The last time I saw Zig Ziglar, I was one of 17,000 in attendance at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, where he was speaking as part of a program of superstars, including Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Joe Montana. He was onstage accompanied by his daughter, Julie Ziglar Norman, because Zig had suffered a fall a couple of years before that and nobody wanted him to fall again, especially onstage, and especially in front of 17,000 people. On April 15, 2011, I saw Zig again, this time for lunch, with his daughter Julie and his son Tom. From 17,000 down to four. If you love Zig Ziglar as I do, you can readily understand it was one of the greatest thrills of my life.
Zig Ziglar is one of the greatest motivators, authors, sales trainers, and inspiring figures the world has known. Millions have read his books and listened to his recordings, and they became, as a result, better salespeople, better spouses, better parents, better people. His mellifluous baritone echoes through the mind of anyone who has listened to him speak. His values harken back to a better world, where integrity was the watchword, where faith mattered, and where sales was a profession in search of a champion.
Zig was their champion. He grew up one of twelve children during the Depression, on a farm in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and his father passed away when he was five years old. By age six, Zig was earning his own money, and selling, mowing lawns. He used that money to buy his first suit, which he wore to church. By the time I met Zig face to face, he had been selling-lawn mowing services, pots and pans, sales training, personal development, and the ideas of his Holy Bible, for 79 years. “You must be married,” Zig said. “I can tell by how nicely you’re dressed. Only a married man could dress that nicely.”
The first time I encountered one of Zig’s books, the year was 1998 and I was shopping for lamps, of all things. I saw his book in a display in a furniture store, where it was available for two dollars. The book was called See You At The Top, and it introduced me to something I’d never even thought of before-thinking about how we think. That first book, still in print decades after Zig had authored it, expounds on Zig’s philosophy that character is what matters most, and that “The easiest way to get what you want is to help other people get what they want,” an expression at the heart of Zig’s philosophy.
This launched me on a 12-year odyssey of studying Zig’s work, of reading and note-taking on as many books, ranging from sales to personal growth, from marriage to childrearing. At his suggestion, I turned my car into “Automobile University,” by listening to his tapes and then CDs as I drove-not just for the uplifting, entertaining, and fascinating content he provided but also for the positive effect it had on my mindset as I went about my day.
At lunch, Zig leaned over to me and said, quite seriously, “Never say anything negative about yourself.” It sounds so obvious, but we all do it all the time. If we don’t see ourselves as wondrously made, as Zig likes to quote from the Bible, who will?
At lunch I asked Zig what caused him to make the transition from sales training to motivational speaking. His son Tom explained that Zig studied the success of his students, and he realized that only 20 percent of it was due to technique. The other 80 percent was due to reputation and character. So that’s when Zig began to focus on those issues and not just talk about selling.
But don’t estimate old Zig on sales. He’s forgotten more about sales than most of us will ever know. One of his most enduring stories involves his son Tom, who at the time was contemplating a career as a professional golfer. Zig and Tom were playing a competitive round of golf and Zig needed a long putt to drop in order to win the hole. He made the putt, and then he asked his son, “Son, were you rooting for me?”
As only Zig’s son can say, in that honeyed Southern drawl, “Dad, I’m always rooting for you.”
Zig told the story in his sales training classes to emphasize that we should always be rooting for the customer to buy. If we have a worthwhile product or service to sell, and it’s something the customer needs, we should see the customer as someone to root for, not someone with whom we are struggling. I’ve thought of that story countless times in sales situations or just simply when I’m with my kids. I’m always rooting for you, son.
It was really fun for me to meet Tom and tell him, and his dad, how much that story has meant to me over the years. It turns out that it’s meant a lot to a lot of people.
Zig had his share of frustrations and disappointments. When he couldn’t sell a full set of cookware, either because his confidence was low or people just weren’t buying, he had a simple solution-just sell one spoon. I cannot count the number of times when my confidence ebbed, only to be revived by the thought that all I had to do was “just sell one spoon.” And I went out and I did.
As massive as Zig’s audience was, the publishing industry didn’t think him worth a shot when he wrote the book I found many years later in that furniture store, See You At The Top. By then, Zig had been providing sales training to the Mary Kay company. Mary Kay Ash was such a devotee of his, Tom told me at lunch, that she told Zig that if he were to self-publish the book, she would buy the first 10,000 copies. Those initial 10,000 sales mushroomed into millions upon millions of books, since Zig has now authored 26 books in all.
I had the extraordinary privilege of editing what will be Zig’s last book, to be published this fall by Brown Books in Dallas. I’ve edited or coached hundreds of writers, and it was an uncanny, almost out-of-body experience instead of quoting Zig to people, talking directly to Zig, and making suggestions-how dare I?-to improve his manuscript.
Tom and Julie, who reviewed my comments, could not have been more gracious, and I got a beautiful blurb from Julie and from Zig as well, which now adorns my website. It means the world to me that I was able to do something for the man who has given so much to me. It also means the world to me that I was able to meet him face to face at lunch with just him, his two grown children who work with him, and me, and tell him that he made me a better salesperson, a better husband, a better father, and a better man.
As I headed out to drive to the airport, Zig took me by the hand and told me to drive carefully.
“After all, people are caused by accidents.” He gave me that beautiful grin, and we both laughed. Is this still an age of heroes? Yes, as long as Zig walks the earth.