Bucking the Tide When the selling gets tough, these salespeople get selling


It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in Dayton, in the swank central part of Howard County where the country estates of prosperous lawyers, doctors and business executives compete with the cows chewing their cud on century-old dairy farms.

For realty agent Elaine Northrup, it should have been the perfect day for an open house to sell the $503,000 custom-built white-frame Victorian on five acres with its wraparound porch, intricate architectural details, oversized family room, in-ground pool and dual garages. Yet, Ms. Northrup recalls thinking, "It was absolutely dead."

Even so, Ms. Northrup -- who believes strongly in the power of visualizing her goals -- was determined to find a buyer that day. Although the only ones to happen into the open house were two women who said they were basically sightseers without the income for the purchase, Ms. Northrup noticed how excited one became as she toured the house.

Quickly, Ms. Northrup put a deal in motion.

After convincing the woman to summon her husband for a tour and persuading him the purchase was possible, Ms. Northrup pushed aside seemingly insurmountable financing barriers. The couple's rancher in nearby Glenelg was sold to the man's parents and he got a jumbo mortgage he'd thought beyond his reach. Within just three weeks of the open house, the property went to settlement and the ecstatic couple moved in.

For some super salespeople such as Ms. Northrup, adverse market conditions become a strong motivator. Some are energized by the difficulties presented by a down market, sales experts insist.

"There's something in the left side of the brain that makes a good salesperson rise to a challenge. They're upbeat people and very competitive. They enjoy the idea of spotting a prospect, the chase and moving in for the sale. They thrive on both the presentation and the closing," says Patrick Martinelli, a marketing consultant and professor at Loyola College.

High-achieving salespeople can be found in many different industries.

They can sell stereo equipment when consumer spending is down sharply, like Paul DiComo, national sales manager at Polk Audio Inc., the Baltimore-based maker of home and auto stereo speakers.

They can sell upper-end health insurance coverage when many employers are cutting benefit costs, like Mary Ely, a senior account executive at Columbia-Freestate, a health maintenance organization with headquarters in Columbia.

And they can sell high-priced homes, like Ms. Northrup, even though 1990 has been judged one of the slowest real estate markets in a decade.

"If there's an adverse market out there, Elaine doesn't know it. That's because she creates success within her. It's her attitude. Nothing is impossible. If the client says 'No,' she'll say, 'Just tell me how,' " observes Deborah Latona, a sales associate at the Ellicott City office of Coldwell Banker, which Ms. Northrup uses as a base for her growing sales empire.

For 1990, Ms. Northrup has already achieved more than $17.5 million worth of settled sales -- up from $16 million last year. This is despite the fact that her specialty -- homes priced over $300,000 in Howard County and nearby parts of Carroll and Baltimore counties -- have been among the toughest properties to sell in the current market.

Adverse economic conditions have also driven Mr. DiComo, who says the retail market has been especially challenging this year because "Christmas just isn't happening." Despite a decline in consumer spending and the fact that Polk faces many rivals, the promotion-minded Mr. DiComo has been personally responsible for sales of $6.3 million during the first nine months of this year, up from $4.6 million for the like period last year.

"The bean counters say when business is bad you should cut back on promotional efforts. Our philosophy is that recessions aren't bad things. They're times when you grab more market share by being more aggressive. The pie may not be growing, but we're getting a bigger piece," Mr. DiComo says.

Meanwhile, at Columbia-Freestate, Mary Ely seems undaunted by the current, intense level of competition in the sale of health coverage to employers or the fact that her health maintenance organization is priced at the upper end of the spectrum. Ms. Ely, who tries to tailor her sales pitch to the needs of a company, has sold $2.5 million worth of medical insurance coverage this year, up from $2 million last year.

"I believe that what goes around comes around. If you can't help the account the first time around, there'll be a time when you can if you're true to them," says Ms. Ely, a former Sherwin-Williams Co. auditor who emphasizes service to clients.

Nobody pretends that selling in a recessionary market is easy. Even in the best of times, high achievers in the sales field work long, intense hours, accept the rigors of frequent travel by car or plane, and face the everyday possibility of hostility or rejection when making cold calls by phone or in person. But they insist the exhilaration of success is worth the aggravation.

"There are times when this is very frustrating -- when I think there must be an easier way to make a living. But I know it's in my blood. I like working with people to fulfill their dreams. I get very charged up when there's a happy ending," says Ms. Northrup, who registers an average workweek of 80 hours (with long, intermittent vacations) and can typically be found working at home until 2 a.m.

Becoming a real estate wonder was hardly what Ms. Northrup imagined for herself at the opening of her career. After graduating with honors from the University of Maryland in 1962, Ms. Northrup married and taught high school English for two years. With the birth of a son and daughter, she became a homemaker and planned to remain in that role indefinitely.

But the unexpected breakup of her marriage in 1973 left her as sole provider for her children. In the emotional turmoil of that period, she thrashed about looking for ways to cope with economic reality. Six years earlier -- on a dare from her first husband -- she had taken a state exam and acquired a real estate license. In 1973, she would begin using the license -- taking a desk at the same Coldwell Banker office where she was to become the top producer.

Although Ms. Northrup is one of an elite of top-performing realty agents in Howard County, she was hardly an instant success. Deeply hurt by the breakup of her marriage, she recalls having problems concentrating during the first few months of her work with Coldwell Banker. Inexperience and panic about making money for her family's survival also kept her from focusing on her work.

"When I started real estate, I knew deep down that I was good at sales, but I was really green," she remembers.

After she sold not a single property during her first six months with Coldwell Banker, Ms. Northrup recalls that her boss decided he should fire her. To ease the trauma, however, he gave her a personality test -- believing it would convince her to return to teaching English. But, when the test indicated she was ideally suited to real estate sales, he kept her on.

It wasn't long after that Ms. Northrup began proving her worth to the realty chain. In her second six months, she sold $1 million in real estate and in her second year, $2 million.

Remarkably, it was in the early 1980s, when mortgage rates soared to the upper teens and many homebuyers dropped out of the market, that Ms. Northrup's career took off. In 1981, she

posted $4.5 million in sales.

"The years when I really started blasting out were 1981 and 1982, when rates were in the double digits. I've had some of my best years in the bad markets because I just don't buy into the philosophy that things can't be done," she says.

By the same token, internal competition at Coldwell Banker has been a big factor spurring Ms. Northrup to reach for the brass ring. "I remember sitting in the awards meeting, having a strong desire to perform and always wanting to be No. 1 in the company," she recalls.

In addition, colleagues say, Ms. Northrup is zealous in her quest to find financing for homebuyers who find it hard to get a mortgage, such as those who are self-employed or have a poor credit history. She's helped many buyers by working through kinks in government mortgage programs or by going from lender to lender until an approval comes through, they say.

"There have been many, many tough transactions that I pulled out," Ms. Northrup says, allowing that occasionally she's even managed to get a loan for someone who proves unworthy. Once, she pleaded the case of an unemployed veteran who had 14 judgments against him from creditors but still wanted to buy a house with a Veterans Administration loan. The man got the mortgage but filed for bankruptcy shortly after moving in, Ms. Northrup says regretfully.

"There are probably 190 different ways to finance a home," Ms. Northrup says. "To make things work you have to have a broad knowledge of the buyer's situation and ask a lot of questions."

Listening carefully to what motivates the buyer and seller is another important key to success, she insists.

Mr. DiComo, the Polk Audio sales manager, takes a similar approach. "The key is to find out what the customer's hot button is," he says. In his rounds selling speakers to retail chains, Mr. DiComo tries to provide help to the retailer in merchandising, sales training, inventory control and advertising.

"There are people who say they can sell iceboxes to Eskimos but those people are frauds," says Mr. DiComo. "You have to meet the customer's needs and if the customer doesn't need an icebox, he isn't going to buy one."

In selling to the retailers, it doesn't hurt that Mr. DiComo spent eight years on the front lines of the retail trade himself.

"I started out at the absolute bottom of the business, as a part-time counter salesperson at the Lafayette Radio Store in Boston," he remembers. The job was taken to help Mr. DiComo make ends meet while he built his own professional photography business. Ultimately, however, he found he liked sales, especially when it involved stereo equipment.

"I'm a frustrated musician. The only instrument I know how to play is the stereo," he says. Still, the retail job in Boston proved a dead end in terms of money. To make more, he did a brief stint in sales with a stereo equipment maker in Boston before being recruited by Polk.

The background in retailing has been a decided plus for Mr. DiComo, he contends. "I can tell my customers I understand their problems because I've been in their position," he says.

"There's a lot of guys out there who can get one order from a retailer," Mr. DiComo says of his competitors. It's the salesperson who listens intently and offers realistic help to the retailer who prevails when it comes time for reorders, he says.

Mr. DiComo, who personally oversees 11 of Polk's major accounts, says competition in the speaker business is intense now.

"There are at least 140 speaker brands and, much as I hate to admit it, many of them make a damn good product," allows Mr. DiComo. Like other Polk salespeople, he seeks to distinguish himself from competitors by offering the retailer down-to-earth assistance and free training sessions.

To support his retail accounts, Mr. DiComo operates like a bee cross-pollinating information from one chain to another, says George Klopfer, president of Polk Audio. For example, if he spots effective newspaper ad for stereo equipment in Miami, he'll mail it to a retail customer in Phoenix. By the same token, he might pass on pointers about inventory control, shelf displays or store lighting.

"He relates to you on the right level. You feel like he's more of a brother than a salesman," says Richard Glikes, general manager at Bryn Mawr Stereo in King of Prussia, Pa. Bryn Mawr Stereo, a Polk customer, operates 18 stores in the mid-Atlantic region, including four Stansbury stores in the Baltimore area.

Just as it's hard work to sell speakers in the intensely competitive consumer electronics field, so is it tough to market health coverage to cost-conscious employers as does Mary Ely of Columbia-Freestate, a subsidiary of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland.

"It's unbelievably competitive. There are lots of HMOs out there and there are lots of HMOs that are way underpriced. It's a matter of selling quality and a higher premium and that's not easy," observes James McDonald, an insurance broker with Webster McDonald Pfaff Inc. in Towson.

"It's a tough sell," agrees Ms. Ely, noting that her proposals frequently vie with many others from rivals. "I can walk in a company and they say, 'Oh, my God, it's one more. I've already got four proposals on my desk.' "

HMO premiums are rising at a rate of 15 percent to 25 percent a year, but Ms. Ely seeks to overcome customers' objections on price by pointing out that Columbia-Freestate can tailor a plan to an employer's budget by adjusting the level of co-payments an employee must pay for a doctor's visit or prescription.

She also talks about Columbia-Freestate's level of accreditation and uses analogies to distinguish her HMO from others, characterizing her product as a Cadillac and others, Chevrolets. "You have to compare apples and apples," she stresses to prospects.

"Believe me, this is not something where technique or a tricky close is going to get you through. It's not like buying a suit of clothes or an automobile," Mr. McDonald says.

Emotion can run high when employers grapple with the realities of health-care costs. But Ms. Ely helps calm their worries, says Phillip Alban, a broker with the Nichols Group, an insurance firm in White Marsh. "Mary has a way of putting people at ease. It's very soothing. She guides people through the maze of medical care without emotional havoc," he says.

Ms. Ely also has an unusual ability to communicate with people at a number of levels, says Mr. Alban, noting that after a company agrees to take Columbia-Freestate it's her job to follow up and make explanatory presentations to employee groups -- whether they be waiters in a restaurant or construction workers for a road-building firm.

"I think one of the biggest advantages for Mary is just her whole demeanor -- the way she can relate to the president or CEO of a company as well as the guy on the loading dock," Mr. Alban says. "She has a warmth that is natural."

In bad times as in good, successful salespeople draw on the same bag of interpersonal skills, says John O'Shaughnessy, a business professor at Columbia University in New York.

Effective salespeople stand out in a crowd for their unusually good listening skills, ability to interpret body language, assertiveness, credibility and "the ability to disagree without being disagreeable," he says.

What sets top salespeople apart from lesser ones in adverse markets is the way they respond to the threat of failure, says Lee Richardson, a professor of marketing at the University of Baltimore. Like college students preparing for an important exam, all are frightened of the consequences if they don't perform. But while lesser salespeople panic and botch their performance, better ones simply apply themselves doubly to the task.

"They have a certain optimism -- a belief that their goals are attainable," Mr. Richardson says. "By their emotional composition, some people seem to thrive on a challenge. They always rise to the occasion."

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