The Greatest Salesman in the World

Sales is a tough racket.

There are business writers that say everyone is in sales now, and in a sense that is true. Everyone needs to trumpet their accomplishments and know their worth. Everyone needs to serve.

But I know there is a secret.

I know there is a path to success!

I know there is a way to become the Greatest Salesman in the World™!I know this because I met him. His name is Joe Girard.

Joe was in my town for a conference a little while ago. He stopped into my library with his daughter while I was working at the reference desk. He stops by a library in every place he visits. My town’s not particularly far from his native Detroit, so I cannot imagine it was a unique trip for him. By his manner and his spiel, you could tell he’d done this before.

At the desk, Joe asked if I had his book, How to Sell Anything to Anybody. He did not mention it was his book, so naturally I committed a faux pas.

“Is that a Zig Ziglar book?” I asked as I typed the title.

“Zig Ziglar? Zig Ziglar? Zig Ziglar’s just a theorist! I’m the Greatest Salesman in the World™!”

Joe immediately gave me one of his cards. It was a green, gaudy number with his face on it. In big letters, it reads:

“Be a Winner! Do it My Way!”

He might owe Sinatra some royalties on that one; I hope Frank would forgive him if he knew.

The pitch he gave for his book was so polished I could barely see. That didn’t matter really, because I didn’t need to be there for it. Joe could’ve given his pitch to a brick wall, and it would’ve been exactly the same. There was no effort to connect with me as a professional, a librarian, or even a person. He was a walking ad, and nobody likes ads. They used to mute them on television, now they skip over them in YouTube; it’s the same deal.

I did give his name to my colleague who buys for our collection, but I explained the whole story, and we had a laugh about it. We never intend to buy his books unless a patron specifically asks for them. Why would you help out a walking advertisement? Why would you ever stick your neck out for a person who clearly and obnoxiously is selling not even to you, but at you?

The next few days, I kept finding Joe’s cards around my library in the business section and in our small business center. I ripped up every one of them. One reason people like to come to the library is that they’re not going to be sold anything. It’s one of the few places in society where you can come in, be welcome, and not pay a dime. It made me angry that someone would barge into my library and compromise that just to sell a few books or seminars that are very likely awful and out of date.

In the book, Pink points out that Joe’s way of selling – deceitful, overbearing, boorish – is not

And they are awful and out of date; Joe Girard did have a Guinness-record year for selling, but he hasn’t had one since 1977, when he quit the work to go into teaching sales seminars and writing books. At this trade he’s been very successful, enough to get the attention of people like Daniel Pink, who wrote the book To Sell is Human.

After reading Pink’s book, and meeting the guy in person, I looked a bit further into Joe Girard. In my research, I found a personal history of him from his website.

His story reads like this:

Joe was born of a pair of Sicilians from the East Side of Detroit. Antonino Girard, Joe’s father, would constantly berate Joe, telling him that he would never succeed at life. Joe himself theorizes that his father took out his own lack of success on his son, or said such things to challenge him as a person. He too recalls his mother, who in spite of the hardships their family faced, encouraged Joe and gave him all her love. It was these two motivations that Joe funneled into an entrepreneurial streak, shining shoes, selling papers, and hocking sodas around Detroit. This path led Joe to a variety of jobs after quitting school, eventually landing him in an auto dealership, where he was able to become the Greatest Salesman in the World™, selling more new cars off his lot than anyone in history.

At one point, he sold fruit too, like my grandfather did. He also didn’t graduate high school, like my grandfather didn’t. Both of them grew up in Detroit. Both of them had it rough. But both persevered and made themselves. Seems like a great story.

And just knowing there was a story there, just knowing that there was a human being behind those stupid cards, made a great deal of difference to me.

I actually found one of his cards yesterday. I presume it to be the last one in the library, finally found. I didn’t rip this one up like I did the others. I kept it. I can’t bring myself to rip it up, because now there is a story, a real person, behind that card. I’d be ripping up the business card of a human being. It was easy when he was just a walking ad.

Sales is a tough racket. It will always be a tough racket. But if you want to succeed at a thing like that, you’d better tell your story. Nobody likes a walking ad. Pretty much everyone, however, likes people, and looks for connections with others. If you don’t try to do that, the door will slam in your face that much faster.

Turns out you can learn a lesson from the Greatest Salesman in the World™, but I doubt it was the one he wanted me to learn.

I’m still not buying his damn book.

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