were told that the IBM company always stood behind its sales reps. If any of us ever needed a scientific person, a technician, a senior officer- whomever-the company would fly that person in from New York, California, from anywhere. IBM really emphasized its strong backup team. Well, with the stalemate I ran into at Southwestern, I went directly to Henry Wendler, the Dallas district sales manager, and said, “I’d like to have Tom Watson [the CEO and son of IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson, Sr.] come down here to make a call with me to meet the chairman.’’

“Why do you need him?” Wendler asked.

“I want Ralph Wood to hear from Watson what we are doing in other places with other insurance firms and how we can do it for Southwestern,” I said.

Asking for our CEO to make a call with a new sales rep must have caught Wendler off guard. “Mr. Watson is a great guy and a wonderful salesman,” he replied, “but he isn’t an expert on insurance. How about if we bring in Gil Jones, the president of data processing? I know Jones has worked with several major insurers in Newark, New Jersey, where heonce was manager. Let’s ask him to come down.”

That sounded fine with me. Wendler called Jones, who agreed to swing by Dallas the following Friday after attending a meeting in Florida. Then I called Wood, and told him the president of IBM’s data processing division was in town and wanted to meet with him. Wood finally agreed to see me.

Having Henry Wendler and Gil Jones accompany me was a real confidence builder. Additionally, in preparation for the meeting, I stayed up late for several nights reading everything I could about Southwestern and the insurance industry. Being fully prepared also served as a confidence booster to me. When the three of us entered Woods office, I’ll never forget the greeting he gave us: “I was supposed to be hunting quail today so I hope you have something important to say.”

Although Wood listened to our presentation, I sensed we weren’t making any headway with him. As we were about to leave his office, Iput in my final two cents: “Mr. Wood, one reason I asked my two bosses to come here today to meet you is that I wanted them to hear me tell you that I would be available full time to serve Southwestern. The company will back me 100 percent and I’ll get whatever help that’s required from our special representatives and support teams, That’s so we can make Southwestern one of IBM’s most outstanding installations in the country.”

My comment didn’t seem to faze Wood, and after we walked out, Jones’ only words to me were: “Ross, get another prospect,”

However, on Monday morning, Wood called down to one of his vice presidents and said, “Who was that kid in here with Jones? Is he an actuary or something?”

Well, Gil Jones got me in, but I got to make my sales presentation. And I do not happen to be an actuary. But evidently all the studying I did on the life insurance industry and boning up on Southwestern must have made an impression on him. A few weeks later, Wood agreed to meet with me, and this time I asked him a lot of questions in order to figure out how our machines could solve his problems. Back in those days, IBM mostly rented its machines, but customers also could purchase equipment. When I found out Southwestern s workload would keep a machine busy for only one shift, I was able to convince Wood to buy the equipment and rent time to Blue Cross to use during the night shift. This way, by sharing the cost, Southwestern and Blue Cross both came out ahead.

Six weeks from the date I first got in to see Mr. Wood, I presented him with a contract, and a few days after he had time to review it, we met again to get the order signed.

Instead I was greeted with; “There’s one thing in the contract I want changed before I sign it.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It won’t do any good to tell you because you won’t be able to get it done. “

He had good reason to say that. Back in those days, IBM would never change a contract. Still, I said, “Go ahead, tell me.” He did and it really wasn’t anything significant. In fact, it was so insignificant, I can’t even recall what it was.

“Well, if this is what you want,” I said, “I will try to do it for you.”

Later that afternoon, I called the head of IBM’s legal department. It was a call I will never forget. I told him, “You can help make me the largest sale ever made in this part of the country. All we have to do is make a minor change to the contract.”

“Ross, we don’t normally change the contract.”

“I don’t think this is important,” I replied.

“What change do you want?” he asked.

After I explained it to him, there were a few moments of silence, and he said, “We’ll do it.”

“Send me a wire,” I said, “And I’ll take it to Mr. Wood at Southwestern tomorrow morning.”

I took the wire to Wood’s office, and I told him we would make the change in the contract he requested. I handed him the wire. As he read it, I laid the contract down on his desk and handed him a pen.

“Perot, you tricked me,” he said, throwing the pen down on his desk. Then he grinned and signed the contract.

The deal turned out to be a highly successful contract for IBM, and Southwestern was very pleased with its computer system. Wood was a tough old guy, and I thought the world of him. Years later, after I started EDS, whenever I’d see him he’d always give me a warm greeting and jokingly say, “Perot, have you gone broke yet?”



Ross Perot worked for IBM for five years before leaving to start Electronic Data Systems in 1962. In 1982, be sold EDS to General Motors for $2.5 billion. Eater he formed Perot Systems, Inc. In 1992, he ran for president, garnering 19 percent of the vote.

Ebby Halliday:

Never Prejudge

Early in my real estate career I learned that a salesperson should never prejudge a prospect. Back in the 1950s, I was selling homes for Hal Anderson, a Dallas builder who was developing Mayflower Estates. He was doing something that had never been done before, building $100,000 homes on speculation-that is, without a specific buyer.

These luxury homes were equivalent to those presently in the $700,000 to $800,000 price range. Back then, no one risked large sums for a development of top-of-the-line homes unless they were presold. The venture was so unusual that The Wall Street Journal did a feature article on Mayflower Estates.

One day when I was holding an open house, Hal stopped by to say hello. Shortly afterward, a beat-up car pulled into the driveway, and an elderly, unkempt couple walked up to thefront door. While I was greeting them with a warm hello, I caught a glimpse of Hal out of the corner of my eye. He was shaking his head and making a face that clearly signaled, “Don’t waste your time with them.”

It wasn’t my nature to be impolite to anyone, so I warmly greeted them and extended the same courtesy I would to any prospective buyer. Convinced that I was wasting my time, Hal left in a huff. Since the house was empty and the builder had left, I figured I wasn’t imposing on anyone, so why not show them the house?

As I took them through the home, they looked in awe at its ornate amenities. The 12-foot ceilings overwhelmed them. It was evident that they had never been in such a fine home, and I enjoyed having the privilege of showing it to such appreciative people.

After looking at the fourth bathroom, the husband sighed to his wife, “Imagine a house with four bathrooms.” He then turned to me and said, “For years, we’ve dreamed about owning a house with more than a single bathroom.”

She looked at her husband with tears in her eyes, and I noticed she squeezed his hand.

After they had seen every corner of the house, we ended up back in the living room. “Would it be all right if we talked in private for a few minutes?” he politely asked.

“Of course, ” I replied, and walked into the kitchen to leave them by themselves.

Five minutes later, she called out to me, “It’s okay, you can come in now.”

I walked into the living room, and he asked, ” Miss Halliday, did you say this house cost $100,000?”

“Yes,” I answered.

A faint smile appeared on his face. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a worn envelope. He sat down on the stair and began to pull money out of the envelope, counting it until $100,000 in cash was stacked in neat piles on the steps. Now remember, this happened back in the days when there was no drug money! As it turned out, he was maitre d’ at one of the leading Dallas hotel restaurants, and for years and years, they had lived frugally to save his tips.

Shortly after they left, Hal came back, and I showed him the signed contract. I handed him the envelope, and when he peeked in, I thought he was going to faint!



Ebby Halliday is founder of Ebby Halliday Realtors, with 900 agents and 19 offices in the Dallas area. In 1993, the company’s sales volume exceeded $1.25 billion. It is the nation’s largest privately-owned residential real estate company.

Mary Kay Ash:

Selling with Enthusiasm

When I was a young housewife, my doorbell rang late one Friday afternoon. Ida Blake, someone I had never met, stood at my door asking if she could come in to explain the merits of owning a set of books to read to young children. I invited her in, and before I knew it, she had me completely sold on her product, the Child Psychology Bookshelf, published by Grolier’s Society. A mother could look up any problem in the index and find a related story with a good moral to read to her child.

For instance, one story dealt with a child who told fibs-which children sometimes do at ages 4 and 5. As a young mother trying to teach my children the difference between right and wrong, 1 thought those books were the best I’d ever seen.

When Ida told me the books cost $50, tears came to my eyes. “I’m sorry, but I could no more buy them than fly to the moon,” I told her. “They’re way out of my league.”

Ida could see I loved them, so she said, “Mary Kay, suppose I leave them with you and pick them up on Monday. Is that okay?”

“That’s wonderful,” I told her, “but there’s no point in it, because there’s no way I can afford them.”

“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “You sell 10 sets for me and I’ll give you a set.”

“Really? Gee, that’s wonderful,” I said with a faint smile.

At the time, I was volunteer superintendent of the beginners’ Sunday School program at Houston’s Tabernacle Baptist Church, so I had the phone nurnbers of many mothers. I spent much of that weekend on the telephone calling up these mothers, telling them about the best books I’d ever seen. My enthusiasm was such that without even showing the books to anyone, I was able to sell 10 sets-sight unseen ! I got so excited that the women got excited too.

When Ida came back Monday morning, I told her what I had done. “Here are their names and addresses,” I said. “All you have to do is go out and pick up their money.”

“This is incredible! I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “That’s your set to keep, Mary Kay,” she said, pointing at the books on my dining room table.

“Oh, thank you,” I answered with a lump in my throat.

“Now, I’ve got something more important to discuss with you, Mary Kay. ” Ida sounded excited. “How would you like to sell for out company?1’ Without waiting for an answer she added, “By the way, you’ll need a car.”

“We have one car and my husband takes it to work. Besides, I don’t know how to drive,” I said.

“You tell your husband to leave you the car, and I’ll take you out in it tomorrow. And, honey, you and I are going to sell some books!”

The following day we spent knocking on doors, but we either found no one home or got the door slammed in our faces. At the end of the day, we hadn’t made a single sale. Not one person was interested. 1 couldn’t get over it-I had sold 10 sets over the weekend on the telephone, and now Ida was having so much trouble.

At 5 p.m., Ida climbed into the passenger’s side of the car and announced, “You’re driving me home.”

“But I can’t drive,” I cried.

“Ifyou’regoingtobe a saleswoman, you’ve got to learn sometime,” she said philosophically. That day I received my first driving lesson-traveling through Houston during rush hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

So, thanks to Ida, I not only landed my first sales job, I learned how to drive a car.

I didn’t know much about selling, but I saw little hope of succeeding by duplicating Ida’s cold calls and door-to-door canvassing. I figured I had been able to sell those 10 sets of books because of my enthusiasm for them.

I immediately got a list of Baptist parents who had children in the Houston area and started making appointments. I sold $25,000 worth of books during my first nine months, making me one of the company’s top salespeople. In spite of this, I decided to quit. My reason? The calls I received from irate parents! You see, some parents invested $.50 in the books, let them just sit on the shelf, and then got mad at me because they didn’t work. Of course, had the books been used properly, my customers would have definitely received their money’s worth.

Knowing that my customers weren’t using the books soured me on selling them. I had lost my enthusiasm, and without it, I didn’t have the heart to sell those books!



Mary Kay Ash founded Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963. The company bas some 375,000 beauty consultants with an estimated $2 billion in retail sales each year.

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