Selling computers door to door

2006021600290401_1"The Great Indian Salesman" is Harish Bijoor’s final column on salesmanship for The Hindu, Chennai’s leading english language daily and I just finished reading it with a pang of nostalgia. These words of his evoked many memories,

The Great Indian Salesman is different. A rare animal altogether! Quite
like the Great Indian Bustard. Rare. Accomplished. Revered. Respected.
And maybe on the way to extinction. And that is the sad part of it all.

and the truth of these,

The Great Indian Salesman is a guy who can work in any market-space and
make a success of it. The Indian geography is as tough and tumultuous
as they come. If you have worked as a salesperson in India, you can
make it happen wherever you go.

moved me to confess that, I, too, have knocked on doors, cold called at design studios, architectural firms and factories, submitted bids for tenders and covered my assigned territory assiduously in my time. For the truth is, I’ve kept it off my resume, too embarressed to admit to pounding the streets selling computers. Bijoor’s article however gave me pause, and much food for thought and reflection on the path my career has taken in the 15 years since. Come now, let me tell you a story of a young girl, who had just dropped out of design school.

OMC Computers Ltd (now defunct) was the sole provider of dedicated CAD workstations, an indigenously developed drafting package, named Draftpak (of course!), plotters as well as the Indian agent for Silicon Graphics Iris machines. This was in 1990 –  before liberalization, before the growth of infotech, before computers became mainstream office decor and of course, before email and the Internet – and I was the only woman in that year’s crop of fresh engineering graduates to be hired as ‘Marketing Executives’, a glorified titled for the job, for the Chennai office (Madras in those days). In fact, if memory of industry gossip serves me, I was in fact the very first field saleswoman for computers. Certainly for Madras because I got to know my ‘competitors’ at PCL, HCL and rest through chance meetings in waiting rooms or while waiting for the results of the low bidder for a tender at Southern Railways.

My very first job for a pittance of Rs 2250 per month (approx $80). They took a chance on me, for women were usually hired for ‘marketing support’ functions like giving demos or for traditional administrative functions, not for outside sales, and certainly not for cold calling, knocking on doors type of outside sales. In fact, I’d had a nasty experience during HCL’s interview process when the interviewer asked me what I’d do if the customer came on to me or harassed me. Actually, he harassed me. But these things are part and parcel of that society. In OMC’s case however, I think that why they did indeed hire me, though I neither spoke the language native to Chennai (Tamil) nor did I have family there (the truth is my boyfriend lived there, and I very much wanted to move there) because they served a niche market – computer aided design and drafting – and I’d not only attended design school but had used their software and computer system while there, unlike any other applicant in the room. After two weeks of training at OMC’s HQ in Hyderabad, I moved to Madras to start work. I remember that was when I bought my first purse and also a wardrobe of modest salwar kameezes as I’d only worn jeans in college.

There were no lists of addresses. One went systematically through office buildings, industrial areas and factories in one’s territory, identifying the types of the companies that would perhaps need an engineering workstation for finite element analysis, or a CAD package for structural or achitectural drawings. Each day we’d set out – there were three of us, each with our ‘territories’ to cover – to make at least 5 calls, if not more a day. For we had to maintain a salesman’s report book – number of cold calls, number of new businesses, number of repeat visits, along with a guesstimate of time frames for when they’d buy (A, B or C) along with any notes – and were evaluated on these things. I remember being ranked first for ‘cold calling’ but that was because I had the worst territory (well, I was the girl) so went through offices at top speed figuring out they weren’t going to spend Rs 100,000 to 185,000 on a cad workstation much less the ‘bundled’ package with sofware and a plotter.

Met some fascinating people, made friends, travelled, learnt a lot about Tamilian culture and language, never once realizing that part of the reason for my ‘success’ was that I was an oddity – a woman – and if I barged into some factory asking to meet with the head of their design team, he’d usually meet me just to sit and talk to a female for a few minutes. One manufacturer of vending machines was particularly interesting, he’d invented the entire mechanics of the machine and was just putting a sheet metal case over the whole and still managing to sell it. The half baked product designer in me would draw sketches for him to use and would find reasons to return, though to be honest, he never did buy a machine and I don’t think I ever expected him to, but I learnt so much about invention and manufacturing and vending machines I can’t regret the visits 🙂

Within months, the other computer companies began hiring women to be their salespeople too – I guess they thought I was OMC’s secret weapon rather than their grudging experiment. Anyway, these trip down memory lane could go on and on and I think I should stop now. All I can say, is thank you to Mr Bijoor for reminding me of where I learnt some of the most important lessons that one can use in throughout one’s career – I’m tempted to write up a bullet point list of those – but this was the most valuable: how to take ‘No’ for an answer and still not lose faith, that somewhere, behind the next door, will be the next big ‘sale’. All you have to do is keep on knocking.

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