When I’m researching a copywriting project I’ll often ask a client about their early jobs. Sometimes your first jobs provide clues of things to come…
When I was 15 I started my first and only weekend job, in a local garden centre. I was paid £2.50 an hour, in cash (about $3 USD). Which even in 2001 I don’t believe was legal.
I remember cleaning a moss-covered path on my first day with a half-broken dustpan and brush, when I was approached by a customer.
“Excuse me mate,” he said, “what type of compost do I need for an Acer tree?”
Uh oh. The ground may as well have opened up and swallowed me whole.
With some trepidation I pulled the walkie talkie from my belt cord. I tried to remember: were you supposed to press the button and talk? Or were you supposed to press the button and wait? I opted for the latter. In the back of my mind a tiny voice added: “and what if this is the day the stammering incident happens again??”
I really hated that tiny voice.
“Hello Rob, was that you?” came the reply. Thank God.
That was one of many incidents you just had to get through, only to realise it wasn’t so scary after all.
After a while I settled in at the garden centre. I became no longer afraid of the walkie talkie. I even learned that Acer trees like acidic ericaceous compost. As do Rhododendrons. But not roses – better to use John Innes No. 3.
I learned that I could find answers by asking the right questions, without becoming an expert myself. Which really was the only option, because I was only willing to learn so much about plants.
At Christmas the place would go crazy selling Christmas trees. We’d sell perhaps a thousand trees over two weekends. There were four weekend staff outside, including me. All lads. So of course, we would ‘compete’ to see who could sell the most trees.
My own sales technique was fairly basic. I wouldn’t bother with much small talk, and didn’t have the same flair as the other guys. I’d pull out two or three trees, and say something like “hmmm… that’s a nice shape…”
One day I was pulling an especially fat Christmas tree through the netting machine. I hadn’t seen that an elderly lady had wandered behind me – probably to ask about compost or something. Suddenly the tree burst through the machine, and I fell backwards elbowing her in the head.
So I assaulted more customers than I should have done, and didn’t sell all that many trees with my ‘take it or leave it’ sales technique.
Not that a Christmas tree is an especially complicated sale, but it’s still an emotional purchase given that the entire family sits around it at Christmas. The customer has to be completely reassured it’s the right one, of the few hundred in front of them.
So I decided early on that I wasn’t much of a ‘sales person’. I didn’t have the ‘gift of the gab’. And I definitely wasn’t comfortable ‘winging’ a sale on the fly.
I debated whether or not to include my garden centre stories in this series. That time was about becoming more assured of myself, but nothing major really changed. It’s more of a ‘filling in the gaps’ story.
I also had to trim this story quite a bit. I have a lot of amusing anecdotes from working at the garden centre, but the single point I most wanted to get across was my dislike of unstructured sales situations.
In selecting stories you often have to trim away perfectly valid parts that distract from the idea you’re trying to communicate. You can always save them for another time.
In terms of core behaviour, I don’t think I’ve changed very much since that time. I probably have marginally more charm now than I did then, but I still avoid unstructured sales situations like the plague.
Stories from your early jobs resonate with people much more than you might think. Most of us had some kind of weekend job growing up, probably with funny anecdotes. Sometimes they provide easy common ground.