Friday, June 06, 2003

Life of a Saleswoman

Willimantic, Conn.

At the moment, Tessa Lyons is lost. In one hand is a campus map. The other grips a rolling suitcase stuffed full of brochures. "OK, that's the library, so that must be science," she says, nodding at one of the nearly identical brick buildings. "No, wait. Science is over there." She sticks the map in her coat pocket and takes off in a new direction, the suitcase rattling at her heels.

Her confusion is understandable. This is Ms. Lyons's first trip to Eastern Connecticut State University. What's more, she has been on a different college campus nearly every day for the past three weeks.

Finding your way around is one of the challenges of being a textbook sales representative -- or "traveler" in the romantic argot of W.W. Norton & Company. Another is trying to make intelligent conversation about Wittgenstein one minute and plate tectonics the next. And please, don't even mention the driving.

It can become overwhelming. Especially if, like Ms. Lyons, you've been on the job for less than a month.

At 23, Tessa Lyons isn't much older than the undergraduates she passes in the hallways. Professors often mistake her for a student. But she isn't there to ask about the next test or beg for a better grade. She's there to make a sale.

Her pitch is friendly, low key -- the opposite of slick. A knock at the door and a handshake, followed by a slew of questions. Ms. Lyons wants to know if professors are satisfied with the textbook they're using. If not, she asks them why. If she thinks Norton's book would be better for them, she says so. If she doesn't think Norton has what they need, she tells them that, too. No hard sell. No pressure.

Some professors seem happy to have a visitor. They greet her warmly and invite her to sit down. "It's nice to talk about this," a sociology professor tells her. "Great! Shoot me an e-mail!" an English professor cries. If there's a pause in the conversation, Ms. Lyons has a surefire solution. She looks directly into the professor's eyes and says brightly, "So, tell me about your research." This works like magic. They lean back in their chairs. They steeple their fingers. "Well, I wrote my dissertation on ..."

The lecture has begun.

Others are less chummy. When Ms. Lyons gives a brochure to a psychology professor, the woman pinches it between two fingers as if it were a dirty napkin. "I don't take anything I won't use," she sniffs, handing it back. One professor crosses his arms and scowls at Ms. Lyons. A department secretary doesn't look up from her computer screen or say hello after Ms. Lyons introduces herself.

Slammed doors and unkind remarks go with the territory, according to veteran representatives. Not all academics are gentle, tweedy souls. In fact, some of them are jerks.

Over a chicken sandwich and fruit juice, Ms. Lyons explains how she ended up selling textbooks. When she graduated from Duke University in 2001 with a degree in English, she already had a job offer from a business consulting company in Los Angeles. Everything seemed perfect.

Then, with little warning, the offer was withdrawn. It's the economy, they told her. So she moved to New York City and took a low-level editorial position at Norton. When the sales slot came open a few months later, she applied. At Norton, the path to the top passes through sales. Even the company's president served his time in the field, hawking textbooks door to door.

After lunch, she runs into two men in front of the history department's main office. They are wearing dark suits. They are carrying leather briefcases. They are the competition.

James and Patrick work for Houghton Mifflin. Patrick is her counterpart. James is Patrick's boss. Once introductions are made, stiff chitchat ensues. "So I guess you're here to steal my business?" Patrick says. Everyone laughs. Of course, that's exactly what Ms. Lyons is here to do. She makes a base salary of $28,000. But depending on her sales numbers, that figure could climb much higher. Top performers in the industry earn six figures. Consequently, if Ms. Lyons persuades a professor to go with Norton instead of Houghton Mifflin, she is taking money out of Patrick's pocket, and vice versa. And there's nothing funny about that.

Patrick suggests that they "do lunch" sometime. When the pair is out of earshot, Ms. Lyons wonders aloud whether it's possible to "do lunch" in a college cafeteria. Besides, what would they talk about?

They could always commiserate about life on the road. This week, Ms. Lyons is visiting Central Connecticut State University, Eastern Connecticut State, Sacred Heart University, Yale University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Each night she drives home to her apartment in Amherst. In all, she will add more than 700 miles this week to the odometer of her 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix, the car Norton leases for her. In the world of textbook sales, that's not unusual. (Just ask the Norton representative who covers Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Alaska.)

Logging that many miles would wear on anybody. But for Ms. Lyons, there is an added complication: She tends to nod off behind the wheel. Something about the drone of the engine and the endless parade of white stripes makes her eyelids droop. This is a problem, she admits. So far she has staved off disaster with a combination of caffeine and loud music. But the fear of an accident is always there.

Likewise, the fear of failure. Everyone told her it would be hard, and she believed them. But somehow she never thought it would be this hard. There have been tearful, late-night telephone calls to her parents in Red Bluff, the small town in northern California where she grew up. She was homecoming queen at Red Bluff High School. In the photograph taken moments after her coronation, her smile is both pleased and amused. I'm not taking this too seriously, it seems to say. She has tried to maintain the same aplomb in her new position, but it hasn't been easy. "No job can be this bad all the time," she says. "That's what I keep telling myself."

It is near the end of the day and Ms. Lyons has one minor task to complete before going home. All she has to do is hand a brochure to a professor and thank him for using Norton textbooks. Afterward, she'll grab a quick dinner and begin the 90-minute drive back to Amherst. She will then answer 25 to 30 e-mail messages and spend a couple of hours preparing for the next day. Many nights she works well into the small hours.

She arrives at the professor's door. Fortunately, he is in his office. Unfortunately, he is talking to a colleague.

Several minutes pass. The two professors are killing time. They're talking about their weekends, their kids, the weather. Tessa considers interrupting, but she can't bring herself to do it. She doesn't like disturbing people. For that matter, she doesn't like selling things. She never has. As a child, she hated selling candy bars for school fund raisers so much that she bribed her brother to sell them for her.

She uses the downtime to reflect on her day. Except for a few unpleasant encounters, it's been fairly good. Not great, but not terrible either. There have definitely been worse. She has waited hours for professors who never show up. She has been stared at as if she were peddling fake Rolexes rather than textbooks. In short, she has been treated with the special contempt reserved for people in sales.

While she may pretend otherwise at times, the rudeness and rejection have taken their toll. (Just over a month after her visit to Eastern Connecticut State, Ms. Lyons will resign from Norton and move to Los Angeles.)

"I'm pretty sensitive, you know, and when someone is mean, it kind of hurts inside for a few minutes. I want to say 'Please be nice, this is my job.' But you just have to -- " she doesn't finish the thought, dismissing the rest of the sentence with a quick wave. The two professors are finished talking and it's time for her to go to work. "Hi! I'm Tessa Lyons," she says, reaching to shake another hand.
Section: Money & Management
Volume 49, Issue 38, Page A48

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