Remember when the customer was always right? Or, how about service with a smile—that universal expression of good intentions and well wishes? I wasn’t born in the 1950’s, but by the late 1990’s it became clear that capitalism had forgotten the prior lessons of a golden age of customer relations.

Mature capitalism in the modern era of the Internet is captured by blood sport one liners like “Always Be Closing”. And the rather simple customer relations of purchase and sale are further muddied by the mining of personal information. Somewhere along the way getting our money wasn’t enough, which means that some guy in a hat will always insist that I provide him with my phone number and e-mail, just because.

Perhaps more interesting are the obvious changes in sales tactics. Much of selling now has little to do with convincing customers that your willing to fall all over yourself to make them happy. Sales persons aren’t interested in knowing if their products can meet your needs, and consequently, the transparency of their apathetic deception give them away. The first thirty seconds with a customer is now spent trying to figure out if the sales person should be talking to someone else. With quotas to fill and the perpetual impending doom of “downsizing”, the most important sale tactic of all is finding out if you’re wasting your time speaking with a customer who isn’t ready to buy. The second important tactic is bullying.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And when it comes to making a sale, the most desperate of measures also happen to be the most insulting. This was the primary lesson I learned over a series of potential purchases in the past few months. Take last weekend for example.

There was a loud banging near the front of the house that made Gloria jump.

“What the hell was that?” she asked. Her pupils dilated.

My wife lives in constant fear of a midnight kidnapping scenario, despite the fact that the size of our house screams “paycheck to paycheck”. In her version of the nightmare, an uncanny stroke of bad luck encourages some shadow-clad men to choose our house over the one next door because our bushes look nicer. In my version, after deftly maneuvering into our living room, they realize they’ve made a mistake and promptly leave without a sound. The fear in both versions is that I don’t wake up to save her from the intruders; I don’t have the heart to tell her how accurate this is.

This particular daytime disturbance lead to the same conclusion, and for a moment, she contemplated jumping out the backroom window.

“Hold on,” I said, darting toward the front of the house.

Two Verizon sales reps in popped-collared T-shirts were banging obnoxiously on the screen door of our front porch. I’m a big gun control advocate, but this was one of the few times I’ve ever wished to own a gun with as little waiting period as possible.

They went through a whole song and dance routine, complete with the kind of transparent phony smiles that gave away their disdain for the whole process. Even after declaring my allegiance to a simple Internet connection from Optimum—and my unwillingness to switch—they persisted without a beat (of course). My manners began to run thin as this little interaction further delayed my plans for an afternoon of cold beer and dodging adult responsibility.

“Optimum? Well have you tested your Internet speed?” The model-like blonde probed.

“Yeah, it’s about 100mbs. I’m pretty tech savvy. Listen guys, I don’t want to waste your time, so let me just say that we’re happy with what we have and not looking to switch.” The tone of my voice reflected a genuine disinterest I assumed was universally understood.

Nope. Not these guys. They were going for gold, and that meant blood, too.

This is where mature capitalism destroys humanity. The customer is rarely right, employee slave wages are subsidized with welfare benefits, and the resulting race-to-the-bottom has created a sales culture with one motto for buyers: BUY OR DIE.

I try to remind my self that it’s not these guys’ fault; they aren’t the ones cutting wages and employee benefits to purchase a second yacht. They’re also at the mercy of the average American’s buying power. Buyer’s shallow pockets become pinned by the monopolistic strong-arm of large sellers and the commerce relationship begins to resemble something of a mafia payoff. The infamous “hard sell” has since transitioned from the more subtle lies of, “Yeah I have that one at home”, and “That’s very popular, everyone’s buying it,” to more personal forms of overt insult. Insulting your customer and getting at their ego has become to new way to push sales.

The handsome blonde guy took a shot at my ego.

“You say you’re tech savvy and you’re with Optimum? I don’t know about that man.” He let out a theatrical sigh of disappointment.

I kept my cool. “Haha, you’re good guys. Have a good day gentleman.”

I spent the following twenty minutes wishing they had interrupted me during a rather productive drinking session. With beer on my side, I might have been inclined to school them on the first lesson in sales: Don’t insult the customer.

The personal insult is a last-ditch effort—I get that. But what sales people miss is the burning bridge they leave behind, along with any hope of a future sale. American egos are fragile, but not enough so that they’re willing to be bullied into parting with their money. If there’s competition in the market, those who appeal to a customer’s ego strength will make the sale nine times out of ten. People want to feel empowered. In the case of a sales pitch that insults a customer’s ego, the power to shut down the sale and walk away will always feel more vindicating than making the purchase.

Back in March, Gloria and I were looking to purchase a Honda CRV. We had been to several dealerships armed with a deeply discounted price provided by a deal through my employer. Many dealerships had turned us down, but one finally bit. At some point while sitting down to discuss the numbers we came to a slight impasse. Hoping not to lose anymore ground on an already discounted price, the sales person attempted to steer us away from the leather seating and premium trimmings we were vying for—we wanted to go all out on a car we calculated would last us 15–20 years. In a last-ditch effort to force us to accept a lesser model at a higher price, the sales person remarked in a somewhat chastising tone:

“You guys are looking at the wrong car,” he said. “For this price, you can’t get that car.”

My wife and I are financial hawks and make a somewhat comfortable living that we manage down to the penny. We know what we can afford and we know what up-charging is.

SALES TIP: Never tell your customer that they can’t have what they want.

This is especially true when your tone implies that the customer is mistaken and/or not intelligent enough to understand their own finances. Even if when it’s the case that customers are reaching outside their payment range, its possible to steer them toward a different product without having to shame them into downgrading. The trick is to make them CHANGE their idea of what they want. When people feel that THEY are choosing a better deal, it’s more empowering than feeling like they’re settling for the sales persons’ choice. It’s as simple as:

“Listen folks, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you guys are happy. I’m going to try to get you the car you want and perhaps some other special deals that might help you save more money.”

Needless to say we walked out when they wouldn’t budge. About a week later they called us back and sold us the exact car we wanted at the price we wanted. Got ‘em.

We had another experience with sales persons who thought insulting us would make the sale. My wife and I had been shopping around for waterproofing companies in hopes of one day finishing the basement of our home. So, we called this company to send out a guy to do an estimate for us.

On the evening of the estimate, an elderly man in his 60’s approached our home and made spectacle of his assessment. Upon flying through the front door, he immediately disclosed that all of his possessions and loved things were burnt up in a recent fire that engulfed his home. This included a cat named Oscar.

It’s a sales tactic I’ve witnessed before; by disclosing some heartbreaking personal story that demands compassion, customers will award you the job or settle on a higher price out of pity. Pity pays is the motto, because who wouldn’t want to give someone a leg-up after life deals them a crippling blow? I once solicited the services of a neighbor to install my new kitchen sink. Within thirty seconds of his arrival he angrily reported that he had received a $300 speeding ticket “for no reason”. And?…Nice try.

Anyway, the old man zoomed downstairs and began his show. Running from this wall to that, he furiously wrote down measurements and performed various cryptic calculations in mere seconds. He had been doing this for 30 years, he told us. His explanations jumped from sub pumps to water tables to how everyone else gets it wrong—everyone except him, of course.

We headed to the kitchen table where the show continued. He wrote down several procedures that the “other guys” are going to want us to do, and then slashed them out with an X like he was Michael Meyers. He started crunching the numbers after presenting us with his solution. This is where his routine went downhill. He knew his little show like the back of his hand, that is, only up until the moment of resistance by homeowners unwilling to let ten grand slip through their fingers so easily.

In his mind, he had driven an hour to make a sale even when he knowingly agreed to a free estimate. His composure cracked, and at the price impasse, his tone turned desperate. When we reminded him that the purpose of his visit was simply to perform an estimate for comparison, he couldn’t accept that. He went rogue and lashed out.

“You guys aren’t ready to do this, no matter what I say. If I told you I would do it for $5,000, you still wouldn’t do it.” He gasped for air, as if we were the ones who had burned down his imaginary house.

“You guys aren’t ready to pull the trigger. You’re not serious.”

He trotted swiftly toward the door with heavy feet, like a toddler having a tantrum. We exchanged polite goodbyes, and he retired to his vehicle out front. After about twenty minutes of miming phone calls to phantom business partners, he attempted to persuade my wife once more by phone.

“What if I could do it for $7,000?” He pleaded.

“No, Bill.” *Click*

After he left, my wife became instantly anxious over the fact that this rejected salesman knew where we lived.

“What if he comes back and breaks into our house in the middle of the night?”

I smirked in her direction. “If he’s that desperate to start the work, we should probably just give him the job.”


Also published on Medium.