I was recently asked to share memories of my very first sales call. I had to blow the dust off many layers of memories to find my way back to the early 80’s.
People usually find their way into our industry via two different paths: your family member owns an exhibit house in which you spend your youthful summers schvitzing away in a sweltering shop (I’m looking at you, Nick Carty!) or like most of us… you trip into it by accident.
For me, it was accidental. Please allow me to share some snippets from the early chapters in the Book of Harold.
First Job. First Big Mistake.
Fresh out of college, I somehow managed to get a gig as a copywriter at a local ad agency. I was writing 5 ads a day/5 days a week — TV, radio, newspaper. I wrote all the ads. Whatever the client or my boss asked for, I wrote it.
One day my boss says, “We have a new client (The Washington Times newspaper). They need to see some radio copy. Go write me five spots by the end of day.” As he was leaving my office, he tossed out one more instruction… “Don’t be funny. This is a serious client who is attempting to plant a serious flag. Don’t be funny.”
Sounds simple enough, right? Five ads before the end of the day. No funny. Gotcha. But here’s the problem. After doing my research on this new daily paper, I honestly felt they could use some humor to get people’s attention.
So after penning five straight (rather boring) radio spots, I decided to do one more… for extra credit. And it was funny. Really funny. Might have been one of the best ads I’d ever written. I was quite proud of it actually. So, when I went into my boss’s office that afternoon, I presented the five assigned “not funny” ads and proudly placed my extra credit copy right on top of the stack. MISTAKE!
He began to read. After a few seconds, he balled up the copy and tossed it into the trash can. There was no way he’d read the entire ad! My young and inexperienced emotions bubbled to the surface and before I could zip my lip, out it came… “FXQZ You!”
After he stopped laughing, he said, “Okay. You know you’re fired, right?” He continued, “And just a suggestion, it’s probably not a good idea to say ‘F You’ to your next boss.”
My Next Job.
I was once again on the streets looking for a job. I sent out resume after resume. Bupkus. I even got my hair cut (at my father’s strong suggestion).
After a month of scouring the want ads, one of my buddies said, “Why don’t you go see my brother? He owns an exhibit house, and he’s looking for someone to write a client’s annual report.”
An exhibit what??!! Didn’t know. Didn’t care. I was out of work and needed money. I booked the appointment.
I was hired and after six weeks, I completed what I’m sure remains one of the world’s most boring annual reports ever written.
But during those 6 weeks, I noticed odd things around the shop and I had questions. Lots of questions.
“That’s a piece of moon rock. We’re making a display for the Smithsonian.”
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s a calligrapher. He’s illuminating (hand penning) diplomas for Mt Vernon College.”
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s a sign painter. He’s painting posters for the local department store.” (Listen youngsters — Vinyl machines didn’t always exist. Before Gerber made the first vinyl plotter/cutter, all signs were either hand painted or silk-screened.)
This all looked like great fun! So I asked if there was a permanent spot for me on the Blair, Inc Team. There was. In sales.
Sales? No kid that I know says, “When I grow up I wanna be a salesperson. Ewww!” But I needed the job. I didn’t know it at the time, but Scott Jackson, owner of Blair, Inc had just given me my first sales gig in the trade show industry. (By the way, Blair, Inc is still kicking butt in Northern Virginia, currently enjoying 72 years in business.)
So there I was — young, inexperienced, and probably not much more knowledgeable about trade show exhibits than my future prospects. Although I had tagged along on a few sales calls with my boss, I didn’t feel like I was prepared to go solo yet. Doesn’t matter. The call came in, and I went out.
My First Prospect
All I knew about the prospect was that they were an engineering firm and that they were a two-hour drive from our shop. I arrived about half an hour early. Always good to be early. But I screwed up the time. The appointment was set for 2:00 pm – NOT 3:00 pm.
I walked in thinking I was 30 minutes early, but in reality, I was 30 minutes late. No time to visit the restroom to unload the 20 ounces of coffee I had been slogging down.
I was ushered into the conference room where there were seven men staring at me. Remember… I’m a rookie. Instead of starting by asking the questions I now know are critical to capturing a prospect’s needs, I proceeded to make my presentation all about my company, my team, and ME. After about 10 minutes of non-stop blabbing, I finally pulled out my newfangled “pop-up exhibit.”
Nomadic Display’s corporate headquarters was just down the road from Blair, Inc and they had recently given us some demo Instand frames to show clients. I popped open the frame and the room full of engineers went nuts. They immediately jumped up and said, “Do that again!” At the time, nobody had seen Ted Ziegler’s pop-up technology before. They were astounded and wanted to know everything about it.
No longer nervous, I taught them how to open it. They were sooooo into it!
I told them everything I knew about “Instand pop-ups,” which took all of two minutes. But they were engineers and started asking me questions. Lots of questions…
“Can the shelves hold 30 pounds?” “Sure.” No they can’t. They don’t even HAVE shelves.
“Is it reconfigurable?” “Of course… Don’t be silly.” Liar!!!
“Can we get it by Friday?” “Absolutely.” Nope.
They couldn’t have been more excited, and I couldn’t have been more worried. I spent the return two-hour drive freaking out. Oh my gosh! What if they actually BUY this display and find out it that it can’t do ANY of the things I’d promised?!
I needn’t have worried. Never heard from them again. As impressed as they were with the technology, they had also detected my rookie-ness on display and had decided to go with a more seasoned (smarter, more knowledgeable) salesperson.
I wasted their time and mine. I crashed and burned on my very first sales call — badly. But I did learn some big lessons.
1. Get There Early – Never, ever, ever be late for a meeting. Get thereearly. Get their WAY early. But never be late. In Hollywood I learned this ditty… “If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired.”
2. Engineers – I know it’s stereotyping, but in my experience, engineers tend to like details. All the details. They also tend to want to put WAY too much copy on exhibit walls that nobody will ever read except maybe other engineers.
3. IDK — If a prospect asks you something that you don’t know the answer to, say “I don’t know!” Tell them you’ll find out and get back to them ASAP. And then find out and get back to them ASAP.
The Family Business
I mentioned up top about the two ways that people find their way into our industry: by family or by accident. While reminiscing about my early career, I realized that most of the companies that I’d worked for were all family houses:
Blair, Inc – son-in-law took over from father-in-law
Nomadic – daughter took over from father
HW Exhibits – son took over from father
Last week, I was in Texas and had the pleasure of sitting down for a cup of coffee with Danny Kent/5D Show Services (https://5dshowservices.com/). Danny’s dad, Rick Kent and industry icon Larry Crumlish started The Exhibit Store in Dallas many, many years ago. Danny shared with me how he spent his youth at The Exhibit Store learning from the ground up. It was emotional for both of us listening to him wax poetically as he reminisced about the early days and people no longer with us.
For all those who swam into our industry via their family’s gene pool, good for you.
And for all the rest of us who found it by accident… how lucky are we?
–Harold Mintz (email@example.com)