That Creepy Salesman Part II

That Creepy Salesman Part II

I think Sean started working with us around the beginning of October of 2010.  We had just moved from Affinity Lab to Washington Offices, but they were low on space, all they could give us was a single cubicle for a few weeks.

The cube was about 100 sqft, and in it you had Tim, myself, our intern, and Sean.  We must not have noticed the k-mart jeans or smell of BO when we interviewed him 2 weeks prior, but it was hard to miss when we all sat close enough where we could “smell each other’s farts.”

We should have cut the cord just in those first two weeks.  Of course we rationalized, this is a 100% phone sales job, it can’t be that bad.

We got that second office and the air for Tim and myself was a lot cleaner.  Sean would stack up the empty McDonalds bags on his desk, and there was always a new coffee stain to greet me when I came by.

Still, at this point things weren’t so bad.  Tim had put together the “Nonprofit Website Sales bible” which explained his process.  The problem was that neither Tim nor I did anything more than dabble in outbound sales.  The Google Gods were nice to us.  Being #2 on google for Nonprofit Web Design meant we’d get a few leads per week.

The first few weeks went by without much traction through the cold calls.  We felt like we needed to motivate Sean so we started giving him the inbound leads we’d get.  We were too petrified though to let him take the call himself (we needed the money badly and could not take losing a project to chance).

By December the calls were like clockwork.  Tim would do most of the talking, once the prospect was ready to work with us, Tim handed the phone over to Sean to “close the deal” aka write up the paperwork.

Instead of having someone help grow the company, we now had an extra administrative resource who was getting a 20% commission on sales.  We also increased our average sale price from $5k to something like $15k.  With each sale we were now doing more work, and digging ourselves into a bigger financial hole.

Our terrible planning was playing out and we were paying for it mentally and financially.  We’d have anxiety coming to the office knowing that the little money we had was being wasted.

Food for Thought
To add to the hassle, our salesman thought he was the shit.  After he had a great call with someone who wanted to use CiviCRM + Drupal as their system of choice, he came to us.  “Guys, people will pay $15-20k for this kind of stuff.”  I dismissed him, I probably could have been politer about it, but I equated doing 6-8 months of work  for $20k as charity work.  Later that day he drafts up an email titled “Food for Thought” in how we should make investments in CiviCRM so that getting these kinds of projects will be like “Shooting fish in a barrel”.

Superbowl Week
One week we got a lead in from Alante Financial.  It was one of the few times that we let Sean handle the entire call himself.  We were happy to hear he got an in person meeting and he came back with great news.  “Alante wants to use us for 4 websites!  We just need to give them a deal on the first one.”  I had explained to him my parents love to do this to contractors who work on their house.  ‘Yea we are going to redo our bathroom, kitchen, and den so give us your best price’ — then just get some minor work done.  Whenever he’d send a proposal, he’d call it superbowl week, and he’d respond to my naysaying as raining on his parade.

Considering his total revenue was less than $10k excluding the sales Tim literally handed to him there should not have been nearly as many superbowl celebrations.

Hire Slowly, Fire Quickly

We did a terrible job with the first part of this advice, but we were not going to wait around and watch our company sink.  With our horrible planning, we figured we expected to break even on him within 3 months.  Anyone with any experience in sales would have scoffed at our expectations.  We had no idea what kind of ramp up time was needed for website sales, we didn’t know how to sell, only how to respond to requests for proposals, we didn’t even have a real concept of a pipeline.

3 months went by with no real sign of improvement, but we finally came to terms with the fact that it might not have been Sean’s fault.  I read that at Zappos they offer employees a few grand to quit after their training is over.  The idea is that if an employee is not happy, it is cheaper to get rid of them with a cash incentive than to find out the hard way.  At the end of the day if someone is not happy at work, what is the point in prolonging it?

Tim and I decided $2,500 would be a good number to offer him – but we also realized we needed to reset expectations.  It was early January 2011 and we told Sean, “let’s chat after work, maybe get a drink.”  The air was cold, he expected to get fired and looked nervous.

Safe to say, going to a firing meeting over a drink is never a good idea.  We got 2 rounds of drinks before getting into the tough talk.  I was already tipsy and feeling better about the prognosis.  We explained to Sean he needed to get his own deals and sell a certain kind of website.  It was our first attempt at formalizing a process, we calculated our profit after his 20% cut and still found several kinds of websites he could sell that could be win-win. We were all buzzed, the talk of $2,500 to leave never came up.  Tim and I reset the clock for another 3 months.

Looking back at even this revised plan, there  really was no way for us to keep Sean.  20% commission on a service is massive.  Competition is cut throat and margins were at best 30%.  I really don’t know what we were thinking, but I do know we had no real idea what our margins were and what they could be best case.  We kept working to find a way not to fire Sean, but really had he stayed with us we’d always find ourselves working hard to line his pocket, there would be no money left to grow the company, let alone line our own pockets.

Well anyways we soon learned a lot about Sean.  We never really thought it was important where someone lived, after all our company was built up while I was living in Brussels and Tim was in San Diego.  We didn’t realize for staff there needs to be some routine in place for success.  Sean was living out in Fairfax County, accessible by a 45 minute train then 45 minute bus ride.  The daily commute was well over 2 hours in each direction.  He had to leave by 5.  On a normal day it would be hard for him to give us 110% what would we get when shit hits the fan?

This was the year of the Snowpocolypse.   Tim and I lived just a few blocks from the office, but we told the intern and Sean to get going around noon.  I had one of my parade raining talks with Sean the day before, so he felt he needed to prove his work ethic.  He stayed till around 4 PM, as the metro was moving into emergency weather mode.    I think I left the office around 6 that day and remember walking with snow up to my knees.  After I got home, I sent an email saying to everyone should work from home tomorrow for sure.

No response from Sean.  We wondered if a branch had fallen on him, but the next day he comes to work looking very sick.  Apparently, by the time he got to Fairfax around 5:30, bus service was already cancelled.  He had to walk another 7 miles in the blizzard.  He was pretty pissed, really I guess it was just another turn for the worse for his life.

It turns out that Sean has 2 kids from 2 ex-wives.  We were issued several court orders to garnish his wages to pay off his alimony debts.  To put things in perspective, Tim and I were frustrated that there was no money left after paying him, well he was frustrated that even if he knocked it out of the park, he’d never have enough money to improve his own lifestyle.

When we hired Sean, we didn’t ask for W-2s, we didn’t do a background check, we just hired him on likability.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t hire someone who has 2 ex-wives, but it sure as hell would be good to know to frame interview questions around.  Maybe someone like that would work 10x as hard to overcome the immediate financial burden, but it was clear he was just there to exist.

I am not Your Intern

My demeanor must really have set Sean off.  I can’t blame him, during our holiday party I was a drunken mess.  I was walking around telling people “fuck my salesman” and “our company is going down the drain” — I’m not sure how much he heard, but it could not have helped that I was constantly suggesting his work was sub par.

It was now the end of March our Tim and I were deliberating the next step.  On one hand Sean had built his pipeline up to $100,000.  On the other hand, not a single deal of his had closed.  We could wait it out another 3 months.

On the first week of April tensions finally peaked.  Sean would spend most of his day writing proposals, and little of his day prospecting for new business.  I had told him a few times to just work on a proposal outline and not to waste his time trying to figure out how to write up something technical.  He comes to my desk with a 40 page document he spent the last 3 days working on, and I quipped with, “I can’t do anything with this, give me just the outline.”  He had no outline and loses it, I am not your Intern!  I am a professional.  Your ways don’t work, I need to do things my way.  This is the proposal I’m going to send.

Tim and I decided that’s it.  6 months was up, too many red flags, this was just the last piece.  Sean was constantly finding ways not to prospect.  He’d poke into our office, “oh I;m just stretching my legs” or encourage us that his circular calls were going well, “as you know the goal of any meeting is to get another meeting.”

I can’t argue with his mentality.  When I tried cold calling, I’d hate it so much I tried to find any other work so that I wouldn’t have to.  It’s mentally easier to write a proposal or to send emails than it is to call.  We didn’t have a plan for his success, so he was simply demotivated.

The fact that he was also a D player just made matters worse.

The Firing

We thought we’d ax him the next day, but he called in sick.  The next morning, Tim and I did a run around Hains Point, roughly an 8 mile run, in part to ensure we were awake early, and also to calm nerves before our first firing.  Since Tim was technically Sean’s boss, he got to do the honors.  I thought I’d avoid it all and spent 10 extra minutes at CVS before heading to the office.

Tim and I agreed to pay 2 weeks of pay + commission on all closed deals he had made.  Most of the deals were Tim’s doing anyways, but we felt it would be hard to argue otherwise.

Apparently Sean was pretty good at getting fired.  When you are getting fired, if your boss is inexperienced, they will probably be emotional about it.  We genuinely felt bad about the firing.  In the process we got hosed.

Sean knew his gig was up, so it was really a take as much as you can maneuver.  He “sold us” his $100k pipe, claiming that we were firing him to rob him of future commissions.  Somehow he managed to get us to commit to paying an extra $9 grand to compensate him for lost future commissions.

I wanted to split the severance into his next 2 pay checks.  He would not leave without a check in hand, he also demanded we make car payments for him since he would be unable to get another job without a car.  He must have had some real shit happen to him, but this was getting ridiculous.

Tim walked to him one last time, offered to his termination letter which included the extra pay he wanted + the severance we decided to pay.  He he didn’t accept, there was a second piece of paper that only had his 2 weeks of salary, this second piece of paper would be signed by Tim only.

Sean could feel it was over.  He bargained up a good offer and never even knew about the second piece of paper.

After nearly 2 hours of yelling and telling us that we were screwing him by withholding taxes, he comes shakes my hand, and reminds me that “Tim was the glue that held the team together.”

He leaves and we never hear from him again.


About 5 months after Sean leaves we get a strange call from Priscilla.

Woman: Hi is Sean there?
Tim: He is on extended leave, how can i help you?
Woman: I really need to talk to Sean, it is a personal matter
Tim: Sorry, … <she hangs up abruptly>

We search his email for the phone number entered.  Apparently he had met this woman at a training event we sent him too.  They had kept up a relationship on email, but I guess he didn’t have enough minutes on his cell plan, so she had him call his work number.

When Sean left, we mulled through his files to follow up with his outstanding leads.  In the process we found out he did all of his work on an external hard drive.  Every night he’d take this hard drive home.  Nothing of use was on his laptop.

Not a single deal from his “$100k” pipe closed.  Not even a single call came through on any deal he worked on.There was not much he could have done on his own with the prospect list, and even to a competitor it was not worth much, but it was just another reminder that we were a bunch of fools.

We should never have hired him.  Sure we learned a lot in the 6 months he was there about what never to do again, but at a direct cost of $40,000 + probably another $10-30k in lost bushiness.

At the end of the day, the fault comes back to Tim and myself.  What did we expect with no plan and no past history to measure success with.  We were flying blind.  Sean probably sensed this and figured it was best to milk it for what it was worth while it lasted.

A month before firing Sean we let our Intern go too.  He gave us similar feedback, “I was wondering why you guys kept me here this long.”

Winners are always hunting to make sure their plate is full.  As employers it is hard to attract a winner, and it is hard to keep them.  Losers on the other hand will leach on and won’t go away by themselves.

Had I written this in 2011, I would end with something like, “hopefully we’ll never make this mistake again.”  While not as bad financially, we did repeat this error at the end of 2012.  More on that when I write about why you shouldn’t hire friends.


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