Most university students spend their summers working abroad. It’s a good opportunity to make some money, work in an international environment, and of course, learn the language. Lívia Handlovičová is an exceptional leader and an extremely motivated person, and she is one of the few who started a very promising career as a full-time sales manager with the company she worked for during her university summers in the United States. PERSPECTIVES asked her to introduce to you an unusual summer job option.
Perspectives (PP): How did you become a full-time sales manager with the Southwestern Company?
Lívia Handlovičová (LH): Well, I was studying Math, I was in my second year at the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics at Comenius University and I wanted to go abroad to improve my English. In our English classes we were taught mostly theory and Math concepts, basic stuff, but we were not focused on improving our communication skills. It was really hard to find a place where I could actually speak to Americans. Finally I got an e-mail from Zuzana Karabová, who was a sales manager for Southwestern and getting ready for her seventh summer. She invited me for a presentation. When I learnt what the job involved, I found it very exciting on one hand, but really scary on the other one.
PP: So what job exactly do you do in summer?
LH: We sell educational material published by Southwestern to families with children -- that’s the exciting part. The downside is though that every student has his or her own business, so everyone is responsible for themselves. Also they have to go door-to door to find those families. The first steps were really hard, but seeing Zuzana going there for the seventh time made me think “if she can do it, I can do it too”, so I went.
PP: How many times have you done the door-to-door selling so far?
LH: Later on, based on my results from the first, second and third summer I was offered the position again and again. It was my seventh summer this year (2011). It’s crazy, but here I am. (laughs)
PP: What are your responsibilities as a sales manager? What do you find exciting about this job?
LH: Basically, my job involves meeting university students every single day, doing interviews, getting to know them and once I believe they want to do it and are able not just to do the job but to do it well, I select them, train them and get them ready for summer. You know, I’m constantly learning and improving in this job, I don’t feel like I’m stuck somewhere and doing the same thing over and over again. It’s not a regular eight-to-five job; I make my own schedule. One of the biggest reasons I’m still with the company is that I work with my students during the whole summer. I see their improvement and the improvement in other people’s lives we make through our work.
PP: So you still go on the field and sell books?
LH: Yeah, of course. That’s one of the coolest things that they see me doing it. I think I would lose my trustworthiness if I just sent them to the States to do the hard work and make money on them while I’m sitting at home enjoying my vacation. Yeah, I do the very same thing as my students do. I’m with them in the battle.
PP: Tell us something about the Southwestern Company itself.
LH: The Company started out in 1855 as a Christian-based company selling Bibles. After the Civil War they started to work with university students. Practically, this is the oldest internship for students in the States. In the last 60 years they have focused more on educational material, like dictionaries and thesauruses, and gradually got into selling study guides – a set of books that help students with basic subjects and homework at every stage of school from kindergarten up to college.
PP: What is the biggest advantage of being involved in this internship program?
LH: Probably a couple of things. First, that the students experience something that will make them stand out of the crowd, something unusual on their resume. Students have their own businesses, and they are doing real business with real people. They come into touch with 3,000 families during the summer; different people with different social backgrounds. Another thing is the training they receive, because they learn real life skills they can use not only in the professional field. They become more responsible, they are aware of their skills and abilities and their self-confidence rises a great deal as a result of the thing they accomplish. They of course make money, but I wouldn’t count this as something unexceptional; it's not the most important out of all the advantages, but students still make on average 5,500$ net profit during their first summer selling. The challenge students have to face is much more important. They will do something they have never done before, and the experience of overcoming hardships and themselves is something you cannot really pay for. Probably the biggest skill student learn by selling is to communicate effectively; to make a good impression, to tailor questions, to listen to people, understand them and help them make a decision. That’s something the school doesn’t teach you: how to succeed in life, how to take responsibility and how to communicate your abilities towards an employer. And oh, yeah, we travel! (laughs)
PP: How can a student get into the program?
LH: The first thing you have to do is to contact a student manager. Currently there are nine student managers in Slovakia, including me. After that you’ll be invited to the first meeting, which is basically a presentation where you receive basic information about the program. If the student likes it and is interested, then he/she will enter an interview process during which we get to know each other better. Usually there are three interviews with a student manager, and finally with the sales manager, either with me or with Joel Etienne from France. This is for two reasons: first, that the student knows what the job involves and to be sure he/she wants to do it, and secondly, that we can be sure he/she not just wants to but is also able to do the job well. It would be our irresponsibility to take anyone interested and keen on getting to the States. After all, when a student is selected, he/she is offered to join the team and the training begins. We prepare our students technically – that they know the products they are going to sell, mentally – so they are not shocked by rejections, and emotionally – so they can deal with homesickness, to become independent and self-reliant as they will work for a long time far away from their homes and families.
PP: How long is the training process?
LH: Well, it really depends on when the student is accepted. We finish the training in mid-April. So the later the students apply and are accepted, the faster learners we have to select. If someone is accepted in October we might meet every other week, if in March we would have to meet twice a week so that they can be ready by the time we are leaving. This year it is the 8th June when all of our first-years are supposed to fly overseas.
PP: What does it look like when you are actually on the field in the States?
LH: In the first week in the States everyone attends a sales school held in the headquarters of Southwestern by the leaders of the company in Nashville, TN. The cool thing is that everyone in the company, except the secretaries, was selling books at one point of their life; this means the CEO, the president, the 51% owner, simply everyone. So the students are taught by really experienced professionals. At the end of the sales school, organizations are formed. That means 2-3 student managers are joined by 5 to 20 first-years, and, as an organization, they are signed up for a specific territory in the States so that everyone has enough families to visit. The members of each organization are in daily contact, getting and giving constructive feedback by which a kind of mentoring relationship is built. We work six days a week, and on Sunday we have meetings which consist of a technical and a fun part. In the technical part we learn something new about selling and sharing experiences, and the fun part is really exploring the area we live in, travel and have as much fun as possible.
PP: How does the summer end? I would guess after such a thorough preparation there is also some follow-up.
LH: The summer includes 12 weeks of selling and one week of delivery since each student functions as a whole sale customer of Southwestern. That means during the summer they collect orders and deposits from the families, and at the end of summer they deliver the goods. The students buy the materials from the company at the whole price and then sell them to customers at the retail price, and the 40% difference is actually the student’s profit. They also cover their living expenses with cca. 25% of the deposits collected. The summer ends by delivering the orders, returning to the headquarters in Nashville and setting the balance with the company, which also means they get their paycheck. Usually we go for a small trip to Gatlinburg to relax, do some shopping, partying and then fly back home. The real follow-up of the summer is how you use the skills learned overseas. Also that’s the point when we select the best first-years and offer them student manager positions for the next summer.
PP: To whom would you recommend this program? What kind of students are you looking for when recruiting?
LH: First of all, it doesn’t matter what they study; however, it does matter what kind of person they are and what they have accomplished already. We are looking for hard-working people, who are able to study hard and fast, who are teachable and independent enough to make decisions. It is also important whether they have a record of past achievements. I know from experience that whoever is successful in selling books already succeeded in sports, music, charity, or were involved in some extracurricular activity. We are looking for ambitious students, high-achievers. This is really a work based on abilities and not grades, on attitude and not school papers.
Lívia Handlovičová has been working as a full-time sales manager for the Southwestern Company since 2008. She worked with the company also as a student between 2005 and 2008. She has been among the top 5% of the students – salespeople in the past 7 years. She is a red-diploma graduate from the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics at Comenius University in Bratislava, majoring in Mathematics. She lives in Bratislava with her husband.
For more information on Southwestern, go to southwesternsummer.com or contact Lívia at firstname.lastname@example.org.