I wasn’t accustomed to job shadowing, being mentored or even riding shotgun for that matter. I’d already worked in the green industry for 13 years. I was hoping Pete would just point me in the right direction and turn me loose. But, despite my experience, Pete wasn’t about to let me represent his company until he was confident I could treat his customers right.
Typical of a small business owner, Pete worked long hours. Yet, despite being 70 years old, he and his wife, Ruth, never seemed to tire. They owned a tree care company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Pete did all of the estimating. Ruth handled the office work. Three employees did the tree removal and pruning work.
Pete and Ruth were long overdue for a vacation, but they couldn’t find the time to get away, so they decided to bring on some help. When they hired me, they’d already brought someone in to assist Ruth — I was there to help Pete with sales.
Prior to this, I had worked for two large national tree care companies. They’d provided me with extensive training on customer relations and sales. I was eager to show Pete what I could do. Pete was very likable. He had a ready smile and conversed freely with people from all walks of life. He dressed in jeans and a work shirt. He knew how to handle a wrench and there was always dirt under his fingernails.
To learn the business, Pete had me ride along with him. Between running estimates, Pete checked on the crew, repaired equipment and called Ruth to see if there were any pressing issues needing his attention. If not, we’d stop for coffee. He knew where every coffee shop was in town.
Two weeks into my training, we pulled up in front of a nice home in one of the area’s more affluent neighborhoods. Itching to prove myself, I said, “Hey, Pete, how about letting me take this one?”
“All right,” he said. “This one’s all yours.”
The estimate read, “Remove dead tree in front — haul all, grind stump.”
The resident, Mr. Kocur, answered the door when we rang the bell. He came outside and pointed out an old septic field we should avoid. Grateful, I asked Mr. Kocur if he might not want some of the wood since it was an oak tree and, being dead, the wood should be dry.
He said, no, as he didn’t own a fireplace and had no use for it.
As we walked around the tree checking for power lines or any other obstructions, Mr. Kocur and I discussed topics like the weather and sports, specifically the Michigan State Spartans. (Mr. Kocur had a “Go Spartans” banner hanging from a flag pole.) It was September. So I asked him about Michigan State’s football hopes this season and we were soon into a lively discussion about college sports.
During one of the many sales seminars I’d attended, we’d been instructed to establish a rapport with clients — find something you both can relate to. So far, so good, I thought. I was also happy to see Pete was remaining in the background.
Our conversation hit a lull and I seized the moment to quote a price for the job. “Mr. Kocur … given we’ll need the lift-truck to lower the tree down in parts so as not to damage your nice lawn … given we’ll be grinding the stump and cleaning everything up … removing your oak tree will cost …”
This is the point where things went awry.
My thought process was all about wanting to impress Pete. I wanted to demonstrate that I knew my stuff. This was too easy. I decided I’d use one of the sales techniques I’d learned, called “Assume the Sale.” After quoting the price, I extended my hand to Mr. Kocur, and without asking him if he’d like us to do the job or not, or possibly discuss it with his wife, I said, “We have an opening this Friday. May we schedule your work for this Friday, or next?”
Before he could reply, Pete abruptly stepped forward, cleared his throat, and said, “Vic, I haven’t heard Mr. Kocur say he wants us to do the job yet.”
It felt like a slap in the face.
I may not have been wearing a “Trainee” badge, but I might as well have been. Mr. Kocur was taken aback for an instant and then smiled. Pete was 40 years my senior. It was clear who was in charge here.
Fortunately, Mr. Kocur extended his hand and rescued me. He said, “Yes, I want you to do the work. I’ve heard good things about your company.” Glancing at Pete, he said, “Next Friday would be fine.”
I managed to mumble, “Thanks.” And with a red face, I returned to the car with Pete.
We sat out front for a long time. Neither of us spoke. I thought it best to remain silent and wait to be chastised for being pushy. Instead, he laid his hand on my shoulder, and gently said, “That’s not how we do business here. Now, why don’t we go for a coffee?” (Pete loved his coffee.)
We never discussed sales techniques and the next morning he told me I was ready to do my own sales calls.
I didn’t know it when Pete and Ruth hired me, but Pete was already a millionaire and probably knew a thing or two about selling work. Before owning the tree care company, Pete and Ruth had owned a refuse-hauling business in downtown Chicago.
Due to all of the traffic during the day, Pete made garbage pickups at night. He did so for many years. When done with pickups, he would meet for breakfast with the other downtown haulers at one of the city’s many early-morning breakfast joints. The story goes that on one particularly snowy, miserable Chicago morning, six of the haulers agreed that it would be best if they consolidated their companies to save on overhead. Pete was part of that breakfast discussion.
However, he was the only one at the table to decline. It was a decision he would later second-guess. That company eventually became Waste Management, one of the largest waste haulers in the world.
A couple of years later, Pete sold his trash-hauling routes, retired, moved to Grand Rapids (where his two daughters lived) and quickly became bored. He bought a small tree care company for “something to do.”
What Pete understood and I hadn’t learned yet — despite my previous training — was a certain kind of respect. Pete respected people’s dignity. He treated the public as he would want to be treated. He respected other business’s boundaries. He cared about his employees. Statistics show that more employees leave their jobs due to how their bosses treat them than due to the actual work they perform. Few left Pete’s tree care company because of the boss.
The company he purchased quickly grew under his tutelage. After working for another 10 years, he retired again and sold the now much larger tree service to his son-in-law and lead foreman — the one who’d led the three-man crew when he bought the business. That Mom and Pop tree service is now called, “The Grand Arbor Group” and employs 50 people.
If I had to describe Pete’s “sales technique,” a term that would make him cringe, it would be summed up as “treat other people with dignity.” He’s right. When you do, you ooze credibility.
And credibility sells work like leaves fall from trees.