Upselling and Selling Out: Survival of a Non-Marketer in a Commercial World

This last month, my older son had two fundraisers of sorts.  Double my pleasure, because I’m not a fan of buying expensive stuff (but I usually* participate anyway) and I’m even less devoted to peddling the overpriced wares to people I’d like to keep as friends.

The first fundraising project was “Read to Feed” and it ran the entire month of March.  The goal was for each third grade child to raise $45 dollars in reading pledges.

I read the literature and it seemed like a worthy cause, so I was happy to pledge.  (And even happier that I didn’t have to contend with a stale box of peanut brittle or 3 rolls of Christmas wrapping paper that might’ve tasted better than the peanut brittle.)  Of course, his grandparents pledged too, which meant that he exceeded the per student goal.

* Now might be a good time to admit that I blew off the last school fundraiser in October.  I don’t even remember what junk products they were selling.  The order form suffocated under the stack of partially-sorted mail until several days after the orders were due.  My son was upset because he was the “only one” who didn’t earn the rubber duck selling prize.  A rubber duck?  Why?  I still don’t know…

“The Stack” shrinks…but NEVER goes away

That last fundraising failure flashed through my mind the week before last, when my son handed me a flyer and order form for the newest cash-raising plan.  The expensive jar candles would turn a nice profit for the school to beef up the library.  (Did they really have to play the book card?)  Call me a sucker, but we bought four candles.  We may be eating rice and Easy Mac for the next few weeks, but it’s for a good cause, right?

The bigger problem arose when he came home all jazzed about the “top seller” prizes.  I couldn’t send him to sell door-to-door because then we might meet our neighbors.  Only kidding; I know our nearest neighbors, but I didn’t want them to feel obligated to buy.  Since we couldn’t afford to purchase fifteen cases of candles, the remaining option was hitting up friends and co-workers.

That’s where fundraisers lose me.  I’m not good at selling.  I have trouble marketing myself as a writer to agents, so how am I supposed to pressure beg ask people to buy seemingly overpriced products of unknown quality?  I’d feel like a sell out if I persuaded friends to buy a product that I couldn’t vouch for just so my son would have a shot at the top prize – especially if the quality didn’t meet expectations set by the price.

I got the same “do I hafta?” feeling when I waitressed and was forced to upsell, upsell, upsell.  (Secret shoppers noted upsells – or lack of them – on their written reports, which then prompted witch hunts by management to identify, publicly humiliate, and then brow-beat persuade the offender into compliance with the upsell rules.)

Upsell.  Yes, that word makes my skin crawl as much as “fundraiser,” as both illuminate my self-diagnosed DMADD (Degenerative Marketing Aptitude Deficiency Disorder.)  The customer orders a soft drink – suggest a more expensive smoothie, or better yet, a mixed drink from the bar; they order an appetizer – let them know the combo platter is “only” $3 more.  Then, after the customers are stuffed, suggest desert.  My managers expected upsells to go something like this:

Waitress: picking up the nearly-empty dinner plates “Are you ready for a slice of fudge cake?”

Customer: “No thanks.  We can’t have chocolate.”

Waitress:  “Oh, the strawberry cheesecake is wonderful.”

Customer: “No, my wife is lactose intolerant.”

Waitress:  “The apple pie a la mode is superb.”

Customer:  “Actually, we’re full.  Can we just get the check?”

Waitress: “I’d be happy to box a slice up for you.”

Customer: “That’s okay.  My wife is still lactose intolerant.  Besides, the ice cream would melt by the time we got it home anyway.”

Waitress: “I can put the ice cream in a separate Styrofoam container.”

Customer: exhaling a defeated sigh “Fine.  Do the apple pie thing.  Just bring me my check.”

Needless to say, I was a disappointment to every manager.  My only success was consistently failing at upselling challenges.

Despite my difficulties living with DMADD, I can recall one time in my life when I was a selling star.  I was seven years old, wearing brown pants, a white shirt with brown strips and a sash across my chest with patches and pins signifying my accomplishments, which included successfully coloring and baking Shrinky Dinks in the oven.

Yep, all I had to do was wear the hideous brown polyester Brownie uniform and the cookies practically sold themselves.  The only two words I had to say were: “thin” and “mints.”

Now that’s how fundraising should be.  If only pitching a novel to an agent went so smoothly, as well.  (Hey, a girl can dream, right?)

Are you a great self-marketer?  How do you do it?

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28 thoughts on “Upselling and Selling Out: Survival of a Non-Marketer in a Commercial World

  1. Debbie April 5, 2011 / 6:51 AM

    Funny stuff, Janna. Reminds me how much I hated having to go door-to-door with my son, peddling band candles, T-ball candy, Christmas wrapping paper, and all those other fund-raising goodies! I know people only bought because they knew us; now, I tend to pay it back by buying other “junk” from kids I know (or causes they’re supporting). It’s an endless cycle. I like the way you’ve compared it with shopping a novel — hey, maybe that’s why I’m having trouble finding an agent. Maybe I should think of my opus as a “thin mint”!!!

    • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 6:08 PM

      The fundraisers aren’t fun, but they are just a part of having school-aged kids. Sometimes I find something useful, but I do try to avoid food items (and wrapping paper.)

      I’m glad you liked the comparison to novel shopping. It’s a little different, but I do have trouble hyping myself…it feels too much like bragging. (This could be why interviews are painful, too!)

      Maybe we do need to think “thin mint” and happy thoughts 🙂 Good luck with the agent search, Debbie!

  2. 1959duke April 5, 2011 / 7:09 AM

    One of the issues in selling these things is that you must take out a loan to purchase them. Many companies have stopped the practice of allowing selling any of this kind of stuff during working hours. When my wife gets the annual request from the grandchildren to buy magazines two things happen. First thing is I show them to her ( I never want to be accused of her not seeing them) the second is I throw them in the trash can.

    • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 6:12 PM

      At our company, they have a designated place where you can leave the order forms in the lunchroom. I don’t do that, though. The grandparents often (but not always) find an item to buy to support the fundraising attempt. I always make the disclaimer, “you don’t have to buy anything if you don’t want to.” I think I’d be a lousy car sales person!

  3. Tori Nelson April 5, 2011 / 7:28 AM

    I am so terribly uncomfortable “marketing” my writing. I tend to take the humble, last-person-to-toot-her-own-horn approach which doesn’t seem to be effective!

    • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 6:17 PM

      I’m with you, Tori. I don’t like to talk about my accomplishments. I also get stuck because I know there are so many writers that are better than me, so I can’t very well build myself up to be this great writer and then have the agent disappointed when they read a sample 🙂

      In a job interview once, the person asked me why I was the best person for the job. My mind went blank; all I could think was, “I’m probably not. I’m sure you can find someone better.”

  4. Momsomniac April 5, 2011 / 9:25 AM

    Well, my 6 year old LOVED knocking on doors for his school fundraiser. I had to stand back because otherwise I talked people OUT of buying the $20 coupon books. I am, after all, the girl who had doors slammed in my face way back when I was peddling Girl Scout cookies (yes, people really slammed their doors in my face).

    I am a bit better at sales now…but I have to truly believe that what I am peddling has value beyond winning my son a prize (which he did, by the way, win). Next year, when he takes to the streets with his coupon books, maybe I should should take notes.

    • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 6:21 PM

      That’s so cute how your child enjoyed it! I’m sorry your cookie sales didn’t go so well. There were a couple of crabby people that chased us away, but most people in our area were okay.

      It is easier to sell something when you believe in it. Please, take notes next year and share what you learn, momsomniac 🙂

  5. Bill Greeves April 5, 2011 / 10:41 AM

    We (my wife that is) always cave and buy, regardless of what it is…from our kids, the neighbors kids, etc. In the immortal words of Bruce Hornsby, “that’s just the way it is, some things will never change.” And the grandparents always buy too and that usually fills the quota. One of my daughters is enterprising and likes to socialize, so she hits up the neighbors too. But its not too bad really. We’ve come to expect it at certain times of the year and try to budget accordingly, but as you mentioned, it’s for a good cause.

    But when it comes to selling your idea or your manuscript, I think we need to think about it not as a fundraiser or donation, but rather an offer the publisher can’t refuse. As Janna and some of the commenters noted, the product quality of these fundraisers is oftentimes suspect. So let’s not even use that analogy with our manuscripts. When we are ready to shop our stuff, it should speak for itself. It should be the Thin Mints of manuscripts! We’ve just got to focus on the craft first and then the search for the right agent who recognizes the value of your item.

    Okay…now I’ve made myself hungry. Where’s a Girl Scout when you need her!?

    • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 8:46 PM

      I like your philosophy about how to look at our manuscripts, Bill. I still have trouble touting my work, even though I believe in it. And, even though I believe in it, I’m fully aware that others are better than I am. It’s hard to query with confidence with that nagging at me. This just means I have more stuff to work through while I’m writing novel #2 🙂

  6. nrhatch April 5, 2011 / 11:29 AM

    I am not inclined to try to “sell” something that will not benefit the other person in some way.

    But if I perceive a Win-Win, I have no problem marketing my wares.

    • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 8:47 PM

      I agree that selling stuff just for the sake of selling it isn’t a good idea. Others would start running from us whenever we came around if we did that 😉

    • nrhatch April 5, 2011 / 9:12 PM

      I wouldn’t try to sell my words to an agent or publisher unless I thought the relationship would benefit BOTH of us.

      Same thing with interviewing ~ I wouldn’t try to convince someone to hire me unless I felt they would benefit from the decision.

      But if I perceive a Win-Win . . . I do NOT allow my Ego’s fear of rejection to stand in my way.

      • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 9:23 PM

        You’ve got a healthy attitude. And it is obvious that I need to gain more confidence in myself before I query again. The good news is, the more I write, the more comfortable I am that I really can arrange words into a coherent story.

        Weak confidence aside, I’m (thankfully) not so desperate to be published, that I would compromise my beliefs or go into an agent relationship that felt “off” just to get something published.

        I think when a win-win presents itself, it will just feel right. That’s what I want, too 🙂

  7. Carol Ann Hoel April 5, 2011 / 1:42 PM

    I’m not much of a sales person. I’m more likely to add after a deal is closed, “Are you sure you want this?” The more beneficial I perceive the product, the more likely I am to feel comfortable recommending it. I hated school promotions. I participated. Blessings to you, Janna…

    • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 8:55 PM

      That sounds a lot like me, Carol. I never tried for top seller prizes in any fundraisers I did. It’s funny, I can tell people about a product I like without any problems, but if I had the product with me to sell them, I couldn’t do it. Strange…

      Thanks for reading my long-ish post and sharing your thoughts 🙂

  8. Hilary Clark April 5, 2011 / 1:55 PM

    I’m slowly getting better at marketing myself. I figure the worst that can happen is that someone will say “no”. If I can learn something from the “no”, then it wasn’t a total waste of time.

    I’m really happy to hear that there are still schools doing reading pledges! If one of my co-workers showed up with a sign-up sheet for that, I’d be the first to pledge! With the exception of my annual box of Thin Mints, I don’t need cookies, candles, cheap jewelry, wrapping paper, magazines, etc. But ask me to read? I’m all in!

    • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 9:03 PM

      I’m glad you’re getting better at marketing yourself, Hilary. I know that is a major weakness of mine that is probably intertwined with my shyness, so I’ll have to tackle both at some point. I don’t think it’s time just yet 🙂

      In my effort to edit this unwieldy post down, I messed up the explanation of the “Read to Feed” drive. My son needed people to pledge to pay him a certain amount of money for everything he read in the month of March (pledges could be per book, per minute or a flat dollar amount) . Although we didn’t have to read with him, I sat there with him as he read out loud to me and I timed our reading sessions. He (we) read 780 minutes last month. Yay!

      • nrhatch April 5, 2011 / 9:09 PM

        That’s awesome ~ 13 hours!!! 😀

        • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 9:14 PM

          Oh my goodness, you’re right! (I just got my calculator out and confirmed that thirteen hours in March was indeed spent on reading with my son.)

          For some reason, it didn’t register as that much when I looked at it in minutes. This explains a lot about why I’m having trouble keeping up with life 😉

  9. widdershins April 5, 2011 / 2:15 PM

    Seems this is a bit of a topic today on the blogs I follow…

    … someone said, it helps to look at it not so much as selling yourself, but inviting someone (agent or publisher) into a partnership with you. An interesting perspective I thought.

    • jannatwrites April 5, 2011 / 9:05 PM

      That is a nice perspective to have on the author-agent relationship. I’ll need to get bit more confidence in my writing before I hit the query road again 🙂 Thanks for sharing that idea, Widdershins!

  10. Patty April 6, 2011 / 8:27 PM

    Oh I recall the days. Now I am doing non-profit work and securing auction items and monies for worthwhile causes in the greater community. My husband said we donated more this past year than ever before. We still owed Uncle Sam money, more than last year. A different type of donation ha ha.

    • jannatwrites April 6, 2011 / 10:02 PM

      Oh, that hardly seems fair that you donate more than ever and still have to owe more taxes. It’s great that you donate your time and income to helping others. Patty. I hope you can maintain the strength to keep at it 🙂

    • jannatwrites April 8, 2011 / 6:49 PM

      Thanks for the ping back, Nancy. BTW, I liked your post and left a novel-length comment! (With waaay too many emoticons 😦 )

  11. Alannah Murphy April 8, 2011 / 10:49 AM

    Boy, do I relate to this. I cannot sell ANYTHING. My first job involved taking classified adverts, I was great at it UNTIL they introduced the dreaded upsell. You could no longer just take the advert the customer was dictacting to you…oh no, you had to try to get them to expand advert, suggest more things to say so the ad would cost more etc. Needless to say, I went from being one of the top employees to the bottom because I simply could not do it. Only thing I can sell is my novel, which isn’t done yet, but I’m quite proud of what I’m coming up with so I hope I can show that enthusiam on my query letters 🙂

    • jannatwrites April 8, 2011 / 6:51 PM

      Thanks for visiting, Alannah!

      I’m glad I’m not alone on the upsell-avoidance. I wish that managers would understand that the pressure may get immediate sales, but could drive people away from coming back (so they lose in the long-term.) And, in waitressing, if people feel like you’re pushing stuff on them, they often tip less. Not good!

      I’m so glad you have confidence in your novel and will be able to sell it with excitement. I hope that one day I will get that kind of confidence 🙂

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