For the past ten years I've been "the closer" for our firm—the person who travels to the client to make the final pitch for the big contract. If you'd asked me when I was 18 or even 25 whether sales was something I would be good at, I would have just laughed. When I was in college my friends dubbed me "the lurker" because I preferred to stay on the fringes of parties and events, watching other people living their lives out in public. I wasn't so much shy as I was just someone who would rather watch other people taking risks than take them myself. That's why it still seems ironic to me that I'm so good at what I do now.
I sort of fell into this line of work. When I was 27 I was at a bar-b-que at a friend's house and I got to talking to his father who was a partner in a large consulting firm. I wasn't even sure what a consulting firm did, other than tell other people how to run their businesses, so I asked him some questions about their work. The more he talked about the diversity of their business and their various products and services, the more interesting it sounded—especially when it stacked up against the food service company I'd been working for since I graduated from college.
When he asked me about my own job, I told him how bored I was. I'd started with the company as a bar manager at one of our higher volume restaurants and now worked in the corporate offices traveling around to our various locations and straightening out problems. He asked me what was so boring about it and I told him it was that the problems I straightened out were the same ones over and over. I needed a new challenge. He smiled then, but changed the subject to sports and we never came back to work.
Two weeks later he called me out of the blue and asked me to come in for an interview. I was surprised to say the least, but agreed. The next thing I knew, I was working for his company doing much the same things I'd done before—straightening out problems—but the problems were different every month. Not only was the job a lot more interesting, but it paid 40 percent more than my old job, so life was good.
Two years after I started with the company, the lead salesman on a bid I'd been helping with had a car wreck the night before the final pitch and my boss called me to say I'd have to go t the client to make the pitch myself. I almost wet my pants when he told me because I hadn't sold a thing since I stopped being a bartender. Sure, I'd been involved in the sales process—preparing the ground for the salesman who would go and close the deal, but I hadn't even been on a sales call for the company.
"Are you sure there isn't anyone else who can do it?" I asked.
"Trust me," he said. "If there was, I'd send them. I hate the idea of laying this on the line with you having no chance to prepare, but everyone else is on travel and you're the only one who knows the bid inside and out. Plus, they wouldn't let us postpone. The meeting has to be tomorrow or we're out."
"Okay," I said, trying to project confidence I didn't have. "Any words of wisdom?"
He thought about it for a minute, then said, "Five. The first is that they want to be sold or they wouldn't have included us in the final group of three. They like us and want to be impressed, so impress'm. Two, there'll be one person who is going to make the final decision. Watch everyone's body language to see who they're deferring to. Make sure you talk to everyone in the room, but sell to the one they keep looking at. Three, be yourself. Don't try to be some sort of salesman you've seen on TV or in the movies. If you do, they'll smell a fraud and think we're frauds."
"I'll send a courier over first thing in the morning with the materials you'll want to give them. But don't hand anything out until the end of your presentation or they'll just read what you've given them and won't be listening to you. Finally, no matter how you think it went, ask them to sign the contract right then. Usually they don't but sometimes they do, so ask."
That all sounded like good practical advice, so I thanked him for it. After we hung up, I ran to my closet to make sure I had clothes I could wear. Satisfied that I'd look good enough, I called up all the materials we'd prepared for the guy who was supposed to go on my computer. I was sweating even though it was cool in my condo, but the more I read through our stuff, the more I realized I knew it inside and out. So I poured myself a scotch, drank it and went to sleep.
The sales pitch went amazingly well. I was nervous, of course, when I started and could even feel drops of sweat rolling down between my shoulder blades, but about five minutes into my pitch it was as if this spirit entered into my body and took control. Calm washed over me and I realized that I was good at this. Everyone in the room was paying close attention to what I was saying and several were smiling and nodding at pretty much whatever I said.
And just as my boss had said, they all kept peeking at the Vice President sitting to my right. Slowly I shifted my emphasis more and more to her and when I was done, she asked several pointed questions, then asked everyone in the room if they had any other questions. No one did, so she stood and said, "Well, Mr. Thompson, I'm satisfied. Thank you for your presentation."
I pulled a copy of the contract we'd sent her the week before out of my folder, slid it across the table to her and said, "Then I'd like to ask you to join us as a partner for the years to come."
She looked me in the eye then and seemed to be challenging me. It was the moment of truth and I felt adrenaline surging through my system as we looked into one another's eyes. I said "sign it" silently to myself and, as if she'd heard me, she smiled, reached into the interior pocket of her blazer, pulled out a pen and signed where I'd indicated with a red X. Then she slid the contract back over to me and said, "There you go."
"Thank you very much. I know you've made the right choice today."
"So do I, Mr. Thompson. So do I."
All the way to my car I was floating. I'd just closed a $1.2 million three-year contract my first time out of the box. I was a fucking god! I wanted to call my boss right away and scream into the phone what had happened, but decided it would be more fun to tell him in person. Jesus H. Christ, I just had to tell someone! But I couldn't think who to call, so I just sat in my car with the windows rolled up and did the primal scream there in the parking lot for a couple of minutes.
That first big score changed my life. In addition to a $5,000 bonus check for closing the deal, I got moved over to sales right away, signing a new contract worth almost a third more than my old one. And the incentive clauses made my head swim with dollar signs. Within three years I'd become the firm's number one closer and was making close to $200,000 a year. I was a stud, no doubt about it.
I got married at 35, divorced at 40, bought a house at the beach, spent a lot of time in Europe, both on business and vacation, and with the exception of the divorce, was a pretty happy guy. For the past couple of years I'd dated around, but not seriously. It looked like my two brothers would be the ones to supply our parents with lots of grandchildren and I was okay with that.
Over the years I'd trained a slew of sales people for the company. Some of them turned out well, but most washed out—not because of my training, thank you very much, but because they didn't have the intestinal fortitude for sales. Lots of people think they know men or women who are "naturals" at sales. That's bullshit. Sales is 50 percent preparation and cultivation and 50 percent killer instinct.
All those people whose friends describe them as "naturals" are usually glib and fun to be around, but unless they have finely honed instincts and can go for the kill at the crucial moment, they'll always be small time. It sounds like bragging to say this, but ask anyone you know who sells in the six and seven-figure range and they'll tell you it's true.
Much to my surprise, my latest protégé was someone I've known for almost a decade. I first met Tory when I was in my early thirties and she was in her early twenties. It was at a party my youngest brother had thrown to celebrate finishing his MBA. By the time I got there, the youngsters had been into the keg for a while and the music was blaring. I poured myself a beer from the keg slid into my favorite party position—at the fringe of the action. Just because I'm good at sales doesn't mean I don't still like to lurk at parties.
One of the young women whirling around caught my eye. She was petite, maybe 5'2", with shoulder length brown hair that was in serious disarray and her cheeks were flushed, probably from a combination of alcohol and exertion. But what really caught my eye was her body. She was wearing a copper-tinted dress of some sort of crushed material that looked like it had been painted on her. I'd have bet anyone in the room $100 she wasn't wearing anything else.
Her breasts were spectacular, not huge, but large for a woman her size, and the acres of skin her dress exposed in her cleavage was creamy white with sprays of freckles. The way her tits jounced and jostled against each other as she danced around the room was hypnotizing. And if that weren't bad enough, her dress was cut low enough in front and high enough on her thighs to just avoid being illegal in most states. God she looked good in that dress, and she exuded a sort of inner vitality that was immensely attractive.
From my vantage point on the edge of crowd, I kept watching her as she moved from one friend or group to another. I figured she had to be one of the new MBAs, as happy and as energized as she was. A little later when I went back outside to pour myself another beer, my brother came up to me and said, "That Tory, she's something, huh?"
"Who?" I asked.
He pushed me sideways. "Don't give me that shit, big brother. I saw you staring at her for the past half hour. Try not to be so obvious, huh? She's engaged already."
Busted, I smiled at him and said, "I'll try. She in your class at school?"
"Nah," he said. "She's just my buddy's fiancé."
Later in the evening, she buzzed over to where I stood holding up the living room wall and introduced herself. "Why aren't you dancing?" she asked after we exchanged names.
"Sorry, I don't dance," I said. "Plus, I'm having too much fun watching everyone else dance."
She shrugged her shoulders and moved away. Clearly I was too boring to waste any more time on.
Over the next couple of years I saw Tory a couple of times at parties Frank threw. She had gotten married to a commercial real estate broker who Frank had roomed with in college. She always gave off that inner energy whenever I saw her—it was like an elemental force that drew everyone's attention when she turned it on full blast. Then I didn't see them at two consecutive parties. So I asked Frank what happened to them.
"Still got the hots for her?"
"Bite me. I'm just curious, that's all."
"Uh-huh. Well, you're going to be sorry hear they moved to L.A. last year."
"Oh well," I said. "Now I'll have to find someone else to obsess about." We both laughed and that was that.
Almost five years to the day after Frank and I had that conversation, Tory walked into my office, wearing a smile and a much more conservative outfit than she usually wore at parties, but somehow still sexy on her.
"Hello Steven," she said, putting out her hand and smiling as she walked across my office.
I was nonplussed and must have shown it. I was expecting to meet with someone who had recently transferred from our West Coast office who I was to train. I looked down quickly at the file on my desk. There was her name, as clear as could be—Victoria Anderson. Tory.
"What a nice surprise," I said. "When Bob told me I would be working with someone named Victoria, I had no idea it was you."
"Yes," she said. "I swore Bob to silence."
I realized I was smiling broadly, maybe too broadly, so I offered her a seat. Over the next half hour or so in my office, then over lunch, we caught up on one another's lives. She and her husband had indeed moved to L.A., but they hadn't managed to stay married. After her divorce, she saw an ad for a secretarial position at our company and remembered that Frank's older brother worked there and so applied. She got the job and over the past few years had been working her way up the ladder. Now she was going to make the jump to sales and had been relocated to our East Coast office, in part to work with me for a year.
I couldn't help but notice that she looked almost exactly the same as she did when I met her that first night. Despite being masked in her business suit, her body looked the same. She had a few more freckles on her face and there were crows feet around her eyes when she smiled, but otherwise she was the same. And she gave off that same magnetic pull. I knew if she could channel that and was willing to do the grunt work, she could be very good at sales.
Over the next couple of months Tory and I worked closely to prepare three different major pitches for the company. She was a quick learner and intensely focused on what she needed to do to be successful. Her positive outlook on the world, the ease with which she made friends in the office and, I had to admit to myself, her good looks meant she was also fun to work with. The men her age in the office followed her around like puppies, all obviously desperate to get closer to her. But Tory kept her distance. She was fun, but didn't flirt, dressed in a way that I think of as sexy-professional, but never exposed too much skin or lingerie. It was an impressive balancing act, but I didn't think it was something she thought out—it was just the way she was.
When it came time to make the first pitch we'd worked on, she and I spent all day Saturday reviewing our strategy for the following Monday. She showed up in a t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, but her casual dress couldn't mask the intensity of her focus. She wanted to win in the worst kind of way. That was good, because you have to want it if you're going to win at this level. By three o'clock we'd done all we could do and went our separate ways, me to a date with the woman I'd begun dating recently, Tory who knows where. I didn't ask.
The pitch went well. We didn't get a signed contract on the spot, but I could tell from the body language of everyone in the room that we were their top choice and we'd done well. Tory sat quietly at my side the entire time, paying close attention but not interrupting. I'd told her not to speak unless spoken to. This was her time just to watch and analyze. As soon as we stepped into the cab outside our prospect's offices, questions poured out of her. Why had I said something in a particular way and not the way we'd discussed on Saturday? Who did I think was opposed to our bid? When did I think they would decide? Her questions continued into our building, up the elevator and back into my office. This was good. She was getting it.
As I'd predicted in the cab, we got the account and I took Tory out for dinner to celebrate. Over dinner, I learned a lot more about her personal life. It turned out her husband had been a real jerk, fooling around with a succession of secretaries before moving out. She'd been pregnant once but had a miscarriage. At the time it had been hard, she said, but when he moved out, she felt better about it. Her mother had died when she was a teenager and her father was much older, living in a nursing home these days. And no, she wasn't dating anyone at the moment. I shared similar details about myself—why my wife and I divorced, why I hadn't married again, my love for my beach house, that sort of thing.
Our second pitch together was also a winner, but this time I let Tory run part of the process. I made some introductory remarks, let her talk about the reasons why our firm was so well qualified, then I moved in for the kill. As I watched her work, I could see that she had it—that indefinable quality that spelled success in our business. While she talked, everyone in the room paid close attention and she loved it.
I could tell that it was a power trip for her to have seven adults eating out of her hand. Her body language was good, her speech was modulated just right, and she figured out who the decision-maker was without difficulty. I almost let her continue to the close, but because we hadn't scripted it that way, I didn't want to take the chance of flustering her.
When I asked for the sale, the man who Tory and I had both picked out as the real decision maker smiled, nodded first at Tory, then at me, and said, "Sure, let's go down to my office and we'll get this all taken care of." For me, this was something that happened eight to ten times a year, so it was not that big a deal, but I knew that to Tory it would be a big deal, so as we walked to his office, I patted her on the shoulder and winked when she turned to me. Her pupils were dilated and she had that same look on her face I'd seen that very first night I met her at my brother's party. She was in the zone and loving it. Good.
I wanted to take her out to dinner again to celebrate that night, but she demurred. "Sorry," she said. "I've got plans. Can we hold off until after next week's pitch?"
"Sure," I said. "That's a big one, so we'll go all out to celebrate when we get it."
What Tory didn't know was that I'd decided to let her make the pitch on her own the following week. The potential client was a consortium of twenty hospitals in north central Pennsylvania and we were going to have to travel to Scranton for the close.
The thing about it was that there's no easy way to get to Scranton unless you want to fly in commuter with propellers. I have a no-propeller rule, preferring the comforting throb of jet engines when I fly. So this meant we were going to have to drive. From D.C. it was about five hours, but central Pennsylvania in the summer is pretty and if we left early, we'd be able to make it for our 3:00 appointment with a couple of hours to spare.
So on the morning of the pitch I picked Tory up at her apartment and off we went. As we fought our way free of D.C.'s gravity well, we chit-chatted about our weekends. She'd been berry picking with a couple of friends, I'd been at my beach house painting the porch. But once we'd cleared the traffic and started into the mountains of Maryland, I turned to her and said, "You're making the pitch. I'm watching."
"What?" she blurted. "We didn't…"
"I know we didn't," I said. "But you're ready and it's time for you to fly on your own."
"No buts. You're ready."
She sat there in silence for no more than a minute, turned to me and said, "You're right. I am."
Over the next couple of hours the mountains of central Pennsylvania slid by and we went through it all one more time, each detail of our bid, every question they might ask, what might go wrong and how to get around it, and then what my role would be. That was easy.
"I'm not going to say a thing. You're going to live or die all by yourself. I'm just there to carry away your corpse if you die."
She nodded, a curt nod. She understood. I let her sit in silence then, a silence that lasted a good half hour. I thought about what I was doing. With each person I'd trained, there was a moment when I had to let them fly on their own. Most of them were fine. A couple had crashed and burned on me over the years, and the ones that just weren't getting it never had the chance. To lose us a sale. I just dumped them before they got this far. Tory was different. I knew already she'd be fine. As if she were reading my thoughts, she laughed, reached over and switched on the radio and started fishing around for a music station. She was ready.