Spike

One of the more interesting “day jobs” I have had as an actress was selling products on one of the major home shopping channels.

Or should I use the official term “guest product specialist?” Sounds more important, right? “I was a Guest Product Specialist.”

At the time, green and eager, I was thrilled when my agent told me I had booked the gig. It would be a challenge! It would be live television! I glossed over the fact that I was essentially a sales person. I was going to be live on television and that was exciting. (And scary.)

The studios were located outside of a small town in the Tri-state area. I lived in Manhattan, so that meant a 2- 3 hour drive there and back for each airing depending on traffic, but I didn’t mind that. I loved traveling for acting work. It made me feel sophisticated, like a true “working actor.”

So what if some of those airings would be at ungodly hours like 4:25 AM? I was a professional! This was exciting!

I went through the training that the home shopping channel requires of all its potential “guest product specialists.” Some of it was on-line, essentially to introduce us to their approach to sales. The final part was a trial on-camera segment with one of the real hosts. When the trial came, I was so nervous, but the host I was paired with was just exactly how they seem on the channel: she was great at her job and charismatic enough to make me feel like I was her very best friend in those minutes together on-camera.

Described as a kind of dance, the synergy between the host and the guest specialist is very important to a successful home shopping channel sell. As the guest specialist, you are coming into the hosts’s “home,” so they are given the lead, but as the specialist, you are the one with the details and the passion. I felt like I was in a spell under the capable host’s lead. What was an 8 minute segment flew by in a blur that felt like 2 minutes.

After reviewing my taped segment with a producer, I was told that I passed. I was ready to start going on the channel to sell my product live.

And so my home shopping channel career began.

One of the products I sold was used in hot weather months. It was a personal comfort item that was used to help cool the body in the heat. So my sales pitch included a large table, several mannequin heads and some lucite display trees. I brought the heads in a rolling suitcase, as well as samples of the product, but the table and the lucite trees I had to hunt down and borrow from production for my segment. I’d find what I needed and set myself up in the assigned studio, then go to hair and makeup, and then sit in the green room to await my pre-sell 1- 2 minute meeting with the host to go over the features of my product.

Hair and makeup was a hoot. Sometimes I would be in there at the same time as one of the celebrity guest product specialists (think Joan Rivers or someone like that) or one of the top-selling guest specialists who had become the stars of the home shopping network because they’d sold millions of dollars’ worth of their product on the channel. A part of me could not help but be in a bit of awe of these people. Everyone else certainly acted as if they were awe-worthy. These were the homecoming kings and queens of this microcosm, and they knew it, too.

Many of the other quest specialists had worked hard to get their product on the show. I was in awe of them as well. Some had invented their product and this was their shot to “make it.” I could sense that in some cases, everything was on the line for them: all of their hopes and dreams of making a good living at this, and who knows what else?

There was always a mix of us waiting to do our thing. Everyone was jacked up no matter the hour.

I especially loved doing sells in the middle of the night because the studio was being run on a skeleton crew and it felt like I had the run of the place. It was a super high to sell when it was in the selling shank of the day and things were buzzing, but the quiet of the darker studio suited my pre-sell jitters. I could get very grounded and prepared essentially on my own. Sometimes it seemed hard to believe that a sell was actually going to happen, it was that quiet and dark. But just when I’d begun to panic that maybe I was in the wrong location, a camera person would show up, the lights would flood on and at the very last moment, a golf cart would zip the host over from some other part of the studio and we’d start the dance.

I had a demonstration, or “demo” in my sell: a bowl containing one of the ingredients of the item I was selling. I would plunge a thermometer into the bowl to show to the television audience that this item would cause the temperature to plummet, a definite plus in product promising relief in hot weather.

I would come to learn that these demos where key to a successful sell.

I would also learn that the hosts were juggling many different things as they danced with the guests specialist. They were in constant communication (as was I) via an earpiece in one ear with the producer who was running the show. But they also had an earpiece in their other ear and were also hearing simultaneous real time feedback from the line producer.  So the host was having a live on tv conversation with me, while also taking information from the producer and the line producer. If there was a caller on the line, that added a fourth dimension to their roster. These people had to be able to be incredibly focused: their ability to keep so many balls in the air in their minds and seem totally present and charming at the same time was quite amazing.

The line producer would be keeping an eye on sales as the sell progressed, and if there was a spike in sales, they would tell the host, so that the host would know what out of what we’d just done or had been talking about had moved people to pick up their phone or get on their computer and buy. The host would then go back to whatever it was in an effort to spike the sales again and again.

Maybe it was the mention of a particular specific use for that product, or perhaps I had painted a picture with a particular word that had ben particularly affecting. Maybe it was the plunge of the thermometer into the bowl – the visual of the digital temperature going down. Maybe it was the host putting the product on and responding with an “Oooohhhh, that feels so cool.”

You wanted those “spikes.” You knew if you were getting spikes you were getting sales, and sales, after all, were the name of the game.

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You’d finesse repeating whatever it was that had created the spike, whilst trying to appear in the moment of whatever conversation point you were in. It was a delicate part of the dance, and it was exciting, because you knew those spikes were making or breaking the success of the sell.

When it was over, I’d pack up my product and my mannequin heads and then go back to change back into my street clothes, eager to see how successful the sell had been. The people who hired me would have watched, and they’d have feedback and criticisms for me. What had I not gotten in? Where could I have taken more charge and gotten more of my points in over the host’s lead? That part was a bit nerve-wracking, as I had to abide by the shopping channel’s philosophies and yet serve my boss’ needs as well. Sometimes the two philosophies were at odds and I was in the middle, so I had to finesse the gap.

I was always grateful when it was all over and I was heading back home. It took a lot of energy and preparation for such a short “performance.” But I did love doing it all the same. It was a challenge, and I learned a lot during the year and a half I did it. It definitely helped me learn how to stay in the moment under high pressure. I developed terrific focus and concentration that has served me well for all my other acting work, particularly on-camera.

I look back now sort of in awe of myself. I jumped headfirst into that world, and I was pretty good at it. I was jumping off the skinny branches each time I went out for the dance to sell that product, and even though it was nerve-wracking every time, I have to say I loved the sensation. It was a rush.

But eventually, I got a tour of a musical that would have me away for the selling season. And thus, my career as a guest product specialist ended.

I sent back the mannequin heads and the samples, ready to embark on the next thing. But I carry with me that love of the spike, that desire to feel that jumping-off sensation. Not a bad thing to seek out, that feeling of being totally alive and in free-fall through the air, only to find that you can, indeed, rely on your own wings to get you to the next landing place.

#actorslife #dayjobs #salesjobs #takingflight #spike

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