Unexpected Lessons From an Early Customer
This is a story that I’m hesitant to post on my own page and even more hesitant to tag those I have. This is a story of love, connection, tragedy, empowerment, and of non-monetary rewards of a sales position in an industry often rightfully painted as dishonest. This is a story of how I came to meet a customer who would have a great impact on my life without ever intending to do so. There will be a call to action in this story’s conclusion, so consider yourself warned should you take the next 5 minutes to finish it.
At the age of 37, I was an adult student in UNC-Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business. While enrolled as a full-time student, I was fortunate to receive a job offer from Carolina Foundation Solutions and started a 50-plus-hour-a-week job with two semesters’ worth of credits still to complete to earn a bachelor’s degree in marketing with a professional sales concentration. My new employer was kind enough to let me fit my on-campus classes into my work schedule, including allowing me to drive their truck to and fro with gas they provided. My professors were understanding enough to let me come to class covered in crawlspace muck, sometimes late, sometimes via Zoom, and realize without judgment that I likely wasn’t going to turn in the assignments worth 5% or less of my final grade. At 37, with a job and 20 adventurous years, since I enrolled in college the first time, I accepted that C’s get degrees.
The owners of the company allowed me to contribute to my own training protocol: to observe and participate in installs I thought would be most helpful, to ride with experienced consultants on specific leads, to pick the brains of the production managers, crew leaders, and the office staff. They allowed me to develop my own style of selling our products and services, provided it was honest, and somehow agreed to let me run my 1st solo appointment three weeks into my 3-month training period. I wasn’t ready, but I somehow sold the job, and the company stood by my word, my terrible CAD sketch, and installed our products at a less-than-favorable profit margin. The operations crew welcomed me when I showed up to assist with the installation, even though I was learning much more than I was helping. I gained invaluable insight from that first appointment about how much I needed to improve my knowledge of our products, our sales process, and how to interact with customers. The company gave me every resource I needed to sharpen my skills, never once curbing my enthusiasm or criticizing my areas for improvement.
Somewhere around my 5th appointment, I met (names changed) Dean and Tess Jackson in Elon, North Carolina. A young couple with a young puppy and their recently purchased 1st home down the road from Dean’s parents. The little farmhouse had a 12-inch-tall crawlspace, I had a panic attack wrapped up in their ductwork, but I made it out and got to know Dean a bit during the original consultation and then Tess during ensuing phone calls as I answered their questions. They were genuine folks, charming in their obvious love for each other, their pooch Pongo, their new home, and life in general. They had an unmistakable warmth during the pre-sale process. Unfortunately, my inexperience combined with a difficult installation process and some equipment issues meant the job didn’t unfold quite as I and the Jacksons had anticipated. The couple kept their warmth, believing me when I said I’d make it right when most others would have simply voiced their frustration. I announced my errors to my company before they were uncovered in production logs, labor overages, and financial records. The company stood by me again, and I kept personally going out to the little farmhouse to adjust this or that, until, finally, everything was correct. The Jacksons didn’t express exhaustion from the process; they expressed gratitude that I stuck with it. Carolina Foundation Solutions wasn’t upset over my mistakes; they were excited at my eagerness to learn and correct them.
Fast forward a few years, and I’ve amassed more knowledge of crawlspaces, basements, and foundations than I would have ever imagined existed. Yet, I’m probably not considered a great sales consultant by most metrics. My conversion rate is not above industry averages. My appointments often run long, as I spend too much time getting to know the customer and their hobbies, history, and family or sharing stories of my own. If I see that a better solution exists than one of ours, I’ll disclose that information to the customer, and another business will likely reap the revenue. I get behind because I can be too detail-oriented, occasionally get distracted easily, and try to pack too much into the stream of life outside of consultations, windshield time, and paperwork. My employer and management team know all this. Instead of chastising me, they cater to my strengths and give me fewer appointments with longer time and travel windows. They accept that I’ll likely lose some of the small and apparent ‘can’t-miss’ jobs but that eventually, I’ll make up for it with some large ones that take long-term relationship building to pull off and that I’ll always make sure our customers are satisfied when we finish our work. They encourage me to have a balanced life outside of work and ask about my interests and physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. In lieu of threats or punishment, they offer assistance when I get behind.
Last week I got to the truck after an appointment to find a voicemail from Dean. He couldn’t find a probe I installed in his crawlspace that needed the batteries replaced and wondered if I could help him locate it. I returned his call, and he humbly asked if I remembered him. Although I couldn’t remember where I put the probe, I couldn’t forget the impression he and his wife made, and I asked about his work as a wildlife enforcement officer, his pup Pongo and his wife, Tess. The first two were great, but his cadence changed, and I sensed something was wrong. He told me Tess had passed away a few weeks before after a five-year battle with Metastatic Melanoma.
My heart broke instantly. For Dean, for Tess, for their respective families and friends. I did not know what to say and am unsure what words came out, but Dean was gentle in accepting my bumbling response. He gave me some brief details regarding the timeline of events; I offered my deepest condolences and promised I would keep him in my thoughts and would come find his probe should I not be able to recall where I placed it. I remembered how kind the Jacksons both had been as I and my company were having issues with their installation, in spite of what they must have been going through at the time. I shared the news with my girlfriend, family, friends, the owner of our company, and a handful of coworkers, asking that they pray for those left behind. All obliged and those in the company asked if they could help.
Later that day, Dean reached out to inform me he went back and found the probe and then shared the touching obituary Tess had written for herself as she faced her last days. It was eloquent, grateful, and loving. She recalled how through Dean, she fell in love with hunting and nature, particularly in and around Alamance County, where they shared their home. The responses from friends and loved ones painted a picture of a courageous and inspiring young woman, determined to make a positive impact on the world and appreciate its natural beauty during both her fight for life and her acceptance of fate. I told him a village of strangers placed him and others his wife had left behind in their thoughts and prayers, and I asked Dean if he would join my girlfriend and I for dinner, so he could tell us more about his lovely wife and their adventures together. He gladly accepted. I asked my coworker if she could pick up a card for our staff to express condolences, and it was purchased and filled out seemingly before I hung up the phone.
Tonight, I will have a follow-up visit with a customer; I look forward to this more than any in my brief career in sales. I’m blessed with the opportunity to perhaps help with the healing of another human but more so to be inspired by and learn from a pair of people who have demonstrated an amazing amount of grace and love through turmoil and tragedy.
I write all of this to express thanks to those in my professional journey who made tonight possible: to the faculty at UNC-G who were great instructors yet better humans; to the folks at Omnavia Interiors where I had my first taste of sales experience before CFS hired me away; to the Miller family that owns and operates Carolina Foundation Solutions and took a chance on a professional resume that barely warranted an interview; to the consultants, management, office staff, and crews at CFS that trained me and encouraged me to sell the right way; and to my mentors in sales and other industries that demonstrate how treating colleagues and customers with respect and empathy will garner growth in my own esteem and self-worth.
If you are a sales professional, I hope you and I can remember that sometimes a connection will benefit more than a signed contract. If you are a sales manager, I hope you remember that an empowered employee will be motivated to look for reasons to serve the company, its customers, and the community more than themself. No matter who you are or what you do, I hope you remember that being kind, considerate, and compassionate with your fellow world travelers will have impacts on them you could never predict.
I learned from Tess’s obituary that walking along the Haw River with Dean and Pongo was one of her favorite activities. In her honor, I ask those who know the area to head over to the Haw River Alliance website, buy a t-shirt, sign up to volunteer or just take a contemplative stroll along its beautiful banks. For those in other areas, I ask you to head over to waterkeeper.org to find a similar waterkeeper in your area and do the same.
In gratitude and remembrance,
There are many more, but Lasse Palomaki, Sara MacSween, Chris Miller, Chet Miller, Brittany Cates, Sean H. Hines, Robin Butler, Evelyn Church, Darrell Mabe, and Harrison Rutter, you have each had a greater impact on me than you likely realize
*Carolina Foundation Solutions or any above-listed individuals are not affiliated with, nor known to endorse or oppose the above-listed watershed organizations*