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Talk TIme: Tales of Sales: MBA to Minimum Wage

By Poornima Apte Email By Poornima Apte
February 2017
Talk TIme: Tales of Sales: MBA to Minimum Wage

Deepak Singh worked as a radio reporter for the BBC in India. But when he came to the United States, he became another underemployed immigrant who couldn’t find a job in his field. In his insightful book, How May I Help You?: An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage, Singh writes about his struggles and stint in retail.

In your book, you say that you would paint a more realistic picture about life in the United States to the Deepak who was coming to America for the first time. Have you seen that Indians these days have a more nuanced concept of what life is like here?
Good question. When I moved to the States in 2003, it wasn’t so easy to communicate with your near and dear ones back in India. My parents didn’t own a computer and phone calls were expensive. A lot has changed in India over the last five to six years. On my last trip in December 2015, I noticed almost everyone had a smartphone of some sort. I think Indians now have a better picture of what’s going on in the United States, and around the world, than I did a decade ago.

When you went into this retail sales job, you said you were going to work here until you found something better. How did that color your attitude toward the job, that it was just a stepping stone to something else?
I worked for BBC World Service before I moved to the U.S. After coming to America, I was hoping to get a job in the same field. When nothing worked, I started looking for anything and everything. My savings were dwindling fast, and I was getting desperate. I applied for sales jobs in all kinds of stores—clothing, bookstore, and grocery stores. At the time I didn’t see myself staying in retail for a long period of time; the idea was to work there until I found something that matched my experience and education. Because this was supposed to be a temporary job, my attitude toward it wasn’t very healthy. I thought of it as something beneath me. But I quickly learned that in order to keep my job, I’d have to change my approach. I swallowed my pride, put on a pair of khakis, and prepared myself to get my hands dirty.


“I was embarrassed to be talking to another Indian as a salesman,” you write. There are so many complex shades of class and status in there. Are you able to unwrap that for us? Why were you embarrassed?
I grew up in India, in a society where people judge you harshly according to your profession, education, your dress and address, caste, and religion. The people I grew up with thought of upward mobility as something when your job title says ‘officer,’ ‘manager,’ ‘doctor,’ ‘professor,’ or ‘engineer’—never a salesman. I would’ve been mortified if my mother had walked in the store while I was working at ElectronicsHut.

What does the layperson not really know about what happens behind the scenes at a retail store?
A lot. I can write a small guidebook about what happens behind the scenes at a retail store but for now I will leave it at this: For every piece of merchandise on the sales floor, there’s a morning meeting. Every single product is strategically placed. Figuring out employees’ work hours is like working a jigsaw puzzle. Who can work weekends, who can open the store and who can’t work nights. To come up with a schedule that makes everyone happy and keeps the business running is no small task.

What was one of the many revelations to you about your fellow employees at your retail job? How did that inform your later work?
How professional they were. They were proud of what they were doing, presented themselves to customers with a bright smile, and tried to help them to the best of their knowledge. They inspired me and taught me how you can and should be an expert at what you do—even when that is not the job of your preference.

What is the secret to good sales?
I am no expert on this subject, but if you ask me, the secret to good sales is how patient you can be with your customers. Most people in retail are focused on selling a product to a customer the moment he enters a store. In my time at ElectronicsHut, I learned that the lack of patience was the biggest handicap of a salesman. A human should treat another human like a human—whether you meet him or her in a coffee shop or a sales floor.

What is the single most important lesson you learned from your retail job?
Empathy. I learned to see and understand people by putting myself in their shoes.

How did you move to the work you do now?
I started my journalism career with BBC in India and fifteen years later I am still at it. ElectronicsHut was a two-year hiatus from that work.




Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor. Learn more at WordCumulus.WordPress.com.

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