The Art of The Sale

By Jesse Chambers

Photos by Beau Gustafson

I admit it.

I’m a typical blue-jean-wearing “creative,” to use the current label for writers, designers and photographers. I’ve never been a salesman and probably couldn’t peddle Haagen-Dazs in Death Valley. However, the longer I work for magazines and newspapers, the more I appreciate the sales people who bring in the ad revenue that allows me to get paid.

Doug from Benchmark

I recently spoke to several top sales people in Birmingham and asked them to tell me more about what they do.

Thanks to them, I have an even greater appreciation for the art and craft of sales and for the perseverance of those among us who must convince customers that a particular product or service will solve their problem or satisfy their desire.

My research began with a visit to Doug Sweet, the used-car sales manager at Benchmark Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge, on New Year’s Eve — a cool, sunny Saturday.

Dealers are busy on New Year’s Eve, Sweet says — customers know that dealerships want to sell enough cars to make their quotas before January 1 — but he made time to talk to me in his office off the showroom floor.

Sweet, who turned 30 that day, sold new and used cars at Benchmark for four years and has been used-car sales manager since 2009.

He tells me that successfully selling cars involves, not surprisingly, some practical psychology. “After talking to hundreds and hundreds of customers over time, you just kind of figure out what they’re about to come back at you with, and you know, especially if it’s a husband and wife, just the way they’ll look at each other, you can usually kind of figure out what they’re thinking,” Sweet says. “A lot of the time, they won’t talk to you, so you have to beat around the bush to get them to tell you what they’re thinking so you know where you need to be on the deal.”

Sweet says his degree in economics from Auburn University helps him with management tasks, but it’s not the reason he can sell cars.

“It requires very little book smarts, but you have to be able to read people very well and be able to deal with people, because you are asking them to spend $40,000 or $50,000, in a lot of cases, of their hard-earned money,” Sweet says.

According to Sweet, there are salesmen at Benchmark who make really strong salaries despite not having college degrees, but they worked hard to get to that point.

“You have to be really good, and you have to stick with it for a long time.” Sweet says. “There are a lot of books out there that say to become a car salesman and make 100 grand a year. Yeah, maybe after 15 years of putting hard time into it and building up a huge repeat business.”

Repeat business is the Holy Grail, according to Sweet. “To have it, you cannot be ripping customers off or lying to them,” he says. “You have to be honest in what you do so that a customer will try to shop around on the next purchase and realize that you were good to them, that you gave them a good deal, and then they come back over and over.”

Sweet also says that, despite the stereotypes, used-car salesmen can’t afford to lie to customers. “If we lie to our customer, you get caught,” he says. “It’s obvious when you are lying, because everything is in writing now and all the information is on the Internet.”

Sweet loves meeting new people every day. “I just never seem to get tired of it,” he says. “It’s a challenge every day to meet a new person who’s on the edge of buying a car and try to talk them into doing it. I never want to push somebody into a car, but I want to make them feel that it makes sense to buy it right then and make them understand that right now is the best deal.”

Jenni from Novartis

Pharmaceutical sales person Jenny Merrill, who works for Swiss drug maker Novartis, played tennis at the University of Alabama and says her athletic background plays a part in her sales success. “A lot of pharmaceutical reps are ex-athletes — basketball players, football players, gymnasts,” according to the native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who took time from her busy rounds to meet me at a coffee house at Pepper Place in January.

“It’s because with sports, there’s so many times you get let down and you have to get back up,” she says. “You’ve got the dedication to get out there every single day and practice. You’ve got the will to win.”

Merrill graduated from Alabama with a degree in advertising in 1993 and, among other positions, was advertising manager at J.F. Day and sold advertising for the Birmingham Business Journal. “I’ve been doing sales for [about] 15 years, and I love it,” she says.

Merrill reps drugs for hypertension, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s and calls on doctors at Brookwood, BMC-Princeton and St. Vincent’s hospitals. Her typical work day isn’t easy. “They like us to see at least 10 doctors, 10 to 12 doctors a day,” she says.

And when Merrill goes to a doctor’s office, she has to gain access to the doctor for a few precious moments in order to tell him or her about her products.  It’s critical, Merrill says, that she develop a good relationship with the office staff who serve as the doctor’s gatekeepers.

According to Merrill, the job of the drug rep is complicated these days by increased federal restrictions on the money drug-makers can spend to entertain physicians or give them gifts. “You barely bring them lunch now,” Merrill says, adding, “Our budgets are a lot smaller.”

Doctors also have less spare time to talk to reps, Merrill says. “Medicare and all the reimbursements are being cut so much, they’ve got to see a certain number of patients for them to make any money, so they don’t have time,” she says.

She describes her first objective in talking to a physician about one of her drugs. “The main thing in sales is finding out the ‘why,’” she says. “Why are they not using your product?”

According to Merrill, you can’t jump to conclusions. “You may think they’re not using it because it costs too much, but really they’re not using it because they don’t think it works,” she says. “So you got to know which way to go with it.”

Merrill must also sense which personality types the doctors are in order to sell them effectively, something her sports background helps her with. “When you’re in a sport, you’re around so many different people and personalities, that you know how to adjust your selling skills,” she says.

One of the types is the “driver,’ she says. They are resistant to small talk. “If somebody’s a driver, you don’t go up and say, ‘Jesse, did you see that football game?’ They are uncomfortable with that. You get right to the point.”

If you’re dealing with an “analytic” type, Merrill says, “Don’t waste your time trying to wow them with… glossy brochures. “They want to see the studies,” she says. “They want to see the numbers.”

Merrill enjoys what she does, but misses the immediate gratification she experienced in other sales jobs. “I loved advertising,” she says. “Its difference from pharmaceuticals is that with [an ad] campaign, I knew where we stood, from when we made the deal until we closed the contract.  I knew when I hung up the phone.”

And she liked the rush. “When we got the contract, I got on a sales high,” she says. “And people can hear that in your voice, so you start picking up the phone… and they can feel the excitement, and you just start trying to close things.”

Pharmaceuticals is a different experience. A doctor may tell her he’ll write her drug, but she can’t be sure he will. If he does write it, maybe the patient won’t have the prescription filled. Or maybe they do, but the pharmacist substitutes a generic.

“There’s no sales high,” Merrill says, though she has found ways to set satisfying competitive goals within her sales process. “In pharma, it may be getting a way to see that doctor where no one else can, or schmoozing the girl up front into letting me back,” she says. “It may not be just numbers in this industry, but it may be overcoming some obstacle.”

Merrill also believes she’s having a positive impact through the products she reps. “I do feel like I help the patients, because I do believe in my drugs,” she says. “And it’s nice to go into these offices and hear good stories.”

Julie from

Julie Levinson-Gabis is a senior account executive with, which she says is Alabama’s largest local web site, with 2.8 million unique visitors a month.

“I sell digital products to any company that has a message to share,” she says, adding that this message could be about Taco Bell or a degree program at Alabama or Auburn.

“We give advertisers the platform to tell their story in all different venues from display to search,” she says. “With digital there are so many other capabilities.” She also helps businesses market to each other, not just to consumers.

Levinson-Gabis was born in Dallas, Texas, and has lived in Birmingham since she was 12. She studied business and PR at UAB, graduating in 1986. She has been in sales virtually the entire time since. Her career includes stints selling advertising at radio stations WERC-FM, Magic 96-FM and WZRR-FM Classic Rock 99, at TV station FOX 6-TV, and for cable company Charter.  She managed local sales for WRAX-FM. She went to work for in July 2009.

Like Sweet, Levinson-Gabis says there’s no future in lying to prospective customers. “You absolutely have to believe in what you’re selling, anytime — if it’s a computer chip, a golf driver. How can you sell a product you don’t believe in? And if you did sell something and the product didn’t turn out to be so good, you’ll never sell that client again.”

The satisfaction she takes in her work is connected to the benefit she feels her customers will see. “I do love closing a sale,” she says. “It can be huge or it can be modest, because it’s always huge for the business. If you feel good about what you’re selling, and you’re selling something that you think is really going to help them — maybe to get them more attention on a search engine — it’s exciting.”

James Harwell, an associate broker and listing agent with RealtySouth, once vowed he would never get into the business, despite the fact his mom Elizabeth is a

James Harwell from Realty South

successful real-estate professional. “Growing up, there were always open houses on Sunday,” he says. “The phone never quit ringing. I despised it.”

Harwell, who grew up in Bluff Park and graduated from UAB in 1991 with a double major in English and history, wanted to follow the lead of his dad Hoyt, an Associated Press bureau chief, and become a journalist.

But Harwell was also a rock n’ roller, playing at clubs and proms in the Southeast with his band, The Undertow, and needed a part-time job with flexible hours. He started working as a secretary at his mom’s office in 1991, drawing on the administrative skills he honed as a yeoman during his hitch in the U.S. Navy.

At first it was just a job, but Harwell soon figured out it could become a career. “I was doing all this leg work for all these agents, and one day it just hit me, ‘I’m doing all the work, and they’re making all the money. What’s wrong with this picture? So I went and got my license,’” Harwell says.

He became an agent in 1998 and now markets his list of homes to about 3,000 realtors in the Birmingham metro.

Has the industry changed over that time? “Yes and no,” Harwell says. “Real estate to me is about people and not houses. What worked for me in 1998 still works, which is just direct communication with people.”

Harwell also evinces a refreshing candor. “People ask me, ‘What’s the market going to do?’ he says. “I don’t know what the market’s going to do. I don’t try to fake it. ‘This is what is happening now, here,’ I tell them.”

“Real estate is local,” Harwell says. “That’s huge. I try to specialize in my market, which is in a five-mile radius of where I live,” he says, meaning Bluff Park (where he still resides with his wife and kids), Vestavia and Cahaba Heights.

It’s been a buyer’s market recently, but that’s about to change, Harwell says, due to gradual declines in the inventory of unsold houses in the area and the cyclical nature of the business.

What are people really buying when they get a house? “It just depends, and part of my job and the success that I’ve had is figuring that out,” he says. “A lot of people are looking for an investment. A lot of people are looking for a lifetime home.”

One of Harwell’s strengths is marketing, honed during the days when he and his band aggressively promoted themselves by mailing their set list to every fraternity and sorority in the Southeast.

“I’m still old-school with that,” Harwell says, an appropriate orientation given the demographic he’s trying to reach — older people with houses to sell. “My bread and butter is made via the newspaper and mail. People I want to capture are people like my folks, because they go out to the mailbox every day and read the newspaper every day.”

He follows up with his old customers, as well. “Once I find them and sell them, I stick to them like a bulldog,” he says. For example, he regularly sends short, handwritten notes to former customers. “Everybody has this email campaign, but guess what?” he says. “I delete emails. If I get a handwritten note, I’m going to take time and read it, and I appreciate them sending it. I keep up with people using electronics, but I take care of them with the telephone or a visit or personal note.”

Harwell says he guards his reputation by listing quality houses. “I’m not taking bad listings,” he says. “Why would I list your house if you’ve got six cats?” If a seller is not willing to clean up their house and make it appealing, Harwell says, he won’t list it.

Derek from Daxko

For Derek Cunningham, vice president of sales for Birmingham software firm Daxko, a sales career is almost a family tradition. His dad was a VP of sales at Xerox in Birmingham, Cunningham told me when I visited the stylish Daxko offices near Samford University.

In addition, Cunningham — as soon as he was old enough to drive — began selling shoes, including a stint at Just For Feet where he realized he had what it took to make sales his profession.

“The experience taught me that I have the ability to open, close and sell somebody,” he says. “We used to challenge each other, by saying, ‘Hey, this person who walks in, I’m going to sell them this pair of shoes.’ As sales people, we would actually put up money in the back office and say, ‘The first person to sell a pair of these today gets the pot.’ So we learned real early on taking and moving somebody to something.”

Cunningham was born in Montgomery and raised in Birmingham. He graduated from the University of Alabama — where he played football as a defensive back — with a degree in health-care management in 1997. He worked in health-care IT sales for the firms Cardinal Health and MedMined before joining Daxko.

Daxko provides consulting and software,  including operations and accounting software, to non-profits, particularly member-based groups. “Our pitch is first to identify their mission and then help them to achieve their mission,” Cunningham says.

Cunningham, like Merrill, credits his athletic background with helping his sales career. “Competitiveness is good, but it’s really, more than anything, drive and motivation,” he says. In organized sports, according to Cunningham, “You learn a lot about pushing yourself, setting goals, and setting realistic goals, which is very important. “

In addition to drive, Cunningham says that good sales people need some other qualities. “They need to be smart,” he says. “They need to be outgoing. I would also say that your better sales people are creative, risk-takers. Often, to get a deal done, you have to think outside the box.”

Before calling a prospect, Cunningham and his team do lots of research, something critical in the Internet age. “People don’t want you calling and asking them the name of their company,” he says. “‘Guess what, you called me,’ they’ll say.”

The Daxko team tries to identify who their audience is going to be for a sales call and to learn as much as they can about the organization. And on calls, according to Cunningham, he and his people try to earn the customer’s trust and demonstrate an understanding of the problems the customers face.

“Then you’ve truly earned the right to introduce how you can help,” Cunningham says. “It’s never introduce a product. For us, it’s always introduce a solution. So I can show you how Daxko as a company — again, not as a product — can help you solve [problems] 1, 2 and 3.”

This is part of building true, long-term partnerships, according to Cunningham. “At the end of the day, products get replaced, but you’re going to pick up the phone and call me, and it’s going to be a true partnership,”  he says.

Any “don’ts” for sales people? “Personal agendas as opposed to what the customer is trying to achieve” aren’t good, Cunningham says. “In other words, ‘I’m going to push this product on you just for the hell of it,’ which goes back, again, to trying to sell the person a pair of shoes that they didn’t really come in the store for,” he says, smiling.

Just to win that money in the back room, I ask?

“Personal experience,” he says, laughing. “That typically doesn’t end well.”


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