Winning Attitude Sells

Sales champion beat disease, doubt to reach top



CLEVELAND As a salesman, Hal Becker came up with an offbeat way to persuade prospective clients to return calls.

He faxed them a memo that said, "Please check one box telling why you cannot call me back." The choices included, "I think you're a jerk, and I wish you'd go away" and "Not returning your call is a power play, but if you beg me enough, I'll call you back."

Becker's determination and disarming sense of humor have served him well.

He used it to became the top salesman out of 11,000 at Xerox Corp. in 1978 at age 22. It helped him build a successful business in the early 1980s. And it got him through months of treatment for a disease doctors thought would end his life.

"Your attitude helps you get through it," said Becker, 38. Indeed, he oozes attitude.

The Lyndhurst resident recently wrote a sales and marketing book called "Can I Have Five Minutes of Your Time?" in which he expounds on his theory on attitude.

"I am convinced that life is 10% what actually happens to me and 90% how I react to it," he wrote in the book, released this month.

His success at Xerox is an example.

"Xerox had the largest single sales force in the world selling one product," said Shelby H. Carter Jr., retired general sales manager/ worldwide for Xerox. "To be Number One in that environment . . . when Japanese competition was hitting us hard, I would say it was like running a three minute mile. And then to do it at age 22, Hal was competing with people who had more experience."

After his success at Xerox, Becker landed a $70 000 a year job as vice president of sales for a Cleveland paper company. He quit two years later, after he got an idea for a business from a phone call.

The dealer where he had bought a car called to make sure he was satisfied with the purchase. The personal service inspired Becker. Why not sell follow-up phone service to clients who want to keep in touch with customers?

That's just what Becker did, creating Direct Opinions in 1982, a telemarketing consumer service company. Becker paid homemakers 40 cents a call and charged clients 85 cents for written reports.

By 1990, Direct Opinions had expanded to nine cities and was placing 2 million calls a year for customers. But the venture, not to mention Becker himself, almost didn't make it past the first month back in 1982.

"I went to the hospital because I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach," he recalled. "I thought they would give me some Ben Gay and say ‘go home.'"

Instead, Becker was diagnosed with terminal abdominal cancer and admitted to the hospital. "Around the end of April, they came in and told my parents I wasn't going to make it through the night."

But he did, and slowly gained strength just as he was losing everything else. He had no disability insurance, mounting medical bills, and a new business that he had to put on hold. "When I felt well enough, I made as many sales as I could," he said. His goal was to get enough clients for the telemarketing firm to place 100,000 calls the first year. He more than doubled the goal within a year and a half.

Once his business and his health stabilized, he began to rethink his priorities.

"Having success at a young age, you get hung up on the wrong things, like money and power," said Becker, who admits he never had better than a 1.8 grade point average at Heights High School and never found a subject that interested him in college. He attended the University of Cincinnati for a year to get his grade point average up enough to be accepted at John Carroll University. There, he earned a bachelor's degree in sociology.

"When I got sick, I realized I had to readjust. I decided to enjoy life, not just be a workaholic."

To that end Becker established a free hotline in Cleveland to provide support and information for cancer patients and their families. And he sold Direct Opinions to go into semi-retirement in 1990.

"Hal, with his high energy level, figures out how to do things without letting anything get in the way" said Simon Cohen. present owner of Direct Opinions. "He simplifies the process and provides basic information at a low price. We have not changed any part of how he did it."

Although his sales days are behind him, Becker has turned speaking on the subject into a second career, conducting sales and marketing seminars for clients around the country. ''His communication skills are phenomenal. No. 1,'' said Gary Adams, executive vice president of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association which represents 160 area dealers. `` And he understands what he's talking about and knows how to get it across to people. Nobody falls asleep in his program."

Becker's book contains common sense techniques, such as the value of ``to do" lists, how to approach cold calls and how to overcome objections. It is peppered with humorous stories about Becker's experiences both in sales and as a customer.

He says in the book that teachers actually make the best salesmen. ‘You don't see teachers walk into a classroom without a game plan ."

Click here for more articles about Hal.