INTERVIEW

JT Olson, Executive Director, Both Hands Foundation

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When you meet JT Olson, he positively beams with enthusiasm. He has the energy and charisma of a man who has found his true calling and loves what he does. An orphan himself, JT has dedicated his life to helping others, and it shows. 

JT, much like his cause (Both Hands builds houses for widows, and helps couples with adoption) is irresistible. Read on and see for yourself. 

You can read JT’s full biography here.

Jamie: JT, how do you feel about the relationship between sales and working for a non-profit organization? 

JT: It fits like a glove for me. I think it’s because I came from the Southwestern background where I did a lot of recruiting and trying to inspire people to do things; to create something out of nothing. That is basically what you are doing when you say, “Okay, we’re going to build a team… and we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that.” That’s creating something out of nothing.

The skills that I used when I was recruiting a team, or when I was a sales manager for Southwestern – would help me encourage my students. I would travel to different campuses, and I would talk to my students ahead of time to make sure they had people lined up for me to speak to when I got there. 

“Everything looks amazing!” I’d tell them. The exact same skill set applies to what I do now. It’s kind of uncanny. A lot of the same things I say in my conversation with the families I am coaching are exactly the same things I would say to my students before I came to interview them on campus as a sales manager.

I didn’t realize before I started Both Hands that those skills would be such a good fit for what I do now, but they are.

Jamie: If you could highlight the most transferable skills between a sales career and building a non-profit organization, what would you say those are?

JT: I think the biggest thing is establishing trust. That’s probably the most important skill you can have as a salesperson; establishing trust. It is all a part of building rapport, asking questions, making friends -that’s all part of trust building.

Jamie: What have you found most fulfilling about your sales career thus far?

JT: I think specifically, it’s what I learned when I was 18 years old. My first sales training school was a Southwest seminar. They said, “If you help enough other people get what they want, you’ll do well.” I bought into that philosophy pretty early when I first heard it from the stage.  

If you help enough other people get what they want out of life, then you’ll do fine. I think that’s a great way to live life.

Jamie: What’s the best thing about being in sales?

JT: The best thing about being in sales is that you get to have your own schedule. You’re your own boss. You’re the one who makes it happen. There is a certain fulfilment to that, and also a certain pressure.

Jamie: How do you handle that pressure?

JT: Work.

[laughter]

JT: I mean, you don’t sit around and twiddle your thumbs. You make lists, you set goals, you work, and you tell yourself what is going to happen. It’s the same thing as when I was selling books. If I showed the books 30 times a day, then somebody was going to buy the books in spite of me. I’m really not that good of a salesperson; I’m probably better at working.

Jamie: Okay, and does that apply to Both Hands? Have you identified the activities which drive success?

JT: Yeah. For sure. I am on the phone a lot to people who are thinking about doing projects. I talk to people who’ve done projects, and I talk to people who have given to the projects. In the last two days, I made 35 calls to people who donated to family projects, and I spoke with nine of them. 

I left a 45 second voicemail for the rest. I leave a voicemail and I just say thank you.

I say, “Thank you. That’s all I’m calling for. You were very generous…you gave to this project…and we are grateful.” It’s funny when I talk to them live because some of them are freaked out that the executive director would actually call them and thank them for a $250 donation. It’s why we’re different. People say, “I’ve never had anyone call me from a non-profit and thank me personally.” That personal touch is what I’ve tried to give.

Jamie: Do you find that that personal touch directly relates to the success of the foundation?

JT: Yes. You have to remember what we do; we help families raise money for adoption. With our help, they organize a work project and we help them raise money. We don’t take any money out of the money they raise. We don’t take a percentage out for our operations, which is how most non-profits operate.

But I decided 11 years ago, when I started this, that we were going to just help families, and we were not going to take any money out of what they raise. We were going to figure out a way to raise money on our own, kind of like missionaries.

That’s how we are going to keep our operations going. That’s why I coined the phrase that this is the most irresistible non-profit in America. We help widows and orphans. Who can find any fault with that? It’s irresistible. When people hear what we’re doing, and we help a family raise $10,000, $15,000 or $20,000…they say, “Holy cow. This is awesome. Here’s $200 to keep your operations going or here’s a $1,000 to keep your operations going.” 

This is how it started out with one of our biggest donors. They actually donated a washer to a family’s project. A widow was having her house worked on and supplies had to be donated. This lady found out that the widow was her old high school roommate. 

Now, this woman lives two or three states away. But she heard the widow’s house was being worked on, so she asked her friend, “What do you need?” The friend told her that they were in need of a washer. She bought a washer, and she donated it to the project. The widow got a new washer. Well, I called the woman who donated the washer and said, “Thank you very much. That was very generous.” A week later, there was a donation to Both Hands. I handwrote a note to them to thank them again. 

Two months later, there was another donation. Now, I mean, three, four years, five years later…. this couple have been a tremendous support. They love what we do, and they’ve really helped us.

Jamie: Would you say most charities, and also for-profit businesses, are making a huge mistake by not thanking their customers enough?

JT: 

Everyone wants to be appreciated. Recognition is the cheapest form of motivation. You give it to recognize people for what they’ve done, and it makes them feel good. I think any investment, whether it’s time, a gift, or anything else a person gives, deserves some form of appreciation and a thank you. 

You can send out newsletters to go to everybody, but I honestly think that the personal touch, where someone took the time to say thank you, is invaluable.  

I’ve spent hours on the phone going through a list, trying to do 20 calls a day, just to thank people. It takes a couple hours and there’s always some joy in those two hours because you connect with somebody live. They’ll say something like, “Oh, yes, I love this family. We love the fact that they’re bringing a child home from India and we’re so excited and glad to donate.” Then they say, “And we love what you guys do. We just love it. We love it.” 

That keeps me going. That’s fuel. That’s fuel baby. I put it in the tank. I can make another five or six more calls. 

Jamie: What would you say is your biggest strength as a salesperson?

JT: It’s probably my enthusiasm. If I’m not feeling enthusiastic, I’ll make myself feel enthusiastic. “I’m an alert, alive, friendly, and cordial form of enthusiastic!” You have to talk yourself into it sometimes…you don’t feel that way every day. But if you start telling yourself…and you coach yourself…enthusiasm can make a difference.

I think another- right behind that though – is empathy. As a salesperson, I think you have to walk in your client’s shoes and ask, “What keeps them up at night? What are they worried about? How can I help them alleviate that?” I think that is a true salesperson. I also think sometimes salespeople get a bad reputation. There are always bad salespeople who are more concerned about money. I think that shows through.

I know there’s plenty of people who just sell to make money but that doesn’t work for me. 

Jamie: What additional skills do you think someone needs to succeed selling on behalf of a non-profit as opposed to a normal sales job?

JT: If your heart is into it and you believe in what you’re doing…I think that is the key. You have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to believe that it is by far the best route anyone can take. For me, it is about our families saying, “We’re going to serve a widow, and she is going to be blessed.” In the process, we’re going to adopt a child, and there’s about 20 or 30 people who are going to give their life away for a day fixing up a widow’s house.

They’re going to walk away fulfilled. They’re going to feel like they have made a difference in this widow’s life and they are helping to bring an orphan home. It doesn’t get any better than that. 

I think so much of it is just sharing a plan with people. I think if they like the cause then they will buy into it. Again, I think mine’s easy. It’s irresistible.

It’s the most irresistible non-profit in America because it’s widows and orphans. If I was probably doing this for… let’s say…seals, it may not have the same irresistibility. I’m not putting that down because everyone has their place in life, and everyone has their cause. But I happen to have one that is irresistible.

Jamie: So, you believe that any salesperson should go into non-profit sales?

JT: No, because I think there are a lot of salespeople out there who are very motivated by money. I think if you’re going to go into non-profit sales, and if you want to be content, then you’ve got to do something you believe in. I just don’t think there’s enough money to be made in non-profit sales. If they are really concerned about making money, there are other things they can do.

Jamie: So, if you are a salesperson and you care about a cause, how do you get into the non-profit industry?

JT: I’m sure there are non-profit organizations where you have to sell something. But I think what you’re selling to people is a request for donations. That’s what we’re talking about. The charitable development, right? That’s your bread and butter…and your sale.

I think what drives people to it is that they get to the point at a certain age or maybe they had an experience early in life where something happened to them that caused a burning desire to make a difference in one area of the world. Whether it is sex trafficking, feeding the hungry, clothing people. I don’t know what it is, but there’s got to be some kind of a burning desire in your heart to make a difference. I think that’s when you decide, “Okay, I’m going to go into non-profit sales. I’m going to raise money for this organization that gives back to orphans.”

That’s important to me. I’m going to do that. You have to have something drives you into it – you have to believe in what you’re doing. You need to have a desire to make a difference.

Jamie: What advice would you give more generally to aspiring salespeople?

JT: Don’t be naïve and think you can do this and work eight hours a day. It doesn’t work that way. If you want to be a successful salesperson, you better suck it up, hunker down and go to work. 

If you want to be average, find out what the average person does and do it. If you want to be above average, find out what the average person does and do the opposite. I find, most people are not willing to pay the price.

Everyone wants to go heaven, but nobody wants to die. You have to do some work. I think that’s the advice I’d give…get ready to get down to work and don’t be a whiner. 

Jamie: If you were starting your own sales career again, what would you do differently?

JT: I don’t know. I think I was very fortunate. God’s given me some great people…great mentors. I’m so fortunate to have done what I did at Southwestern. I fell into it and never thought I’d be a salesperson. That wasn’t my goal. But what would I do differently? In the middle of my career, I was a head-hunter; I would have done the business more in a way that would have fit my personality.

I think you have to find a model, because there are five or six different sales models, and you should pick one that is going to fit your personality. Figure out what makes you tick. Again, it goes back to doing something you believe in… doing something that you have your heart into… that gets you up every morning. 

When I was selling books as a salesman at Southwestern, my cause was helping to develop young people the way I was developed.

When I started selling books at the age of 18, I was not headed in the right direction. But people at Southwestern exposed me to good work habits. I was exposed to men who looked at me and said that I was a good man. All of a sudden, I realized, “Wow, this is kind of fun.” I learned things and was exposed to things that I hadn’t been taught before. It turned my life around. Because of what it did for me, it gave me the desire to do the same thing for other young men and women.

Jamie: You mentioned in the middle of your career, in recruitment, you didn’t have that belief. If you’re realizing that you don’t have that belief, what would your advice be?

JT: Well, keep the job. One rule is that you don’t leave a job unless you’ve got something else lined up.

That’s important. But I would say that you should start searching for something that fires you up and turns your motor on. Search for something that you know is going to make a difference. You know what? One of the aspects of loving a job maybe the kind of people you work with. That’s one of the things that I did like about the recruiting during my middle career. I loved the people I worked with and I enjoyed watching them be successful. I would think, “What can I do to help them raise their kids? Help them be more successful. How can I serve them?”

Jamie: Would you mind telling me about a time when perhaps you didn’t make an important sale that taught you something really valuable?

JT: I was just in my second summer selling books. I was 19 years old, in upstate New York, and I wasn’t having a great day. I remember very clearly, sitting down on a family’s front porch to show them the books. They were excited.

And after 20 minutes, they decided not to buy, and I tried to close once more. Basically, I was not empathetic. The lady became visibly upset and I was still going on until I realized that she was upset. If I remember correctly, she even started crying.

I walked out of that house, and I can’t tell you how low I felt. I felt like, “What are you doing JT?” I drove to the next house, and I did two more sales calls, but I couldn’t get this off my mind. I said, “I can’t go any further.” I drove back to that woman’s house knocked on her door. I said, “I’m so sorry…I never meant to do that, and I didn’t do what my mission was.” Then, I apologized. I felt better, and boy, did I learn something.

Obviously, at that moment, JT Olson was concerned about his own pocketbook and his sales. He wasn’t thinking about that customer. It was at that moment that I realized– you have to put customers first. 

It doesn’t matter about money. It’s not about your pocket. It’s how you serve. How are you serving people? I just really believe it. If you serve people, everything else will take care of itself.

Jamie: I wonder if you have another example of a time when things have gone really well, and it’s because of the skills and the knowledge you built up for your career?

JT: Well, I think one of the things that I’ve done well at was being able to speak to groups when I was a sales manager for 20 years. I learned how to walk into a room of cold people who weren’t smiling at me. I am sure they were actually wondering, “What am I doing here?” I would say that once I began speaking, within five minutes, they were warm. And 15, 20, 30 minutes later, they were actually saying, “Okay, this guy’s telling the truth.” I loved it. 

I think that being able to win people over goes back to trust. Trust comes from a sincere heart. You can’t fake it. It is when you show your desire and say, “I want to make a difference.” When you have that in your heart, and you’re sincere, it shows.

Jamie: It’s really helpful. How did you go about building those presentation skills and that ability to speak to a group?

JT: I think that you have to study. You have to learn the right way to say things… a lot of it is just observing people. Observe those that travel with you and learn from them. There was a transitional time in my career when I began working for Southwestern and followed another sales manager that been there a year or two. We hung out together all the time. He was working another part of the country and was traveling, and I travelled with him a few times. I copied so much of my style from his style.

My nickname was “The Shadow.” Funny, even my boss called me “The Shadow.” But then that sales manager left, and went to another career, and all of a sudden, I found that I was in charge. I realized that I had my thoughts and ideas. My creativity was released. I began to have more confidence in what was coming out of my mind and my mouth.

When I look back at my career at Southwestern, I realize that it shaped me into the person I am today. Of course, I had mentors and bosses who helped me, but I also learned so much by watching people, traveling with other sales managers, and watching how they did it. On top of that…I just made a whole lot of mistakes. I mean a lot of mistakes. 

Jamie: I mean do you have any stories which you tell the most about your career? Just a general favourite story?

JT: Yeah, there’s a story. In fact, I put it in my book I wrote. It is called The Orphan, the Widow and Me. It’s a story about when I was selling books during that first summer when I was 18. My student manager recruited me and taught me all summer.  

I had never been to Los Angeles, had never seen the ocean, and my student manager was driving me and my roommates back to our headquarters. I had lived on a farm in Iowa until I was in eighth grade and then I moved to the city of Milwaukee and went to the University of Wisconsin. Selling books in Los Angeles was amazing. I got to see the ocean! We drove across the country to get out there. I saw parts of the country I’d never seen. I learned a lot. I knocked on 3000 doors. I learned so many skills. That was an amazing summer.

I remember looking at Los Angeles going by, and as he was dropping us off, I thought, what a summer. 

I am in the front seat with this driver and I said, “Dick, I just want you to know, this has been an amazing summer and I couldn’t have done it without your help.” I said, “It’s changed my life and it’s made a difference in my life. I just want to thank you.” He looked at me and he says, “Alright, you could have done it yourself, JT. It’s no big deal.”

I looked back at the city going by, and I thought to myself, he must really feel great right now because I just thanked him for changing my life. If he doesn’t feel great, it’s because I didn’t effectively communicate the difference he made in my life. The next thought then hit me… “Wouldn’t it be cool if someone felt that way about JT?” That’s when I realized, “Wow. I have to come back and sell books again.”

But it was at that point that I realized; this is rewarding. It must be one of the most rewarding things in the world to know that you had an impact. You impacted change. You have the ability to change the direction of someone’s life for the better. 

I wanted to have that and that’s what started my career.

 [end] 

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