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What I learned selling encyclopedias

salesEdward Kiledjian3 Comments

In my youth, I was full of spunk and illusions of grandeur. While my friends were working at the local theater for minimum wage, I was scoping out more lucrative opportunities.

One such opportunity was the sale of encyclopedias. For my younger readers, there was a time when most homes did not have the internet or a computer. During these “dark ages” the only way to find information was to go to a library or buy a set of encyclopedias. The job was simple; we were expected to sell kits door to door. It wasn’t the easiest job I ever had but it sure was lucrative and it taught me some very valuable lessons about sales.


As a young know-it-all, I believed I could “sell ice to an Eskimo”. I wanted to hit the road and start making money. Since our remuneration was commission-based, we only made money when we sold. Imagine my surprise when I was asked to spend the first 3 weeks in the office “learning how to sell the encyclopedias”. After being challenged by a cocky kid, the manager took me to a street, gave me the tools of the trade and told me to try my luck. After having 30-40 doors slammed in my face, I got the message loud and clear. I needed a game plan.

We then spent 3 weeks learning about our product, its particular sales model, our target customer, our elevator pitch, etc. And we practiced…. Oh boy did we practice. I was paired with another salesman and we worked on every conceivable scenario. At the end, we were machines. We could handle anything thrown at us and it showed. Most salesmen quit very early because it isn’t an easy job. But it sure was profitable for those who learned how to do it properly. In one summer, I made more money working part-time than some adults working full-time.

Too often in today’s busy world, people mistakenly believe that they don’t need to prepare or don’t allow for enough preparation time. This will lead to failure or at least a less than optimal outcome.


If someone came knocking on your door and offered to sell you a brand new set of encyclopedias, how would you react? How many doors do you think slammed in my face?

In the encyclopedia example, I did not try to sell the same house multiple times but I had to accept 40-50 rejections until someone finally gave me a chance to make my pitch and then only a small percentage of those actually became buyers. I learned that success came to those who were willing to accept rejection and push back.

In our instant gratification society, many people don’t want to work too hard at achieving their goal. They want quick and instant gratification. Unfortunately that is not how the world works. In most cases, you will have to touch a contact 7-10 times before they remember you and at this point they may give you an opportunity to meet them. Most salespeople give up after the first couple of attempts and move on to other prospects.

A friend of mine is a real estate agent for a middle class neighborhood. He kept changing his sales approach every couple of months. He mailed postcards one month, then when he did not get a “good enough response” would try door to door then a billboard, etc. He was frustrated that with all his hard work, he wasn’t getting the results he wanted. I worked with him to target his ideal customer (we will talk about this later on) and then I asked him to mail postcards to the target houses every month until I told him to stop. Over the next 6-8 months, he started to get more and more customers. As people needed his services, they kept receiving his postcard and so they called him. He eventually became one of the best selling real estate agents in that neighborhood. Find a strategy that works and keep doing it. Don’t expect instant rewards. I guarantee your perseverance will pay off.

Elevator pitch

As soon as the door opened, I had 30 seconds to convince the homeowner to continue listening to me. This is called the elevator pitch and every salesman needs to know this perfectly. Think of it this way, if you had 30 seconds in an elevator with your ideal customer (between floors), how would you convince him to continue listening to you once he got to his floor?

This is not an easy feat. It is very difficult to get your point across efficiently in such a short period of time but it is an absolute requirement. Even when you manage to book a meeting with your ideal customer, he will decide your future in the first minute or so of your presentation. The key here is preparation and hard work. Take the time to prepare and practice your elevator pitch. Use friends, family or colleagues as test subjects and be open to constructive criticism.

Find unique ways to captivate your customer and get them asking for more. Sometimes this can be through carefully crafted questions “Would you like to learn the 5 biggest mistakes parents make which doom their kids to mediocrity and failure?”


Most salesmen forget that a customer is not sold on the features but on the benefits of a product or service. In the sales process of my encyclopedias, I wasn’t talking about the number of books, number of pages or material used for binding. Instead I use to sell the advantage of having reference material quickly available. How this information can help their children get a competitive edge and how these were of superior quality and would last generations.

A good example of this today is the smartphone market. Check out the sales page for most Android-powered devices and you will very quickly see technical specifications about memory, processor, expandability, etc. Apple takes a completely different approach and sells the user experience. They don’t talk about bits and bytes. They talk about how sleek their new device is, how easy it is to use and how there is an entire ecosystem of applications that will allow them to do almost anything.

How will your product benefit the customer? What unique benefits do you bring?

Call to action

If I had done everything right, I had a potential customer that was ready to buy but I still had to close the deal. It is actually more difficult than it sounds and requires planning and practice. How do you get your customer from “I am interested” to “where do I sign”?

In the case of encyclopedias, it was a combination of a last minute one-time only special deal and the fact we were only passing each area once (you could only buy them from the mobile sales team). My closing was carefully crafted to methodically walk a customer to agreeing to buy my offering.

As part of your planning, walk through the entire presentation in your mind and determine how to close the deal. For some, closing the deal means booking another meeting while for others it may mean getting the customer to sign on the dotted line. Think about how you can logically guide your customer to the desired outcome.

As stupid as it sounds, I have been in sales presentations where the rep did an amazing job until the end when he fell short on the closing. What was the next step? What was the expectation? Don’t leave this critical decision to your customer. The entire process was to bring your customer to this point. Have a strategy and follow through with it.


The above concepts are not earth shattering revelations but real world practical guidelines. Whether I was selling encyclopedias or helping a customer streamline their operations, everything I did required some level of salesmanship. Sometimes, it was straightforward sales of a product or service. Other times I had to sell an idea to executives to secure funding or approval.

To succeed, we must all sell. Learn these skills and thrive.