Beyond the Number

After A Stroke, My Sales Skills Helped Me Recover. Here’s How.

Priscilla Jaffee, Stroke Survivor, Forever Salesperson, Sensational Badass's Avatar

Priscilla Jaffee, Stroke Survivor, Forever Salesperson, Sensational Badass

This post is part of Outreach's new blog series, Beyond the Number. We believe that salespeople are more than the number they carry, and that by celebrating the human side of sales, we help salespeople win bigger. Join the movement by sharing this post with the hashtag #beyondthenumber.


It was a snowy February, one of the shortest selling months of the year. I was worried about what most salespeople worry about: how my team would ever make our ridiculous fiscal year target when we were so far behind. The next thing I knew, my world went dark.

I came to in a Boston hospital. I’d suffered a major hemorrhagic stroke.

At that point, I wasn’t fully aware of what happened—or the gravity of the situation. I was only 55 years old, and all my life, aside from high blood pressure that was easily managed with medication, I'd been completely healthy. I was a marathon runner, ate a healthy diet, and worked out five times a week.

My husband flew in, my family was notified, and my colleagues stood vigil while I was in ICU. Weeks went by, and eventually I was transferred to a rehab hospital in Virginia, closer to my home. But just when I thought life couldn’t get worse, I had a seizure.

The effects of the stroke and seizure were massive: after years of running and competing in marathons I couldn’t stand, let alone walk. My entire right side, including my arm and hand, was non-responsive. My bladder was shot (are you kidding me? I was a runner—I used to be able to pee anywhere) and my cognitive function was deeply impaired. I’d always had an incredible memory but I was really faking it now. I’d get lost in the halls in my wheelchair, unable to find my way back to my room. One time, my arm got stuck behind me and I had no way to move it. I was very helpless. And I napped like a newborn—I could barely stay awake for 20 minutes.

Despite a bleak diagnosis, I still felt fortunate—salespeople are natural optimists, and my positive personality kicked in. After all, I was alive. I could talk. And I had a good room on a high floor (all that sales travel finally paid off—maybe they knew I was a Hilton Diamond member!).  I referred to my stroke as #LuckyStroke, and told myself the experience could be a great adventure.

When it comes to stroke recovery, every case is different. Recovery is the big unknown, but I had one huge advantage: my lifetime in sales. Here’s exactly how I used tactics straight from sales training to triumph in the most epic struggle of my life—recovering from my stroke.

#1: Set a quota.

A salesperson without a quota is like a martini without olives, and stroke recovery is no exception. I knew right away what my annual “recovery quota” would be: leave the hospital in a walker, not a wheelchair. That’s the stroke equivalent of double-digit revenue growth. From there, I set “monthly quotas,” short term goals like standing up, walking unassisted, and so on.

The recovery process was long, but my sales training gave me the focus and stamina to weather both good and bad days. The first time I stood up from my wheelchair with assistance was a great day. Ditto when I learned to put my contacts in with my left hand (I’m right handed). But some days were awful: My blood pressure would spike or I’d be so low energy I had to miss therapy. Even then, I'd always remind myself that I was still incrementally improving—each day was a little better than the one prior.

That's a lot like sales—most days, you don't land a client. Instead, you spend hours upon hours doing the legwork of building relationships. If you have good habits, whether in sales or stroke recovery, you'll head in the right direction for a payoff.

#2: Build rapport.

In stroke recovery, as in sales, you’re nothing without your ability to build strong relationships. Just as you buy donuts and remember birthdays to become the favorite salesperson (and because it is the right and thoughtful thing to do), I made it my mission to become everyone’s favorite patient.

I practiced an account-based stroke recovery model. Any good salesperson knows the receptionist is as valuable and important as the CEO—and the same is true for the aide who brought me breakfast and my neuropsychologist. These “influencers” had a key role in my care, and I wanted them to respond quickly when I pressed that call button, not complain about the lady in 205.

I realized a few days into my stay that the aides who assisted with the shower were golden. I wanted to be on the top of that list every other day and get extra showers if possible. I had the crazy idea I could tip them and asked my husband to bring me cash. It turns out, bribing your way to the top of the shower list isn’t allowed in healthcare, so I aimed instead to be everyone’s favorite patient—kind, appreciative, funny, and interested in people’s lives and work. Bottom line: Every situation has influencers and decision-makers, just as in a sales scenario, and finding them can make all difference in achieving your goals. Read on for more tips below...

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#3: Find the subject matter expert in each area.

As a sales rep, you must become an instant expert, knowing your product and the processes inside and out. Salespeople are often on a massive learning curve to learn complicated businesses in incredibly short amounts of time. To do this, we turn to subject matter experts (SMEs) to get us up to speed. I relied on this tactic in the hospital, too, and quickly identified the most knowledgeable therapists and therapy aides within the facility.

I became a sponge, soaking up the lessons taught in physical, occupational, and speech therapy. All of it was new to me, so I asked a plethora of questions and tried to figure out what success looked like to the hospital workers.

A light bulb went off when I realized they were timing me on physical tasks (like walking a step in my walker) and measuring fine motor skills (like my ability to fit small pegs into holes). It felt like back in my sales days, when I finally grasped the multichannel marketing channel universe in my B2B. I knew my goals were walking, writing, and gaining strength, but I also had to figure out what the nurses wanted so our goals could align. If I could get strong enough to move from the bed to the wheelchair on my own, it would lighten their load. Also, every salesperson knows how to ruthlessly prioritize—that is probably why my occupational therapy goals did not include cooking or cleaning as I had no intention of developing a new skill I would never use.

#4: Humor goes a long way

This holds true in sales, in recovery, in life—laughter is a powerful, curative force. In sales, we often ask for forgiveness rather than permission and we do it full of confidence and promise and joy. My habit of breaking the rules continued during my rehab.

One beautiful early spring day, I had a break in my schedule and escaped off the floor to an outdoor patio. I ignored all the signs saying patients must be accompanied. Well, that direct sunlight and fresh air was blissful—right up until I found myself unable to get back inside. I had charmed someone into opening the door to let me out but I was much too weak to open the door while in a wheelchair. Fortunately, I had my phone on me. I alerted my husband and he fetched me when he arrived.

You must be able to laugh at your mistakes and mishaps, and know that pushing the rules can lead to successes (that sunshine on my face!) with mishaps. It's the same feeling as when you go to make a huge presentation and your deck won't load, or the wireless isn't working—if you don't panic, and you have a good attitude, the client will too.

#5: Find a mentor

I was lucky I always found great mentors in my life and career. In sales, sometimes people are so competitive, they forget how valuable peers are as a source of wisdom. I always tried to surround myself with people who are smarter than me and then ask for tips and counsel. But after my stroke, I found myself without a guide—I wasn’t close with anyone who’d survived a stroke, especially at a relatively young age. That’s when I thought of my neighbor, Rob, a custom home builder who’d had a stroke about a year before. I sought him out at outpatient therapy and said hello.

“You’re the cute blonde who had a stroke,” he said in his strained speech. Rob’s got a bit of the salesperson gene in him, so his next step was to make a pitch. “I’ll give you a ride home but if we get pulled over, you have to do the talking.”

We made a great pair: His speech was still affected from his stroke and I couldn’t walk—the two of us looked like old drinking buddies. I went to Rob with all my questions that first year and we became fast friends. It’s a special bond—both of us push each other to do more than we would on our own. Mentors give us such great insight but the onus is on us to seek them out and ask for help.

I will celebrate my three-year strokaversary this February. There are things I will never be able to do again—I can't run, and my right hand is still too wonky for me to do calligraphy anymore. My stamina isn't what it was pre-stroke, so now I take afternoon naps nearly every day. But I’ve reframed my goals and expectations. My days are slower but fuller. I am retired but I find myself always being the salesperson—in my volunteer work, on the homeowner’s board, in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s (you really should try the ginger snaps!).

I work now to mentor others who’ve had strokes, connecting patients and caregivers with resources. I spend my days raising awareness about strokes and stroke prevention. If I can help others to be healthier and less stressed I am fulfilled.

I do miss the world of sales. I still celebrate the last day of the month but with a new appreciation. I celebrate being here to enjoy each month and I set some goals for the next— because as any good salesperson knows, you have to have goals.

And for the record, I finished 120% of the sales goal that I was so worried about the day I had my stroke. Hell yes, I checked. But even more importantly, I hit my recovery quota, and walked out of the rehab hospital using a walker, not in a wheelchair.


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