Several years ago, before the housing market crash and the great recession, we had a full-time manager and sales person working with us. Tony’s a great guy: likable, funny, sincere, hard working – the kind of guy who can make your day better simply by being in it. When the crash came, people weren’t moving much anymore, so he left the Spine and got a job as a car salesman. And he became a really great salesman, at least from what I could tell from the conversations we had whenever we’d get together. There were months when he’d sold twenty-something cars, other months when he had the second highest sales at the dealership, just behind a guy who was nationally known for his selling prowess. I remember him saying to me, “I’ve learned so much about sales, about how to talk to people, the psychology of it all, that if I ever went back to selling moving jobs I’d do amazing.”
I know this sounds like bragging, but that’s not how Tony was saying it. He was simply expressing his amazement that he had done sales one way as a mover — intuitively, naively, without really knowing why he succeeded with one potential customer and failed with the next — and another way as a car salesman — with education and training and a whole body of psychological research to help him understand why people buy and all the ways he could increase the likelihood that they’d buy from him. If you’ve ever fantasized about returning to high school with the social and coping skills you have now, then you can understand what Tony was saying: he didn’t want to go back to selling moving jobs (for one thing he was making a lot more money at the dealership). I think he was just fantasizing about doing his old job at the Spine with the knowledge and skills and techniques he’d learned at his new one.
When I heard him say this, I immediately thought of my own shoddy, untutored approach to sales. Even though I’ve been going to peoples’ homes for years to inventory all their worldly possessions and then give them a cost estimate with the hopes that they’d choose us (or choose me) to do their move, I knew almost nothing about sales. Oh, I’m friendly and try to be honest and communicate clearly and I genuinely enjoy helping people, even if I’m helping them choose another path on their moving adventure than Adamantine Spine. But beyond just general decency, I didn’t know anything. I should learn something about sales, I thought to myself. I really should learn something about sales.
But then as soon as I had that thought, another thought came right after: it doesn’t seem quite right to work on improving your ability to get people to do what you’d like them to do, especially when you have something to gain from it. And so, I envied Tony his sales ability, even tried to pull a few easy tips from him that might help me sell more moves. But pretty much right then and there I decided I didn’t want to spend any time learning about how I could do a better job selling.
Why? Well, because even though I’d like to win more friends and influence people, I don’t want to be the kind of person who reads a book about how to do it. Which isn’t to say I’m not interested in self-help books or self-improvement. I’m as vulnerable as the next American to the idea that I might turn in my old model self, the one often plagued by self-doubt and regrets, for a brand new self, shiny and trouble free. I just don’t want to trick people into being my friend, any more than I want to trick them into deciding to hire me. I didn’t want to learn more about sales because I didn’t want to have more power over other peoples’ decision making than I felt I already had. Which was not that much.
Of course, I’m being completely unfair to the profession of sales. To say that sales is about tricking people into doing what you’d like them to do is as ungenerous as saying that being a teacher is about making people learn what they don’t really want to know. It’s certainly not the whole truth. A salesperson can educate, she can offer counsel, give advice that often might run counter to her own short-term self-interest. A salesperson can be a trustworthy guide to help you navigate an unfamiliar world, whether it be life insurance or automobiles or home furnishings. A salesperson can honestly want what’s best for you, in spite of his own stake in the decision you ultimately make.
But a salesperson can also exploit a customer’s inexperience and need for his own gain. There is, almost always, a knowlege gap: The salesperson almost always knows more than the customer does about the good or the service. And the salesperson almost always knows more about the complicated sales transaction itself, all the fine print you sign at the dealership or the house closing, the technicalities of exchanging a particular good or service for money. That power imbalance is, I think, the main thing that makes selling so potentially fraught: the threat of being taken advantage of looms in the air whenever we go to experts to help us meet our needs.
It’s a strange thing to sell something to someone else, whether it’s a good, or a service or yourself. One person has a need or a desire. So there must be the salesperson, someone who offers to satisfy that desire at a particular price. The sell, that strange, risky, and ethically fraught exchange, is where need or desire meets the offer to fulfill it. I suppose my anxiety about learning new sales techniques has everything to do with the vulnerability of that state we all find ourselves in so often, wanting or needing something. Maybe I feel like not knowing how to sell levels the playing field between me and potential customers just a bit, sets us on equal footing even though I live in the land of moving and my customers are brief visitors. Or maybe I feel like our work should speak for itself, and that having to find new ways to coax people to choose our services means we’re not doing something right on the trucks. Or maybe I’m just content to be only okay at something I never saw myself doing: sales.
I wonder, though, if a really good sales training salesman could make me change my mind.