Pretty Big Deal: John Felts: Blood, Sweat, and More Blood

After losing his job and his marriage at the same time, John Felts needed work. He fell into sales while on an interview for an IT position. After nearly a year of struggling to make it in sales, his big break came when he started selling to a local blood bank. In this week’s episode, John tells us how he managed to stand out by giving his blood, sweat, and tears … and more blood

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Sam Balter: John Felts is the business development manager for US Gain. When he took his first sales job, his situation was less than ideal.

John Felts: I was a country music song all wrapped up in one. Lost my wife, lost my job.

Sam Balter: He fell into sales after working in IT for years.

John Felts: “So, you’re a salesperson?” I said,” No, I’m really not.” And she said,” Well, you want a job?”

Sam Balter: The first few weeks, didn’t go great.

John Felts: I was struggling. I was doing the show up and throw up.

Sam Balter: But when a life- changing opportunity arose, he gave everything he had to win.

John Felts: I went through whole blood. I went through plasma. I even did platelet donation.

Sam Balter: That and more, on this week’s episode of Pretty Big Deal. How did you get started in sales?

John Felts: That’s a good part of the story, actually. This is mid 2000s. I was going through a divorce and I lost my job at the same time. I was a country music song all wrapped up in one. Lost my wife, lost my job. And I was out looking for a job. I had been an IT guy for 10 years, working for two pretty good- sized public companies. I applied for a voiceover IP engineering job. And during the interview, the CEO says,” You know what? You’re not the right person for this job. And I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.” And I was kind of desperate, so I needed a job. So I said,” Well, I’ve got this other part. I’ve been selling long distance and internet circuits as a broker. If I could work with you to sell that to your customers, that would be great. I don’t have to be an employee or anything like that.” And she said,” Wait a minute, you’re a salesperson? I thought you were an engineer.” And I said,” No, I’m an engineer. I’ve been an engineer for 10 years.” She said,” But you’re selling me right now on the fact that you can sell internet circuits. So you’re a salesperson.” And I said,” No, I’m really not.” And she said,” Well, you want a job?” I said,” Yeah.” She said,” I’ll hire you right now to be a salesperson.” I said,” Okay.” So she hired me on the spot and I said,” Yeah, when do I start?” And she said,” How about tomorrow?” And that was it. That was the beginning of me being a salesman.

Sam Balter: Okay. So day happens, you get the job. Are you prepping? Are you watching Boiler Room or anything to get ready for your first sales job?

John Felts: You know what? I knew so little about sales at the time that I didn’t even know those movies existed. Glengarry Glen Ross is now a favorite. But back then I had no idea that it was even that sort of movie, or that it existed because heck, I didn’t do that sort of thing.

Sam Balter: And how old are you when all of this is going on?

John Felts: Gosh, I’m 34, 35. At the time, got a three- year- old and a six- year- old. I got to do what I can to support them. The first few months did not go well at all. And I was struggling. I was having a hard time cold calling. I was doing the show up and throw up, telling them what I knew and how I would do it, and this and that. Not listening to what their needs were. So yeah, I’d say it was a good nine months before anything good happened.

Sam Balter: Wow. So nine months in, you’re really not liking some aspects of the job. Are you thinking of bailing?

John Felts: Yes. Yes. And in the meantime, I wasn’t making commissions because I wasn’t selling. So I took a second job as an associate professor at night, teaching IT and security and VoIP. I had to do whatever I could.

Sam Balter: Okay. That now, brings us to the start of this story. Okay. Let’s talk about, who’s the customer? Where does the story begin?

John Felts: The customer is a local blood bank. It was a company called Blood Source at the time. They’ve since merged with someone else. Had no idea how large they were, but I was familiar with them because I’ve always donated blood, ever since high school. So the company that I’m working for, has done some work on an existing phone system that another company put in years before. And it was coming to the end of life of this particular phone system. So they needed an upgrade. So they pseudo introduced me to the IT department. The IT department already has some of their favorites picked out. They know they have to do the upgrade and there’s probably 15 different companies that could do this upgrade in the region. We were not the biggest dog in town by any means. We were probably about number five on the list. And we’re all vying for it. So I got introduced and I was having a lot of trouble getting meetings.

Sam Balter: How did you get the first meeting?

John Felts: The first meeting, we used the fact that we had already been doing some work on their system. I believe the CEO called and said,” Hey, are you interested in having us bid on this?” And they said,” Sure, send your person out, or you come out.” And she said,”You know what? I’m going to pass this one along,” because she knew I needed help, I think. So I started researching the company more and I said,” I donate with you guys.” And they said,” Oh, that’s great. That’s wonderful. Where do you donate?” And I said,” Well, in Folsom, because that’s where I live.” And they said,” Oh, well, if you’re ever down here and you want to donate, we have one at the headquarters. And it’s much bigger. You can always get in. You can walk in anytime, or set an appointment.” And so I did that. I set up my next appointment to donate blood at their headquarters facility. And since I was going to be there anyway, I said,” Hey, well I’m going to be in the building. Can we get 15, 20 minutes of your time to have this second meeting?” Sure enough, that worked. I think they found it difficult to say no. If they were there, I was there, they might as well. Unfortunately, I took the meeting after donating. That was a lesson learned. You get a little bit lightheaded after blood donation. So I’m not sure I was all there, but maybe that shut me up a little bit. And I started listening a little more at that point. So going forward, long process, and there was a lot of competition. So I started donating every couple of weeks, as long as they would let me. There’s limits to how often you can donate. So I did everything I could to get in there as often as possible. I went through whole blood. I went through plasma. I even did platelet donation. All except for one time that I donated, I got in with the IT department and got probably nine or 10 different meetings. There was a few mishaps along the way. I passed out trying to get out of the table, knocked over a half wall that was covered with potted plants, broke all the potted plants. Woke up to a couple people waving over me, saying,” Whoo, are you okay? Are you okay?” They did hear about it and they thought it was funny. And I didn’t think it was so funny. But another time, I had gone to a fast food restaurant for lunch, before going to donate blood. And I ended up clogging the blood machine. The phlebotomist approaches me and she said,” What is going on?” And she looked and you could see in the little tube that my blood was not the right color. It was more of orange than a red.

Sam Balter: And did you have any sense what the competitors were doing?

John Felts: Yes, a little bit. There were things going on, definitely some giveaways that I didn’t do. Again, I’d been an IT guy for a long time, on the management side. And I had been giving trips and I had been giving golf clubs and all of the giveaway type things that come along with that sometimes. And I don’t sell that way. I never have, I never will. But I did know that that was going on.

Sam Balter: Was anybody else donating blood? Did you see anybody else, competitors at the headquarters?

John Felts: I did not, never once. And I don’t know if anyone ever even thought of it.

Sam Balter: So as these meetings are going on, are the conversations getting better? Is the process moving along?

John Felts: Absolutely. The relationship got better as well. I think they saw it as me doing something for them, more than just trying to sell them.

Sam Balter: It seems like you’re the underdog in this story. They’re like,” Okay, we’ll give you a shot.” Is there a point where you switch to becoming a real contender amongst the other competitors?

John Felts: Yeah. After a couple months of this, maybe four or five months, they start calling me, and calling me in and saying,” Okay, bring your engineers and let’s start really solving this problem and putting the solution and proposal together.” And that’s when I knew we were on the right track. Eventually, after even more months of that and several different iterations, we did come up with a proposal. And in the meantime, they’re hiring us to fix other problems that have been going on. So I think the trust had been gained at that point. And of course, eventually, we did end up winning the upgrade bid. Now, that was a big deal for me.

Sam Balter: How much are we talking?

John Felts: Half a million.

Sam Balter: Oh, damn. Was it big, relative to the people in your company?

John Felts: Yeah, it was huge. It was huge for the company. It was huge for the engineers. We had to hire more people. We were a small shop.

Sam Balter: And was the closing of the deal, was that a big moment? Or was that just like by the time it closed, you already knew you had won it? Or was it a down- to- the- wire deal?

John Felts: It’s always down to the wire. For me, I never celebrate until there’s ink on the paper. But yeah, it was a huge relief. I was proud of myself, for sure, that I could finally say I sold something this big.

Sam Balter: And I think just as a final question, is there anything that you want to from this, impart to sales people today? Or maybe just even to your younger self, starting out, that you wish you had known?

John Felts: Certainly. Number one, be creative. Find creative ways to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. Do don’t go necessarily by what they taught you in some sales training class. Don’t get discouraged. One of the hardest things to do in sales, just don’t get discouraged. Even if you lose this one, you might get the next one. And don’t give up. Plain and simple. Don’t give up.

Sam Balter: This episode of Pretty Big Deal featured John Phelps from US Gain. It was produced by me, Sam Balter, and edited by Xavier Leon. If you have a pretty big deal to tell us about, let us know by writing to prettybigdeal @ zoominfo. com. Otherwise, we’ll see you in the next episode.