I’ll never forget when I first laid eyes on Marco. It was October of 2010. I was speaking on behalf of a large chewing gum manufacturer to independent salespeople in the candy industry. As I looked out on the audience, they were pretty much what you’d expect from people who sold candy. Mostly young, fresh faced, wholesome. Then I saw Marco. He had black hair, slicked back. A black goatee. He was built like a professional wrestler. His nose looked like it had been broken in at least two places. And he had a gigantic scar that started around his ear and trailed all the way down around his chin.
If you had asked me what Marco did for a living, I would have said Mafia hit man. Not to his face, of course. What he actually did was probably more dangerous. His job was to drop in on grocery store managers, unannounced, and convince them to stock their shelves with candies from the companies he represented. Grocery store owners are very busy people, and they don’t like to be interrupted. Especially in Brooklyn and Queens, which were Marco’s territories.
Marco told me about on particularly tough manager, who just would not give Marco the time of day. Marco would drop into the store, introduce himself, and the manager would say, “Can’t you see I’m busy. Buzz off.” Every time Marco would visit the store, it was the same thing. “Can’t you see I’m busy? Buzz off.” He quizzed his salesmen friends. None of them had ever gotten past the introduction before hearing, “buzz off.”
As it happened, Easter was coming up. And Marco represented a company that was known for its Easter candy and its spectacular displays. It was a proven money maker, and Marco thought this would give him an edge. “Surely that manager is going to want to talk to me about this Easter candy display.” No. Day after day, “I’m busy, buzz off.”
At this point, Marco had made it a personal mission to make a sale to that manager. It was his quest. So the next time he went to speak to the manager, before the man could say anything, Marco said, “I know, you’re busy. Just tell me one thing. What is it going to take to get you to talk to me.”
For the first time the manager was honest. He said, “I don’t talk to any independent salespeople. Why? Because as soon as I stock your candies that’s the last I’ll ever hear from you. No follow up to ask how the stuff is selling. If I have a problem with the display, you won’t fix it. I only buy from people I can rely on. At this point, the only independent I would buy from is the Easter Bunny himself.”
Remember what Marco looked like. Nose broken in two places. Built like a wrestler. Huge scar wrapped around his face. Now imagine the look on the store manager’s face when he saw that man walk into his store dressed in a giant, pink, rabbit costume. Marco walked up to him with a basked filled with his company’s candies, and said, “Yo! I’m the Easter Bunny. Let’s talk candy.”
Marco told me that manager has now become one of his best customers.
The reason Marco was successful is that be responded not to what the manager said, but what he wanted. Marco listen beyond the words. The manager said, “I never speak to independent salespeople,” but he meant was, “prove to me that you’ll make me your highest priority and I’ll give you a hearing.” Always remember, in every conversation there are two levels of meaning: there’s what the person says, and there’s what he wants you to do about it. Unless you understand and respond to the second half, the “what to do about it” part, you aren’t really listening.
I’m not suggesting that in order to truly listen you have to make a fool of yourself in public, but Marco illustrated another crucial rule of good listening. He checked his ego at the door. He made the decision to put his potential customer’s needs ahead of his own. Or to put it another way, he took his job seriously while not taking himself seriously.