I have a recurring dream that I am selling cosmetics and it is going horribly. There is chaos: too many customers, the products are in disarray and I cannot find what I need. I am unsure what to do and I scramble through the drawers trying to find a lipstick, or a cleansing cream. My hair is a mess and my make-up is faded. My co-workers are unwilling to help me, and my frustration builds until I wake up.
I don’t know how to analyze dreams, but I suspect that this one does not have an underlying meaning that relates to my career. It has been almost 20 years since I left the cosmetics business, so it is not a part of my daily thought process. When I have the dream, it is probably more a reflection of what I ate that day, or the temperature in the room. Still, I cannot help but think that I harbor some subconscious connection to the days when I wore the white lab coat with the silver “C” pinned on it.
Back then, in my 20’s, working for Clinique was a dream job. I had been promoted to cosmetics from the men’s department, and immediately took a liking to it. While not a superstar sales consultant by any means, I did well overall because I worked hard and offered good customer service. I liked staying busy, organizing everything and studying the new products. I quickly learned that everything in the famous light-green box with silver C emblem was a high-quality product: Clinique, after all, is the number one prestige skin-care line in the world.
When Clinique began in 1968, they were pioneers. It was un-heard of at that time to talk about exfoliation, sunscreen, and facial soap at the fancy department store make-up counters. Even today, the strength of the brand is that it is always unique and innovative. I was proud to be affiliated with that. Despite standing on my feet all day, and working through holidays and weekends, there wasn’t much I didn’t love about the gig. I especially loved the product and the customers.
The best thing about my job, however, was the training. This company was impeccable in their consultant education. They had Account Coordinators to visit stores and share product knowledge, and a Training Manager to facilitate comprehensive, hands-on classes. My training with Clinique is some of the best I have had in my career- and that is saying something, considering that I have worked for some impressive companies, including Hilton Hotels and Lexus. I still recall Melanie and Nancy, the trainers during my 7-year tenure in the industry. I admired their sharp presentation, their confidence in the product, and their dedication to the company.
The lessons I learned from my Clinique training would stay with me forever. I once had an Account Coordinator (LeeAnn) tell me that she bled green-that is how much she loved the company. At the Macy’s store in Athens, I can still remember how she responded when we made a comment about a new eye-shadow color. The shade was Yellow Moon, but it should have been called Obnoxiously Bright Lemon, because that is what it looked like. It was color #50 and I can picture it to this day. We were concerned about our ability to sell this color, and she told us, with complete conviction, that “everything Clinique makes is wonderful”, and that we would grow to love Yellow Moon as much as Bronze Satin or Silver Peony or any of the other top sellers. Now, you need to understand that Leeann wasn’t selling us a story, and the lesson wasn’t even about Yellow Moon as a color. The lesson was that we should ALWAYS be positive about EVERYTHING. If Clinique does something, it is awesome. Period. I realized then that if you tell yourself that something is great enough times, you will eventually believe it. This was a lesson in “The Secret”, decades before any of us would hear anything about the power of positive thinking. I would never, from that point on, say anything less than enthusiastic about a Clinique product.
I rarely said anything less than enthusiastic while away from the Clinique counter, either. It became a mind-set. That concept of keeping things positive would eventually bleed into the rest of my life, and years later, when people would comment about my proclivity to see the glass half-full, I would tell them my Yellow Moon story. I wish I could find Leeann today to thank her for the heart-felt company passion, and for her faith in a color that should have really been reserved for ice cream or wall paint. Color #50 was, of course, discontinued within a year, but it certainly was not from a lack of Leeann’s attempts to save it.
Another concept I picked up from Clinique was the power of the open-ended question. Clinique knew that the secret of successful selling was a healthy dialogue with the customer, and the way to do that was to ask them a question to which they could not give just a short “yes” or “no” answer. We all came up with open-ended questions designed to keep the conversation going. “What do you like about this Balanced foundation?” “How long have you been using this Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion?” and “Tell me more about your skin care goals” were some of my favorites. When I began selling cars in my 30’s, I would use this skill again, and later came to realize that healthy conversations and open-ended questions are at the core of all productive relationships. The key is to show a genuine interest in people, let them talk, and care about what they say. This is not a selling technique, it is a life technique.
For Clinique, though, the technique was a rule, along with the positive outlook axiom. I like to think that their rules were a large part of Clinique’s success. The rules all seemed like common sense, but they were good habits for us, and we were held accountable to them: always look polished, no earrings larger than a dime, long hair pulled into a ponytail, always use full product names, always capture customer information on a file-card, always offer your customer a sit-down consultation and always skin-type your customer on the Clinique Computer. Successful companies set expectations of their employees, and this clear structure worked well for Clinique.
I say “worked” because I really have no idea if any of these rules still exist. I tend to think that they do not, because I have been purchasing the products for the last 20 years and rarely have anyone offer to put me on a card file, or skin-type me, or sit me down for a consultation. That’s not a bad thing, cultures change, and maybe those strategies don’t apply to today’s busy consumer. But in my heart I know what the person in the white coat should do when I ask to purchase some Balanced Make-up, and I’m disappointed when they don’t ask me what I like about it. I’m dying for someone to get to know me like I knew my customers, remembering their names and their favorite colors, and where they worked, and what their skin-care goals were. It makes me think that if I could do the job again, knowing what I know now after growing up, and working for places like Hilton Hotels and Lexus dealerships, that I would completely rock it. I fantasize that I would rise to the top as a Sales Consultant superstar, following all the rules and breaking all the sales records. And just when I start to become convinced of my enormous potential, I have this recurring dream…..