Pumpkins. For as long as I can remember, every year we would plant pumpkins, pick them and sell them at our pumpkin stand. It was always the largest pumpkin stand in town, and most of the smaller stands around town always bought their pumpkins from my Grandfather and Dad. It was a family affair; everyone in the family would contribute to running the stand.
During the early years I was a salesman at the lowest level. People would walk in, I would walk out to meet and greet them and point out what our prices were, “two for a dollar in the piles, two to five dollars in the rows, and if you want a big one, we’ll make you a deal.” I can still hear myself saying those words. It was great work any kid would love. I helped people carry pumpkins, helped them choose the best ones, and sometimes I€™d even get a tip, which was possibly the neatest thing in the world for an eight year old farm boy.
What I learned in those childhood years could probably fill a book, but I’ll hit the lessons I took away from the experience.
Hone your voice
A lot of folks are going to tell you to hone your pitch as the key to selling. However, I would contend that having a great pitch doesn’t mean much if you don’t have an inner voice to make it fly.
My grandfather could pretty much sell you anything (I suspect he still could, should he want to). I remember watching him talk to anyone who walked in the door with ease and confidence. It made no difference to him whether someone was happy or angry when they walked in the door; he’d break down walls in an instant. His tone was even, he was happy to see them, and he never pushed. It was the anti-pitch if there ever was one; sometimes, he’d never tell them the prices.
It was from watching him that I tried different things; the speed at which I walked out to them, different voice tones, different wordings. Even when I was failing, there was no time to sit back because there would be another chance walking in the door.
It was through this trial and error that I learned greatly to rely less on what I was selling and more on myself. I gained confidence in dealing with people, I stopped worrying about the final outcome and let the cards fall where they may. Brush off the skepticism, make some mistakes, learn, and hone that voice!
Understand what you’re selling without reference
Like any product you have to know what you’re selling, and pumpkins were no different. I could size them up, price them on the spot, tell you the variety and vaguely explain that Coke sorta makes them last longer after carving (another topic of a more scientific nature). Everyone had a different view on what they were using their pumpkin for, so you had to be quick to be able to point them in the right direction and be able to answer on the spot.
When I was younger, I would defer to my Grandfather because he was the boss and he knew the how to handle everything that could possibly come up. As I got older, I took a certain pride in being able answer those questions without aid and it allowed me to make more sales. He let me have that responsibility and I was happy to embrace it. It was a crash course in learning that cheap talk gets you nowhere and that knowing something outright gives you a great deal of power in driving the conversation and sale.
While knowing your product or topic may seem like something you could learn from any book or class, I’m shocked to find that most people simply do not know their product or topic by heart. How many times have you sat and watched a PowerPoint presentation where the person is reading their slides or notes, making no eye contact and not engaging you?
I would contend that most don’t believe that they know the content well enough to simply engage their audience. I’ve known a lot of very smart people who knew their stuff, but didn’t convey it well to an audience (for that matter, I’ve also known people who had no idea what they were talking about, which is why they read the slides). Some would characterize this a public speaking issue, I contend it’s not only that but simply a lack of experience and belief in their abilities. To sound like a broken record, brush off the skepticism you have about yourself, make some mistakes, learn, and just keep on trying.
You can’t please everyone
You may have pointed them to the perfect pumpkin, you may have given them a stellar price, you may have even carried it to their car. But sometimes, you just can’t please everyone. This can be hard lesson to learn when you’re just a kid trying to learn and be helpful. But it’s a lesson that must be learned nonetheless, otherwise you’re in for a rough road later on.
I remember several instances where people weren’t just unhappy about our prices, but down right livid. Keep in mind, the most expensive general pumpkin we sold was $6 in the later years (and this was well into 2002, which was when stopped growing pumpkins). This would get you anywhere from a good size Jack O' Lantern variety to a larger Happy Jack. Any place around town would charge you $10-$16 for the same thing (and in a most cases…they got them from us to begin with). Yet for whatever reason, they’d think the person who just paid had gotten a better deal. We’d see people storm off vowing never to come back, only to see them a few days later still angry.
I once watched a guy buy 200 pumpkins, my grandfather and him had settled on a price, and the guy handed over the cash. It was an exceptional price but the guy still wasn’t happy and kept chirping on until he finally left. Turns out he had shorted my grandfather on the deal, but my grandfather just shrugged, and said “you can’t please everyone, not even when they short change you on a deal.”
Trying to please everyone is a game you’re going to lose. You can’t keep everyone happy, and you sure can’t give them all what they want. In the end you have to be able to shrug when needed, and let the unhappy people pass you by. Otherwise you’ll run yourself ragged.
Money isn’t everything
I recall getting yelled at for pricing once by a customer. I thought the world was crashing down around me. I remember my grandfather coming over and telling the customer that I had made a mistake, and he proceeded to ring them up for $5 more. For the life of me I don’t recall what that customer did mostly because I was just in awe of my grandfather. I’ll never forget the lesson I learned: some things are just more important then making money, and family is tops on that list.
In the past there are answers (and experience)
I could have chosen to not let the experience of selling pumpkins offer insight into the way I should approach business. In college, I didn’t meet many people who came from a farming family and was very hesitant to even mention this fact. As I got more into the classes, as I ventured more into business, I found that I had a valuable resource on my hands. They were more then just pumpkins, they were orange spheres of experience. Ever single one I sold was one more bit of experience I had over the next person, one more learning step I had already mastered.
I look back with fond memories of not only the time I got to spend with my family, but the for the valuable lessons they taught me. Who knew a pumpkin stand could teach a kid so much.