Chapter 4: It’s not About the Coffee

It was my first real appointment.  I mean the one that get’s you all excited.  The old man was going to finally show me his magic.  He was the Oz and I was going to see how the man behind the curtain really operated!

I was a little apprehensive and the anticipation was causing butterflies in my stomach.  We got in the car and he didn’t say a word.  We listened to Neal Boortz on AM radio … yes, the same acerbic and bombastic talk show host heard across America today.  That guy has been around a really looonng time!

We were going to see a builder and my father was determined we were going to actually have an appointment with the man.  We had been trying to get a return phone call for weeks or at least get the receptionist to set an appointment for us over the phone but nothing was working.  As it was put to us; “Well Mr. Gross, I’ll let him know you called again.  I’m so sorry he hasn’t gotten with you but Mr. Smith is a very busy man.”

Nice! Every call was blocked, blocked, blocked and tackled!  She was a very sweet lady and very professional too.  The realty of what was going on though was completely different from the sweet, candy coated responses we were receiving from the builder’s secretary. She was a bulldog at the gate and we were being stopped cold.  The gate was closed!

Side Thought:  I remember asking my mother one time what she did and she said she was a secretary to a vice president of Bell South (back in those days they didn’t use the politically correct euphemism; administrative assistant).  I went through many years thinking, hmmm, Mom was ‘just’ a secretary  …  then as I grew up and learned more about how big businesses operate it dawned on me!  More like it hit me like a dump truck load of bricks.  My sweet, kind, gentle mother was the bulldog at the gate!  Not only that but she was the business behind the business man!!!  And she was managing many other sweet, kind and gentle BULLDOGS at the GATE!  LOL  You go mom!

The reality of what my father and I were experiencing was that we had come up against a gate keeper.  Someone charged with the responsibility to keep safe the time and business of her boss, the very man we needed to see.  This woman was good, very good.  My father had tried every tactic he could.   If there was ever a book titled the Tenacious Salesman’s, Rules for Cold Calling, then he had written it and we had turned every page in it trying to get through this gate keeper.

There was only one thing left to do!  “Son, get in the car!   We’re going for a little ride.”  And ride we did, right out to the man’s office.  You should have seen the shock on the Bulldogs face when we walked in the door and introduced ourselves!

Bulldog; “Oh, oh, Mr. Gross, I didn’t know you were coming by.  We just talked a little while ago and I told you Mr. Smith was not available.  Is there something else I can do for you?”

Dad; “Nope, you’ve been very kind.  We were just in the area so I thought we’d stop in and see if Mr. Smith was available.”

Bulldog; “Well he’s here but he has a meeting and several calls on hold.  I’ll tell him you stopped by…”

Dad; “Oh, thank you very much, but we have some time on our hands until our next appointment.  We’ll just sit over here and wait if that’s okay with you?”

Bulldog; “That’s fine, but it may be a while.”

Dad; “That’s fine, thank you.”

We grabbed a seat and my dad threw me the business section of the day’s paper and then he took a deep breath and it started.  The magic flowed.  I witnessed one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life.  Silky smooth, I watched the Grey Fox (my dad’s cheesy CB handle … that’s right, we had a CB radio.  It was the days before cell phones.) begin to parlay his verbal prowess into a conversation that had the ‘Bulldog’ purring like a kitten with a catnip toy!  It was amazing.  He got her talking about how long she had worked there, how much she enjoyed the summer, her kids, her aspirations, and how she was ‘generally disrespected by almost every man that walked through the door’ being that she was in the construction industry.

Finally with a chuckle and a laugh the Bulldog started again. “You know Mr. Gro … I mean Tom.  Mr. Smith really is going to be a while, but since you are going to wait, can I get you a cup of coffee?

Dad; “That would be great!”

Side Thought #2:  Remember back in the first chapter where my dad told me I’d have to learn to drink my coffee black and cold.  That same crusty, oily, acidic coffee that he had June leave sitting on the burner for hours before he got there.  That same coffee that you could stick a spoon in and make it stand straight up in the cup.  I think they call that espresso these days and they sell it in even smaller cups for $6.50 a pop.  Ah coffee, wonderful coffee!

As I watched in amazement what unfolded next, I burned the images in my memory.  I have relived this moment over and over again in my career.  What happened next is why I tell every sales person I know that they should learn to drink their coffee black.  There’s a huge lesson in this exercise and I’ll reveal it after I finish this story.

Bulldog; “Great, I’ll get some for you … and your son, would he like some coffee too?”

Me; “Yes Ma’am, I would love some coffee.”  I said maybe a little to enthusiastically .. It’s okay, the old man in his cool way smoothed that over in short order.

So with a roll of her eyes and slight sigh she asked; “Cream and sugar? How many?”

Dad; “Cream and sugar? We drink our coffee black.  How many?  (chuckle) what’s that mean anyway” ..more chuckles.. (You see, in those days we didn’t have the neat little individual packets.  Cream and sugar was ‘poured’ out so it was difficult to measure and get someone’s coffee exactly right.)  My father, in his infinite wisdom and experience, used this knowledge to his advantage.

Dad; “ You know.  You’ve been really kind to us, letting us sit here and bother you.  And you are very busy,  if you’ll tell us where the coffee is, we’ll get it ourselves.  We don’t need to drag you away from your work just to serve us.”  He said with a wry smile and wink.

Bulldog; “Well that is so sweet, its right down the hall, first door on the left.”

So my dad and I made our way down the hall.  He poured each of us a cup of coffee … black of course!  Then he looked at me and smiled, counted to ten and leaned out the door and said; “Hun, can I get you a cup of coffee?  My son Mike can come grab your cup.” And then loud enough for her to hear; “Mike, go grab her cup.”

Oh the excitement in her voice was noticeable.  Someone was willing to serve her.  Someone was showing her respect.  As I made my way up to her desk to grab the cup she looked at me sweetly and said; “Two sugars and a cream please.”  And as quickly as she said it she started to laugh!  She got up and walked down the hall to the break room; “Really, what does that mean?!” she exclaimed.  We all stood in that break room laughing and discussing …of all things… coffee!  Why some drink it black.  How others like it with just cream.  How sugar makes it taste more like dark chocolate.  It was amazing.  The Bulldog at the gate had become our Bulldog.  We were now part of her pack, no longer on the outside.

After a few more minutes of conversation we all retired to the lobby again.  She sat there deep in thought for a few minutes.  We silently waited.  Anticipation was in the old man’s eyes.  He had a knowing smile on his face.  He knew he had won.  He was like a hunter that had tracked his prey, snuck up behind it, mindful to stay down wind.  He had fired his shot.  It was a perfect shot.  He watched in slow motion as his arrow flicked through the air.  No leaf, no twig, no branch could alter its trajectory.  And then it happened!  Like a one shot kill taking down a 10 point buck he had accomplished what he set out to do early that morning.

With a mischievous smile, the Bulldog looked up from her desk.  “You know Tom, I might just be able to get you into see Mr. Smith.  Make sure you call him Mr. Smith until he tells you to call him Jim.  He likes that.”  Then she picked up her phone and rang Mr. Smith; “Jim, Tom and Mike Gross are here to see you.  They are with Flooring Interiors.  They are a fantastic outfit and I’ve been meaning to tell you about them.  I scheduled an appointment for them to see you today and forgot to put it on your calendar.”  Then she paused.  “Oh no sir, this is no waste of time!  You’ll definitely want to talk to them!”  Then she smiled and looked at us; “Jim will see you know.” And in a low hushed voice she said; “Good Luck!”

Then it was all made clear to me.  My dad, in his infinite wisdom had taught me drink coffee … that cold, dark, thick, acrid coffee! … black for a reason.  To this day I don’t even know if he realized what he was doing.  Often times I tell him of a lesson I learned from something he said or did and he doesn’t even remember.  Wisdom is like that.  It’s like an instinct.  It’s passed down from generation to generation.  It becomes natural, almost matter of fact.

He taught me to drink my coffee black, but it wasn’t about the coffee.  It was about all the things that drinking your coffee black represents.  It was process.  It was simplification of process.  It was opportunity and understanding how simple everyday tasks and events lead to success.  The entire theory or process of something as simple as drinking your coffee black could lead to opening a door that was shut!  Not just shut, but locked shut and guarded by a Bulldog!

The Lesson:

So what should salespeople and business professionals take away from this story?  It’s truly not about the coffee and why we drink it black.  It’s not about the cold call or why we make that call at 9:00 am in the morning.  It’s not about anything that you are trained to do, no matter how mundane.

Moreover, it is about how you can take something simple and use it as a tool to create your own success.  The most successful professionals find ways to use their surroundings to their advantage.  They look for opportunities to leverage every day events and situations to their advantage. Do I think that my father walked through that door thinking; “I drink my coffee black so that I can get one over on the Bulldog”?  No, not in a million years.  BUT! Was I amazed at the creativity it took to take a situation like that and a simple fact, “we drink our coffee black”, and use it to our advantage to create a win?  You bet I was … and I am still amazed about it every day.

  1. It’s not about the coffee!  Meaning that success is not about the process or why we do a thing.  Many people drink their coffee black but how many people have the creativity and foresight to know how and when to use that simple fact as a tool to take a negative situation and turn it into a positive?
  2. Learn the basics first.  In the realm of coffee drinking, black coffee is the most basic.  You pour it in a cup, you drink.  The more complex coffee drinks, cappuccino, lattes, frapu-whatevers all take more time and it’s easy to mess up the recipe. Messing up creates set-backs.  Learn the basics before you move on to the more advanced strategies.  Also remember that once you master the basics, sometimes they become the most advanced … what is espresso after all?  It’s BLACK COFFEE! 

Want to get more yeses and less no’s?  Want to create more positive responses to your pitch or your products?  Need to get past the Bulldog and/or gate keeper?  Then learn the value of the simple strategies and think creatively about how to apply them in tough situations.