TOP TEN THINGS I LEARNED SELLING COMPUTERS IN SLIGHTLY UPSTATE NEW YORK==NOT YET PROOFREAD 
Saturday, April 6, 2019, 08:39 AM
Posted by Administrator
It was around 1976. Out of Kingston, NY: a small city about 100 miles North of NYC, 30 miles from the Hunter Mountain ski area, 2 miles from a bridge that spanned the Hudson River. My sales territory was: Ulster County, Columbia County, Green County, Orange County, Dutchess County(home of IBM--which made computers that worked) and Putnam County. I was 22 years old at the start and I had a blue Chevy Malibu with a (Hurst)manual three speed on the floor. The company (now defunct) was Burroughs.

10) DO NOT BE TOO CONCERNED WITH JOB REQUIREMENTS. On a bright, sunny fall day in the mid 1970s, I saw a 3 X 5 card with information on a computer sales job posted on a cork bulletin board outside of a second floor (student services?) office at the State University of New York, College at New Paltz from which I had recently graduated. I called and made an appointment for a job interview, showed up on time for the interview and was hired on the spot. I found out later that, had I read more than the first line or two of the job requirements on that 3 X 5 card, I would have seen that the job required a degree in Applied Mathematics (computers were new back then and I wonder if there was such a thing as a degree in "Information Technology" or "Computer Science"). My degree was in a non-math (or computer) related subject. I was bad in math (I'm better, now). So, had I read the entire card, I wouldn't have applied for the job and would not have learned the 9 things below.

9) SALESPEOPLE TEND TO PROMISE MUCH MORE THAN THEY CAN DELIVER....but, it is not always their fault. A few weeks after I started at the that Burroughs Corporation branch office, I was out driving around the NY countryside (apple orchards, fields of lettuce, tomatoes, milk cows, small towns, winding hilly roads) making cold calls (no appointment---I'd just stop by) on prospective customers (my "line of business" was small villages and towns and schools---think: Village of Goshen, Redhook Central Schools) trying to sell "mini-computers" and programming to do things like billing residents for their water usage and budgetary accounting, to prospective customers who were doing their paperwork by hand using systems like "write it once" that relied on multiple copies of forms and carbon paper.

I was told by my managers that I could get our programmers to modify any software we sold to do whatever the customer needed. No need for them to take the standard, off-the-shelf package. If the head of the Village of Cornwall water department wanted their bills to have the amount due on top and the address to send payments on the bottom and the standard Burroughs software did the opposite -----we'd just (say we would) change it for them. No problem!

But, really: problem. Our "programmers", was a very nice fellow named Bob Faroute. He was a year out of college, loaded with work from over-promising salespeople and he was beginning to realize that the b.s. changes he was being told to do wasn't what he thought he'd signed up for. So, the promised "customization" was coming slowly...if at all. And, it was my job, as the salesman, to make whatever excuses might make the customer (sort of) happy.

I find that salespeople still do that.

8) ELECTRICAL STUFF DOES DRY OUT. One rainy post-Chevy day at the Kingston branch, I left my Renault R17 Gordini (sounds fancy...it wasn't)out in the rain with its tan canvas top (contrasted nicely with the car's purple paint) open. Things, including the dashboard and the two motors with pinion gears which mated to the tracks on either side of the metal roof structure, got wet.

I ran inside to consult with people who actually knew stuff. The sales department was to the left of the front door. I headed to the right---to consult with the computer repair people.

I would like to note that I always had a good relationship with them and here is part of the reason why: A few months before the rain-in-the-French-car incident, I had overheard another salesperson on the phone telling, what must have been a customer, that he would send over "his technician". The manager (who came on board a few days after they fired the manager who hired me---which was a few days after he hired me) was a young guy---late twenties, named Ed Bender. Ed was a massive man with a small, black mustache in the middle of a large face that was framed with a mop of black hair that hung down past his ears---approximately to the level of his mustache. But, I digress.

Ed walked over to the salesman and said "Don't EVER refer to them "your technicians....YOU are THEIR salesman." He was right----the technicians knew stuff---the salespeople didn't. But, the salespeople made more money and a tip from a technician that a customer was ready to replace or upgrade would help make them a sale on which they would get commission. And, if their customer's computer needed fix'in, the technician could go to fix it------or, take a two hour drive around the countryside.

Anyway, armed with my good relations, I asked the first repair person I saw what to do about the wet electrics on my Renault. I was terrified at the prospect of having to get replacement parts from the one remaining Renault dealer in the US (in Paramus, NJ).I will never forget what he said: "No problem, electrical stuff dries out."

And, it did.

7) SOME PEOPLE ARE GIFTED IN ODD WAYS: My immediate boss at Burroughs was a short (though taller than me), product of Italian parents, raised in New Jersey, man in his later 20s with a round face and a thick, thick, thick mop of black hair that did not, at any time, lack for Brylcream (TV commercial jingle from the time: "Brylcream, a little dab 'ill do ya. Brylcream, the gals will all come to ya."). I have written of the magic of Trivisone before (loyal blog readers will remember) and to fact check and get his permission to use his name, I tracked him down a few years ago on the interweb and he said, more or less: "Yes, all those things you say happened did happen and use my name... but I don't remember you." Joe was a genuis. His genuis was bullshit. I had not known there were genius bullshitters before this.

6) SOME THINGS THAT YOU LEARN YOU ARE NOT PROUD OF KNOWING: One day, a prospective mini-computer customer asked me for contact information on some of our existing customers who had bought from Burroughs and were happy with their systems. I was stumped....the stuff we sold didn't particularly work. I asked Trivisone what to do and this is exactly what he said: "Tell them to call any of our installations. Nobody will admit making a $30,000 mistake."

That's what I did. He was right. The customer got back to me about the great reviews he'd received. I don't remember if that customer bought. Looking back, I kind of hope they didn't.

5) PART II OF SOME THINGS THAT YOU LEARN YOU ARE NOT PROUD OF KNOWING: My first mini-computer sale was to the Student Association of that college in New Paltz as to to which I was and am an alumni. It was inexpensive--$7,000. They planned to do some accounting with it. And, it was an older model with very limited capabilities that actually worked as long as you didn't try to change it to do more than it was capable of. The problem was that the model was out of production and there weren't a lot in stock...anywhere. And, the Association wanted it NOW. "If you can't get us the machine by Monday, we are canceling the order.", I was told. I didn't have a machine for them. It would take another week. I asked Trivisone what to do and this is more or less exactly what he said: "On Monday morning, call them, tell them you have their machine in warehouse but when you went to inspect it, this morning, you saw that it was delivered with a big scratch down the side. Tell them you'll deliver it to them today but you know that $7,000 is a lot of money to and you'd much rather wait for another machine....one you'd scrambled all morning to find...to get delivered so that what they get is nice and shiny. And that will take one more week"

They thanked me for looking out for them and waited another week.

NOTE: Maybe it is because I am telling these stories that Trivisone felt he should deny that he remembered me.

4)DANCING EYES: A few months into my job at Burroughs, the company sent Tom Ciurczak (hired at the same time as me and now the owner of several Japanese light bulb companies) to Southfield, Michigan...where Burroughs was headquartered...to sales school. At Burroughs, you were hired as a salesperson, promoted to Territory Manager and, if "successful" given a choice between becoming a branch sales manager and teaching at the sales school in Southfield. Ralph, our instruction back in 1976(?) picked the second option.

I have always been a crappy student (JD University of Florida WITH HONORS--prospective clients: do not be fooled by what I write). I never had the ability to sit and listen. But, I listened to Ralph because his eyes would dance around the room and make contact with each and every set of student's eyes every few seconds. And, it was not fleeting eye contact, it was eyeball-at-eyeball-looking-into-your-soul for what seemed like an eternity (but was likely for only a second....but, a solid one second, enough time to count to one-onethousand). Okay, let's say 20 students and we'll number them 1 through 20 with 5 (1 to 5) students in each of 4 rows A to D), Ralph would make eye contact with A4 then D2 then B3 then A4, then D1, then D1, then B2 and on and on for the entire class. And, Ralph never stopped for even a moment from going from eyeballs to eyeballs to look out the window or write on the board or see if his shoes were still tied. We had to keep your eye on Ralph because, even if we'd made eye contact with him a few seconds ago, he'd be coming our way again soon. And, he was such a nice guy you didn't want to disappoint him by looking away. (Note: My grandson, Eli, says his middle school teachers do this-----apparently, Ralph's idea has gotten around in the past 42 years.)

I have tried to do this in the years since and it does help to hold people's attention but, I'm no Ralph. Note: The spot to aim for is the pupil.....the dark spot in the middle of the iris and probably the gateway to a person's soul, but, if you are creeped out by that (because you don't want to see into the other person's soul), try focusing on a spot where the iris (the colored part) borders the white part (sclera).

What did Ralph teach us?
-"Turn objections into questions and then answer the question." e.g. Objection: "I don't want a red one." Question: "If we had a blue one would you buy it now."
-He may have been the one who introduced me to:"Whoever talks first loses."
Apart from these, I have no idea. But, the eye thing was worth the trip to Michigan,

3) MORMONISM: The Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit consists of 7 interconnected buildings that are 696 feet tall (73 stories). I did not know this fact(there was no interweb to refer to...I just looked it up now) and one night during sales school, I rode up the side of it in a glass elevator with a bunch of people from my class......one of whom was named Julie. Julie, a tall blonde, was, by far, the best looking woman in our Burroughs class. She was from Salt Lake City.

I am terrified of elevators, especially glass elevators that run on rails attached to the outside walls of skyscrapers. The last thing I want to do in a glass elevator racing up the side of a skyscraper is to talk about death and religion.

I crouched down, cowering in that elevator...as near to the back as I could possibly be so that my weight would not likely contribute to levering the elevator rails off the side of the building and the elevator off the rails. I was picturing that, as the elevator reached the top of the run, everything would come loose from the building and that the elevator would arc across the Detroit River and crash back to earth in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

As the elevator left the ground and began to accelerate, Julie decided it would be a good idea to tell me about Mormonism. This is the main things that I learned:

When Mormons die, they become gods and goddesses of their own universe for eternity.

That is, I thought, a very good deal. And, since we are on the subject, it turns out that the Mormons are the world's largest keeper of genealogical records because their ancestors can be converted after death and (suddenly, I guess) find themselves god or goddess of THEIR own universe for eternity.

2) HAVE A BACK-UP PLAN: About 40 years ago, Earl Friant and I and a couple of dozen other people were having a luncheon in Kingston, NY at the Roundtop Restaurant. This luncheon was going to set me up for some big computer system sales. Here is the back story:

North of where we were, in Syracuse, NY, a man in his early 30s named Gordon Corbin was the business manager of their local school district (the same job Earl had at Redhook Central Schools) and one of his jobs was to produce the dozens of reports that the State of New York Dept. of Education required, every month, if Gordon's school district was going to get their State funding. One day a salesperson from the Burroughs Corporation came to Gordon and said, more or less: "We have a computer system that will automatically produce all of the reports for New York and save you hundreds of hours of time and labor. Want to buy one?"

It was the mid-1970's and Gordon must have optimistically thought: transistor radios have been invented, technology is at a zenith, a man has gone to the moon, how could things go wrong? Unfortunately, the Burroughs salesperson was over-promising to get the sale.

Burroughs delivered a computer (a "B700", I think) to Gordon's office. It was the size of a desk and a file cabinet and had a keyboard and flashing lights and a punch tape drive to get it started. It had two printers: one, a "dot matrix" that sped across the 3 foot long platen (the black tube in a typewriter that turns round and round and feeds the paper in and out) from one end to the other stopping and buzzing at seemingly random intervals along the way and the other, a faster printer that used a continuous chain, like a bicycle chain made out of metal letters, and a hammer beating on the chain to print on pin-fed computer paper that unfolded from boxes that sat on the floor underneath the machine. Within a day or the machine arriving, the Burroughs salesperson, no doubt, was on site pretending to try to get the software he's sold to Gordon to do what he promised Gordon that it would do.

But.......come on, it wasn't ever going to happen. The salesman only had two things to rely on: 1) An off-the-shelf Burroughs program that did some budgetary accounting but had nothing specific for New York Dept. of Education reports, and 2)His branch's programmer a young man no doubt exactly like Bob Faroute

So that he could keep his job after seemingly wasting $100,000 of school district money, Gordon hired a local programmer named Steve Brightbill to write the software and, he did. And, it worked.
Gordon then left the school district and he and Steve started a company named BrightCore to market their New-York-State-specific school system accounting and report generating system. It was going to save school business managers lots of time and get their schools lots of money. There was nothing else like it. And, since the Brightcore system ran on a Burroughs computer and since Burroughs used an odd operating system that was not easily compatible with other companies' systems, BrightCore teamed up with Burroughs.

Since I was the "Territory Manager" for the government and school "line of business" in the area that included Red Hook, as soon as I found out about the system, I went to tell Earl. Since Earl had an old Burroughs system that he asked very little of, Earl LOVED Burroughs. And, we loved him back by rushing to attend to whatever issues he had.

We (Ed Bender, the branch manager...with me listening) developed a plan: We were going to have a luncheon with Earl and Gordon and Steve at a local restaurant....the Roundtop....right off the Kingston-Rhinebeck Bridge and up a small hill immediately North of the New York Thruway exit in Kingston. If you were on your way from Kingston to Woodstock (where the Woodstock Music Festival did NOT happen) in the 1970s, you would have seen the sign. We would invite lots of local school business managers. Steve and Gordon would demo their machine. Earl would say how great Burroughs was and we would make a bizillion sales. I would get commission from all of them......it was a brilliant success in the making.

It was a socked-in, chilly day. I don't remember the turnout. 20? 25? Before we got down to presentations, everyone sat around a long table and ordered lunch. I was sitting to Earl's right--in the middle of the table. Gordon was at the head of the table. Earl ordered a Reuben sandwich.

Let me say now that Earl, at 50 or so years old, was a big man......6'2"? 250 pounds? (By which I mean 300 pounds). Red hair, ruddy complexion, and BIG. So, when he took that first bite of his Reuben sandwich and leaned back in his chair and his head lolled back a little bit and he was about to go over....there was no stopping him. He hit the floor with a huge thud. This next part is something I think about frequently:

I don't remember why I was watching Earl take the bite but I remember the bite and I remember Earl toppling backwards onto the floor... as it it were last week and not 44 years ago. It still runs through my mind every few days. Earl landed sprawled on the floor mostly on top of the chair he had been sitting on. Laying there, he looked same as always except his cheeks may have been a little redder than usual and his lips looked livery and, maybe, they were quivering. He wasn't making a sound. He wasn't moving. I said, in an authoritative voice to everyone at the table: "He's choking!"

In my defense, the Heimlich maneuver was just becoming well known. I don't think I'd heard of CPR yet (it first began being taught to the public in the early 70's). Earl had just taken a bite of the Reuben. I thought the Reuben was still in his mouth. I figured it was stuck.

In response to my call for help with Earl choking, Gordon (also a big man...) came over and he and I (maybe some other people, too....maybe Ed Bender) hoisted Earl up and, once he was vertical, Gordon grabbed around his waist, which was an awfully big waist and only Gordon had the wingspan to do it, and yanked. Earl's bite of the reuben sandwich,sadl, did not fly out. After a few tries, we laid Earl back down.

An ambulance came. Ed and I followed it to the hospital. We went to the ER. A doctor came out after a few minutes with Earl and told us that Earl had died of a heart attack, that there was nothing we could have done and (because I asked him) that I hadn't killed him.

The luncheon must have broken up. We didn't go back to see. That was the end of trying to sell the BrightCore system....at least, for me. The sales we anticipated vanished. A while later, I found out that Steve and Gordon had their system running on other mini-computers (Digital Equipment?)and didn't need us anymore.

Note: I told this story many years ago on the Blog and, few years back, I got an email from a man who lived the Mid-West who said he was Earl's grand-nephew. He told me that he had always heard about Earl when he was growing up but that he'd never met him...that Earl had left the Mid-West early in his adulthood and that the family always wondered what happened to him. I told him that I was sorry that my story about Earl was about his death. He was very cordial about that. Though I believe I know why Earl left home, I didn't tell him.

Anyway, the moral of the story? Have a backup plan. If it's not choking be ready start thinking about what to do for a heart attack. And, don't let your entire business future rely on one customer.

Of course, I'm not complaining, I got out of the computer business and moved on. But, Earl was dead.

1)THE CONUNDRUM: It wasn't until I was about done writing this that I realized what the #1 thing I learned from all of this was.

Yes, Burroughs mini-computers were not very good. I suspect that IBM's weren't either. And, just try to find Wang, Digital Equipment, Compaq, Control Data and Control Data now. Every one of these companies tried to be in the business but it was too early, the technology wasn't there, the interest wasn't there?

But, on the other hand, if we hadn't been out there pushing a bad product, would the industry have morphed into what it is today? Didn't customer money have to come in to finance research and development and would any money have come in if salesmen knew the truth and told the truth?

A lot of Burroughs customers were small were thrilled that they were part of the vanguard who HAD computers; who were okay with futzing with them; who saw their limitations as a challenge; who were okay with getting 1/3 of what they were promised; who, maybe, came in disbelieving the salesman and with low expectation; who were pleasantly surprised that the mini-computer they bought did anything at all; and who were willing to tell people interested in buying that it was something worth having. Maybe, all of those customers knew they were contributing to the greater good (if you like what computers have become) or the destruction of society (if you don't)

Or, am I just making excuses?

I dunno.

add comment ( 7 views )   |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 76 )


<Back | 1 | Next> >>