Posted by: Calmseas (Mike) | August 28, 2012

An Education

When I first stated making sales calls, many years ago now, I was sent out to conquer the world with this sage advice: It is OK to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question, but always follow up that you will get the answer and get back to the person.

Equipped with this confidence-boosting philosophy, I walked into an architect’s office one afternoon back around 1980.  I mentioned to the receptionist that I wanted to speak with someone about our product line.  After a few minutes, I was ushered into the office of one of the senior partners of the firm, an aging man who was probably nearing retirement at the time, who had likely been involved in hundreds of architectural projects during his long career.

I was a newly-minted salesman, fresh and very green.  I had a certain amount of confidence, especially in my ability to engage in conversation.  But my downfall was that I did not yet know that there was a whole lot that I did not yet know.  I was, however, about to find out just how lacking in knowledge I was.

I started to make my presentation to the short, balding, pleasantly portly old gentlemen.  I got just a few sentences out, and the man—I know now—was already on to me.  Sensing that my words were quite empty, the old architect started asking me pointed questions about my products, questions that were designed to show me he already knew more about the products than I would ever be able to tell him.  These were questions that would confirm for both of us that I was wasting his time.

In reality, his questions were not overly technical, even though you might expect such questions from an architect.  Rather, they were questions about some of the basic specifications of the products.  These were questions that any competent salesman should have anticipated, and for which he should certainly have had answers.

I responded to the first question with my pat answer that I was sorry I didn’t know the answer to his question, but would follow up and get back to him.  He seemed a bit perturbed, but followed up with a second question to which I gave the same answer.  After about the third go-around, he sat back in his chair, and calmly, but assertively, told me that once I learn something about the products that I wanted to sell him, I should come back and he would talk with me.  He then pivoted 180 degrees and left me looking at the back of his chair.  There was not another word.  I was left to simply turn around and walk out the door, which I promptly did.

I may not have made a sale that day, or even laid the groundwork to make a sale at another time.  I did, however, learn a valuable life lesson: confidence is not enough; preparedness is also critical; and knowledge is everything.  Most importantly, my education at the School of Hard Knocks was now well under way.  I came that day to an understanding of this important truth: An educated person is one who knows that there are a whole lot of things out there that he doesn’t know, and that he will spend a lifetime learning them in this classroom we call “life.”



  1. Very good. I remember this.


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