Sales Lessons I Learnt From A Prostitute

Few years ago, I took a break from active work life to go pursue my dream of learning Indian folk art forms; one at a time. I was in a lazy city called Bhilwara (Rajasthan), in the north of India.

National Award winning Phad Painting artist Kalyan Joshi was mentoring me. My day would start early at 05:00 am and end at around 18:00 pm. Once done, I’d take my teacher’s leave and cover a mile or more on foot to reach his sister’s humble home, where I was staying for that one month.

Around the labyrinthine quadrangle, a few yards ahead, I’d as a rule notice the same woman, lost behind an undistinguished veil, crossing the street with astounding precision; a boy holding himself up to her right side.


Following a few days of my standing by the road-side to see her get out of sight, she acknowledged my silent gaze. She turned in my direction, walked up to me, came close enough for me to feel her sweat, carefully removed a part of her veil, looked into my eyes and stood there for that endless moment; her son still hanging to her right side.

Next evening I completed my second Phad painting.

Hurriedly, I set about, having decided in my mind that today will be the day when we speak. I saw her again. She walked up to me, yet again. When she removed her veil to offer a smile, I asked in nervous zest:

“Are you free? Can we talk?” More like a question to a busy boss; not very appropriate I realized.

She spoke like an old friend. It wouldn’t be possible today she explained. Her son was to be fed. Plus, she had to return to the other side of the road, in time to grab a place by the dirty pond, to spend her night. A lot of homeless people lived there because the local police had let off that area for muck, stray dogs and the homeless to cohabit in peace.

Over the next few days she narrated her story in parts to me. Santosh (her name) was a former Devadasi – children who are forced into having sex with temple priests on the pretext of this being God’s own wish (They are ‘married’ off to ‘God’). Having lived a wretched childhood of abuse, followed by a formal introduction to prostitution in her adolescence by a pimp, Santosh had delivered an illegitimate child at the age of 14.

“We prostitutes have a motto – Everything must sell. Shame, sorrow and the ability to feel both.” She explained.

Santosh wanted to give her son a normal life, at least figuratively and so she escaped from the brothel in the heart of Mumbai to Bhilwara, where she and I were destined to meet.

Every evening she would go to the nearby Masjid to collect alms in order to feed her son for the rest of the day but she was adamant this must change.

“I don’t want to beg always. In the brothel, I learned to apply make-up and do all parlor (sic: salon) work. But I don’t have the money to open a beauty salon. When I knock on the doors of random people, asking if they need my services, they shoo me off.”

“I have an idea of how I can find work. Will you help me didi (sister)? Santosh asked.

She was in need of a dummy to showcase her work; a partner, who could do for her, what she could not for herself.


Lesson 1: Find a buddy/partner – The foundation of a good Sales team is based on cohesive action. Finding yourself a buddy or partner in your existent team to work alongside is a great way to keep that blood burning.

Only a few months following this incident, I was (not having known this at the time I met Santosh) due to join a start-up. It were really my boss and myself to make up for the company. I had to do everything in the organisation from picking my boss’ son from his school and feeding him a banana to making cold calls to build client base. Cold calls made me go cold in my gut. I thought I was way too educated to be making cold calls. My pride came in my way. I had to re-invent.

My boss gave me a budget to hire another colleague. I bombarded all recruitment sites with the job advert, called upon all (each and every) applicants for the interview, assessed them in a group situation, gave them a mock assignment (each one of them had to make two cold calls) and picked the most awesome candidate (whom my boss was strongly against because she wasn’t too ‘educated’ in the conventional sense).

She was an awesome candidate because she did what I could not – cold call. She took herself too seriously, just as me, but what made her an absolute star of a cold caller was her belief that ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS A FOOL’. No one could really hurt her pride because, like I said, everyone was a fool.

Job done! Once I found a partner to do what I could not, I did something that Santosh taught me.

Santosh refused to give in on the conventional ways of selling. So she still knocked on those doors and heard a whole lot of crap people love to give. But what she did differently was to return to me every evening with a list of all those filthy comments and LOLed (laughed out loud) it all.


Lesson 2: LOL – Come on! there are no short cuts to selling. You’ve got to cold call at some point and be made to feel like you’re so full of S**T.

My boss would not let me give up on calling so I went out and shared all my crap online. I made a facebook page called – Here’s why I am so full of S**T, where I uploaded comments that I received everyday from people I cold called and sometimes even uploaded the recordings of the calls.

My page became so freaking famous that I started to love making cold calls. I would come to office everyday with the hope to collect loads of bullS**t to upload on my FB page and in between of that super exciting day, I started to manage to turn in some wonderful leads to my boss. 

Next, Santosh went out into the local market and befriended businesses such as – a beauty products store, wedding planner, women’s wear shop and even a grocery store owner featured on her list of strategic alliances.

Lesson 3: Build Strategic Alliances – I made an exhaustive list of plausible strategic partners and shot emails out to them offering them our clients in lieu of a partnership that would be mutually beneficial. I ended up making more than a dozen alliance partners over cups of coffee and a bit of Central London charm. Result: multi-fold increase in leads.

Our biggest alliance partners were local government bodies who were in need of business coaches to give free sessions to their business community. For them, it meant ticking the box and for us it was face-time with a hellava lot of leads. Save time. Cover a lot of ground.

Santosh was a mastermind. That’s the least I can say for her. Her dirty-pond-abode was next to a beautiful park which was flooded with health freaks every morning. Many of them were women. So, I was put on an early morning duty to stand as a pretty face at the entrance of the park, where Santosh would apply make-up on my face or fake-do my eyebrows to lure customers. Easy peasy!

Leasson 4: Look Around – We were based out of a business center that had nearly 100 other start-ups and mid-level companies operating. I was itching to get some of these on board as our clients (we were an SME coaching consultancy). So I covered the entire business center requesting for business cards. Drafted a funky email offering to organize a session for all businesses to acquaint with each other (nice bait buddy;-)) and sent it out. Result – We made two solid clients. And guess what! My pride went just a notch up.

Finally, Santosh went out every evening to weddings that were taking place in the vicinity. Many a times female guests needed a little face-lift last minute but did not have the time for it. Santosh filled that gap for them. She carried her son on her right side and her bag full of work equipment on the left and obliged customers.

Lesson 5: Find Aggregators – For our business the obvious aggregators were all the SME groups and networking events. The one thing sales-people forget to do is move their damn arse off that freaking chair, unless its for that smoke break.

I just never sat on my seat. I was always out on a hunt for the networking events/exhibitions/business libraries and conferences where business owners came in large numbers. Meet your prospect where both her/him and you are equals, if you want to kill the prey.

Some time back, Santosh sent me a postcard with this picture (Priyanshu is the name of her son):



That was the day before my company recorded a two fold increase in turnover within six months of my joining forces. I was ecstatic to say the least.

In fine letters, at the bottom of the postcard were written those three words (in Hindi):

“Everything must Sell!”

[Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Linkedin by Sujata Setia.  She’s a writer and founder at the KheerAndFirni project. The photos used on this article are by Sujata]