What It Was Like To Be a Tobacco Sales Rep

You should know that I am no corporate whistle blower looking to destroy big tobacco. On the contrary - I enjoyed the benefits of my job and I loved the people in my organization. This article is more of a glimpse into the life of a tobacco sales rep and some of the major observations I had along the way.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

Okay, no little girl dreams of becoming a tobacco saleswoman when she grows up. Like many others I met along the way, I stumbled into my career.

In the last 30 minutes of an internship fair, a recruiter sold me on a sales internship that had marketing and advertising aspects to it (which is what I wanted). His colleagues continued to sell me on the idea at an information session later that night. And then they told me a location in Tulsa - where my then fiance was going to be that summer - was available, so I applied for the job.

As you can guess (since this article exists), I got the internship. Before you ask, yes I had reservations about working for big tobacco. No, I was not a smoker at the time. Yes, I know that smoking and dipping is bad for your health. But at the time, a job was a job - and it was worth a shot.

Fast forward six years. When I left the company, I had worked a summer in Tulsa, two years in Leavenworth and three years in Winchester, Virginia.

Was this my dream job? No. Could it have been? Possibly, eventually.

Because our location depended on the hubs' career, I did not have many options to find out. As you know we are now overseas now, and I have had ample time to reflect on my time as a Territory Sales Manager. If you were ever one of those people who asked, "What do you do all day," here you go.

THE JOB

The daily task of being a territory sales manager was meh. Driving between six to eight stores a day to sell and execute stuff, spending hours after work finishing administrative work... It was exhausting.

I LOVED working with most of my customers, but managing dozens of personalities every month was no easy task. One thing to sell turned into dozens of ways I needed to sell it in order to connect with each retailer. It is hard being “on” all the time. Do you know how many times random people (some creepily) said “Smile!” when my RBF kicked in? Too many.

During my long commutes, I listened to dozens of books and possibly hundreds of podcast episodes. I used the convenient bluetooth capabilities to catch up with friends and family. A company car is nice, yes, but when you are sitting in DC traffic for an hour and a half to go 19 miles the commute gets old fast. You cannot get reimbursed for time.

And BOXES. My God, the boxes. Since we do not work from offices, my home served as an office. And all the stuff we put in stores to merchandise our products? Yeah, that is shipped to us. There were points in time when work boxes lined my hallways. Visitors always asked if we were moving. We weren’t.

Silver lining (I’m always the optimist): most of the work outside my daily tasks were extremely engaging and rewarding.

In my internship, pages of numbers and formulas made my brain hurt. I used to joke that as a Journalism major, I worked with words, not numbers. Through those five years, though, I had mentors who were brilliant at analyzing large sets of data and finding key patterns. I got to the point where I actually enjoyed sitting down with a spreadsheet and spending hours making sense of it. I am still not a math whiz, but eliminating the unknown allowed me to unleash a new capability. This dog was not too old for new tricks, folks.

During my tenure, I was able to create leadership training for women in our company and watch someone as passionate as I was facilitate it. I literally cried after a presentation. It was extremely fulfilling, and I hope to find more of that happiness in my freelance career.

My company fostered self-improvement and continued learning. Not only did we have yearly development plans and technology training, but you could seek out projects that fit the skills you wanted to learn or improve. Granted, you had to take the initiative, network with people who could help and make time to work on them outside of your store-chasing responsibility. But I loved doing that.

And the people! My best grown-up friendships grew from this company. Listen, if you are going to run a business in a highly controversial industry, you need to hire people who are smart, creative and full of integrity. Success in the long-term depends on it. That said, I was surrounded by awesomeness. The day-to-day would have been better if we could have worked together more often.

OBSERVATIONS OF THE C-STORE INDUSTRY

After six years of working in the convenience store industry, several key observations emerged. Again, no secrets being revealed here. But hopefully these notes will help you better understand c-stores (whether you work in one or not).

The most successful stores I saw were those who created an outstanding work environment. These stores paid competitive wages, sought out college students, promoted from within and made work fun. In an industry with traditionally high turnover, these c-stores created a place where people wanted to stay.

Those same stores also invested money in their businesses. They had clean, functional equipment (and bathrooms!), they tried new products and they offered loyalty programs that gave people incentives to come back.

Besides flush, large stores, there was another type of store that seemed to thrive. Stores that offered unique experiences or products were a destination for customers. Whether it was incredible BBQ or a wide variety of craft beers, stores that specialized in something could compete with the big dogs. And hey, consumers will pick up their tobacco while they are there.

Working in a convenience store was not always a walk in the park. When you were lucky, you had a fun, hilarious, hard-working employee working behind the counter. Customers loved it and so did we. However, what you found more often were people who did not want to be there.

There was also this tension among store owners: big companies versus small independents, white versus immigrant. Usually, we just kept our mouths shut and changed the subject if insults were thrown around. People love having an audience, and we often heard some crazy stuff.

After selling to an owner or manager, I often heard the response, "I know my business.” Of course, not all consumer insights apply to all stores, but many owners just did not like change. It took a solid sales story packed with evidence of success, ease of implementation and the probability of profits to get a yes in many cases.

This is not crazy when looked at another way. If an acquaintance met with you and said, "You need to do A, B and C as a parent in order to create awesome adults," chances are you would respond with, "I know my kids, f*** off." (Just me? Ok.)

But, as the tech industry knows, small tests with quick feedback loops allow you to find things that work. The stores that tested strategies and tried new approaches had the advantage of being nimble and opportunity to connect to their customers. Those stores still occasionally said no, but it felt like you were working with a business partner, and that synergy built stronger business results.

SMOKE BREAK, ANYONE?

Morgan Province is an American Expat living abroad as a #diplospouse. She works as an English tutor, portrait photographer and freelance writer. Find her work on her website, or connect with her on Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Twitter. No so much SnapChat. Sorry kids.

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