Payne shows the depth of a salesman

Jim Payne, assistant vice president for FTS 2000 at Sprint's Government Systems Division, did not always want to be involved in sales. But it occurred to him that he had the knack the day he sold five pairs of shoes to a chimpanzee.

In the late 1960s, Payne was working his way through Georgetown University as a department store shoe salesman when a woman came in carrying what looked like a knapsack. Upon closer inspection, he realized the woman actually held a baby bunting. "I glanced at the baby, and I was afraid to look a second time because there was hair growing from its face," Payne remembered. "I tried to avert my eyes."

When the woman presented the "baby's" foot for measuring—and it looked like a hand—it dawned on Payne that he was not dealing with a human. "In the back room, my compatriots were howling, laughing that I was wasting all of this time on a chimpanzee," he said. "It turned out this woman had been in the store many times, and the salesmen had dismissed her as a kook."

Undeterred, Payne proceeded to find five pairs of shoes that fit the chimp. The woman bought $150 worth of footwear, which meant a hefty commission for Payne. One assumes his colleagues stopped laughing at that point.

This anecdote illustrates a thread running through Payne's career: ignoring self-imposed restrictions and doing anything possible to satisfy the customer. This attitude has helped Payne garner the respect of high-profile customers at the Treasury and Justice departments and more recently helped Sprint win the first FTS 2001 contract for next-generation telecommunications service.

Payne said he has managed to strike up trusting relationships with customers of Sprint's FTS 2000 network by listening to their concerns and giving them direct answers to their questions. These customers often ask him for his personal assurance that concerns will be addressed, which Payne considers a point of pride.

Payne said he also encourages his employees to "step out of the box," as he puts it. A Sprint spokesman said Payne has personally encouraged the division's 20 deaf employees, who work with the company's relay telecommunications service for the hearing-impaired, to expand into other parts of the company. "Jim has been very encouraging to [deaf employees] who want to move out of that into the mainstream work force," the spokesman said. "There are now deaf people in the division who have done that, and it has meant a lot to these people to have a mentor in this organization."

Payne said he learned not to pigeonhole workers when he worked as a writer for publications specializing in summaries of government documents. Although he did not want to work in sales when he graduated from college—it was the Vietnam era, and sales represented the "establishment," he said—he soon found writing less than lucrative and began selling the publications he previously wrote. As he became a successful salesman, he disproved the notion that writers are too cerebral to make it in sales.

"It really taught me that I was a victim of prejudice," he said. "If there's one thing I've become famous for, it's finding people who work as secretaries or in other jobs [to work in sales]. One of my best salespeople used to sell pianos. I've always prided myself for recognizing talent."

Payne got into the telecommunications field in the early 1980s after making a sales call to GTE. The company piqued his interest, and he soon sought a position there. Fittingly, the day he interviewed at GTE, a two-inch headline in The New York Times trumpeted the divestiture of AT&T. The market was ready to open for companies such as Sprint, which GTE acquired soon after Payne's arrival.

Payne said he was shocked when he was promoted to assistant vice president in 1995. Although at the time he still was not sure he wanted the job, he immediately began establishing the office as a top-notch sales organization.

The payoff came last December when the General Services Administration informed him that Sprint had won the first FTS 2001 contract, the most coveted telecom prize in civilian government. By the time he met with GSA on the matter, Payne said he assumed he had not won. He said he knew the night before the meeting that GSA planned to announce the winner at a press conference the next day and assumed that he already would have been told if Sprint had won.

When he reluctantly showed up at GSA headquarters the next day, Payne said his face was red with anger at the officials there for not giving him the bad news over the phone.

Of course, when they informed him Sprint had won, he was "absolutely flummoxed," he said. "I asked for about 20 minutes to regain my composure."

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