The Ultimate Consumer Horror Story (reposted)

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Every so often, I get a call out of the blue that starts something like this "Hello, I'm shopping for a mortgage. Just tell me your lowest rate."

I try to do the ethical thing, finding out on what sort of loan and all of the ancillary information that would actually make this useful information.

"No. Just tell me your lowest rate."

Every so often, I'll admit, I'm seriously tempted to quote them the lowest rate available on a month-to-month loan where the teaser rate has to be purchased with three and a half points - a loan such that I'd consider going homeless if that was all that was available. Or even a negative amortization loan, where the 1% rate is in name only.

Then I sigh inwardly and try to explain that unless I know the answers to a few question about the kind of loan that would be best for him, that's like being told the ultimate answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything is 42, without being told what base it's in, much less what the ultimate question is, so that that he, the consumer, has some way of knowing whether the answer may be appropriate.

"If you won't help me, I'm hanging up. *Click*"

And then one of my neighboring co-workers wants to know who that was, and this is what I tell them:

"Some Poor Guy who's terrified of salespeople setting himself up to get rooked for the five millionth time."

Another example: Quite some time ago, I was dropping some papers off with a prospective client, a salesman in a different industry. Somebody came up to him and asked, "How much for an Acme Widget Master 1234?"

"$X" was the reply. The guy walked off immediately. Actually, it was more like the sprint of a deer when the mountain lion breaks cover. I asked my prospect, "Aren't you going to try and stop him? And I thought an Acme Widget Master 1234A56 cost $X+Y. They on sale?"

"Dan, I know you're new to the sales game, so I'll give you some help. That Guy is not my target market. He thinks he knows everything he needs to, and thinks he knows how to get the best price. He may actually know what he's doing and not need my expertise. But he wasn't going to give me the opportunity to explain that this was the price for the base model Widget Master 1234, and the Widget 789 with a couple options for about the same price is probably going to make him happier. You're not my target market, either - you know enough about these to be able to figure your needs pretty accurately. You came in and told me what characteristics you needed it to possess, which is why I told you about the A56 and quoted you that price. I was grateful gave me a chance at your business, but I didn't expect to be able to beat Major Catalog Company. All they're selling is the item. I'm selling not only the item, but also my knowledge and immediate availability, and help setting it up and technical support. Sure, That Guy is probably going to end up with something that frustrates the hell out of him at a price higher than he thought he'd pay, but he's terrified of me. He's not going to give me the opportunity to talk, and until that changes I refuse to waste my time trying."

One final example, even earlier: When my wife and I were newlyweds, we needed a household Major Item because our previous Major Item had failed. We went to several places shopping, among which were stores A and B.

Salesman at A: "You say you need type X? Oh, those are terrible, but if you spend $1000 modifying your home, you'll really love this product. Energy efficient, does a great job, and it's cheaper than the competition. No we don't have any of type X, but like I said, you don't really want those. They are awful."

Salesman at B: "You say you need type X? I'm sorry, but we don't carry any of those. I'm sorry but there's not enough demand, although I understand your situation. Tell me, have you found any anywhere? At C and also at D? What did you think of the alternatives? Thank you for helping me."

Several years later, we had need of a Different Major Item. I had kept the B salesman's card, and we went back and ended up buying from him, although we did shop elsewhere. We tried to go back again for Another Major Item recently, but he had moved on and we were disappointed, but talked with the salesperson who was there, and although we ended up buying elsewhere that time, I could see a cultural influence at work and we will continue to make a point of shopping there.

We haven't gone back to store A since the first conversation.

My point is this: Had I been Mr. Some Poor Guy, or That Guy, I would have bought from the A salesman - it was the cheapest product. Then another A salesman. And yet another A salesman. And been unsatisfied and unhappy, and generally angry at the need to spend a lot of extra money and frustration dealing with it each time - why didn't they tell him? Why weren't they simply honest? It must be because all sales scum are dishonest crooks!

Unfortunately, the real problem is not so much that the A salesman was a crook (he was a misinformed high pressure employing menace to society, but he did tell me I'd have to spend the $1000 extra), but that the strategy the customer employed is counter-productive, and does pretty much guarantee you're going to get conned - he wouldn't give the A salesman a chance to tell him about the $1000. I encourage keeping your guard up, but a request for context is an attempt to find you a product that meets your needs without costing you more than necessary. Wait until somebody actually tries to sucker punch you before you go for the right hook to the jaw followed by the one-two to the kidneys. Because the A salesmen (and women) play this game every day, and they're incredibly good at it, and it's going to be one of them that counters with a karate blow to the throat that scores a knockout (and the sale). Messrs. Some Poor Guy and That Guy are the sort who keeps the A salesmen in Lamborghinis.

The B salesman is good at a different kind of game. Typically make less money, especially at first, and so it is not the model taught by the How To Succeed in Sales Super School, and he's not the Superstar Sales Hotshot that corporate sales managers seek out to help increase their next quarterly bonus for staff productivity, but he's out there if you look, and a lot of companies from the corner shop up to the big corporations understand his value to their bottom line. Where A salesman is always hard at work looking for the next score (and is always a drain on their advertising budget, in whatever form), B salesman gets to the point where he's handling all he can with what comes to him, even generating spillover to other members of the staff. Even when he gets to the point where he's constantly saturated in business, he doesn't get stressed, he doesn't burn out, and he's not a source of problems.

Now, how would you like to find B salesmen reliably?

First, you're going to have to look hard. He's probably not going to be the first one you talk to. You're going to have to do some serious shopping. He's probably busy somewhere talking to a repeat client, not one of the vultures who are waiting around the sales floor to swoop down on you and grasp you in their greedy little talons. Second, don't expect a saint. Yes, he'll ask for the order, he may even use some pressure to try to get it. If he's not especially busy now, he's cultivating habits for later, and frankly, nobody wants to spend more time selling to a given client than is really necessary. They want to make efficient use of their time, and use the extra to either make more money with other sales, or just have fun. They are there to Make Money, not because they think standing around the sale floor (or whatever they do to generate clients) is The Most Fun They've Had With Their Pants On. They may like or even love their clients (I do the vast majority of mine), but if they weren't Making Money they wouldn't be there. The reality is that if they don't sell enough to make a living, they're not there anymore. There is a point, in all transactions, and with all customers, that it just is not worth dealing with them anymore. The sales person has things he'd rather be doing, whether it is dealing with a repeat customer's much larger transaction, spending time with the family, or just watching the game on TV at home. This point comes a lot sooner for a waffle iron than a house or a home loan, but there is a point where even the most desperate real estate agent stops initiating, stops returning, and finally stops accepting phone calls.

There is a cultural difference between the A salesman and the B salesman - they usually don't work in the same place. I've never seen a place that didn't have a strong preponderance of one or the other. There will usually be at least one A salesman on every staff, no matter how B culture the place is. But he'll find another job at an A culture establishment before too long. There are places that are so A culture that the B salesman just can't stand going to work there, so there typically aren't any B salesmen.

How to determine if someone is an A salesman or a B salesman

First off, a B salesman will always ask what you need it for, whatever the item. He may spend quite a bit of time asking about all the stuff you need, what your tradeoffs are, and all sorts of other information. This is a good sign. He's probably not looking for weaponry to force you to accept the El Cheapo Sterno can of fuel for the Bargain Price of only $9999.99, A Fraction Of The Cost (a very large fraction of 99 cents, but still a fraction). I've worked (briefly) with people who can sell ice to Eskimos at exorbitant prices, and if he's that sort, he probably doesn't need the information. Those sales people go straight for the kill. The more time he spends asking you about what you need or what you want or what your tradeoffs are, the happier you should be. The larger and more important the transaction, the more time he should spend asking you this stuff.

When he makes a recommendation or starts telling you about a product, he'll remember enough of what you told him to paraphrase it back to you, "Now, as I remember, you were telling me you were looking for something that A. Well, this item does A. And as I recall, you told me you were looking for B but had a budget of C. Well, I'm afraid all of out widgets with B cost more than C, but this one appears to meet all of your other needs. If you really need B, here's a widget that does B also, although it costs X more than C," or "I'm afraid we don't have any that do D, but I'd like to know if you've found any place that does?" Once he's shown it to you, he'll ask, "So does this do everything you're looking for, or does it fall short?" as well as questions like "So if you had this, you think you'd be happy, right?"

B salesmen will answer your questions clearly, directly, and forthrightly, and ask if this information answered the questions. He will be happy to give amplifications and clarifications, not keep repeating the same phrases.

Every sales person knows - because the sales manager makes sure he knows - that if the client leaves the premises, gets off the phone, whatever, a sale becomes much less likely. Every sales program I've ever heard of goes over and over and over this, ad nauseum. So it's not like it's any great secret. The B salesman knows it as well as the A. And they'll apply some pressure to get the sale now, whether it's considerable (B salesman) or an avalanche (A salesman). The B salesman won't trash the opposing products, though - he'll simply try to tell you where his is better, why it meets your needs, and why you should Buy Now.

It is always a clue that you're dealing with an A salesman if he finally tells you, in desperation as a last resort, "If you find a better price, come back and I'll beat it." First off, the fact that there's suddenly room on the price means it may be overpriced in the first place. Second, the reason the A salesman says that is that he really doesn't know - or care - what you want, and he's figuring to replace it (in most cases) What He Showed You with Something Cheaper That Seems About The Same when you come back. Finally, if a B salesman doesn't quote you a Pretty Damned Good Deal in the first place so he can Get This Transaction Onto The Books and go home, he knows he's going to lose customers, which are then not going to come back to him because he treated them right, and not going to tell others about him because he treated them right.

Getting back to the first shopping trip my new wife and I made together, in search of Major Item, along about the ninth or tenth store when we'd just bought what we needed, my wife said, "There is no in-between with you, is there?"

"Huh?" I replied brilliantly, having no clue what she was getting at. Remember, we were newlyweds at the time.

"These sales people. You're either the nicest guy possible or the worst (expletive) I've ever met. It's a side of you I haven't seen."

I was well aware that she had led a somewhat sheltered life until a few months before we met, and there are obligations that one has to educate your family in case you're not around. "Let me guess. You're talking about how I was joking and pleasant with B, C, and D, but cut A and G off cold, chewed E out, told F to get out of my face, and was hard on H but then friendly, and friendly again while asking pointed questions when we came back to buy?"


"Beloved, B, C, and D were doing the best to help us find what we needed. They asked us intelligent questions about what we needed before showing us an item. They answered the questions I asked instead of trying to distract my attention, didn't push more than they should have, and in general were behaving like our needs were what was important. They knew you were there and were respectful to you, but they realized I was the one who was going to have to be sold, so I was the most important person in the room. Not them.

"H was a miscommunication that got cleared up. And you should ask questions again to make certain you understand just before you buy. She knew that she was likely to get the sale once we came back, and even more likely when she showed us she knew what she was doing. The questions were to make certain there were no more miscommunications - she knows what she's selling better than I do. It would be very easy for any kind of a sales person to misdirect a question while we're in the midst of the hunt. When I'm ready to buy, I'm going to make certain I understand everything I need to know about this Major Item, so I'm asking the questions in a different way to make misdirection or pat phrases obvious. H knew this, and gave me straight answers without evasions. And her product met our needs. So that's where I wanted to buy. As to why I was mean to the others, you know I'm always willing to be an (expletive) in a good cause, right?" She nodded.

"Well, A wanted to make the sale he wanted to make. Our needs weren't important. E thought she could get away with a lie, and I called her on it. I know she's going to make other sales, but not tonight. Penalty Box. F tried to use you as leverage against me. This would be acceptable though not welcome if I thought he was trying to meet our needs, but he wasn't. I told him we had to have X and his item didn't. And G didn't have a clue about X. The appropriate thing would have been to get help or tell me he didn't know but he'd find out and then go find out. He was wasting our time. And now we've got our Major Item, and we're going to go home and be happy with it and not waste any more time on this whole issue."

And we did. Over time, she has discovered the real way to get the best bargain: finding out important information about the prospective purchase and actually listening to the salesfolk, while controlling the conversation. Don't be afraid to walk away, but don't start from a stance that says you're terrified. Control the conversation - take it where you want it to go, but listen to what the salesfolk have to say. If you listen, very frequently something they say to you will help prevent disaster. Listen for catch phrases, things that they repeat word for word every time they say it, particularly if it doesn't fully or directly answer your question ("Nothing out of your pocket" in reponse to questions about loan costs is the number one classic mortgage catch phrase, but there are others. It's true but severely misleading in that they're not making you pay it in cash, they're adding it to your mortgage balance). Catch-phrases are a danger sign, because they are usually a way of hiding or shading the truth. Above all, don't be frightened or allow them to intimidate or buffalo you. Remember, you're the one with the power here, in the form of dollars you have and they want. If you don't want to spend your money, no one can force you. Many salesfolk capitalize on the fact that people avoid confrontations, but nobody can force you to spend your money at all, much less spend it there. Make them show you that this solves your problem, and solves it with a set of trade-offs better for your purposes than anything else. This is your bat, your ball, your rules. If they don't want to play your game, don't play theirs. But if they're happy to play your game, odds are that they are worth hearing out completely, and the time you spend will be well invested.

My wife still lets me do the most of the major shopping. But if a meteor hit me, she'd be a much savvier customer now than she was before I helped her learn how to to be an effective customer. She's not afraid to deal with sales people. Which puts an end, in all senses of the term, to the Ultimate Consumer Horror Story.

Caveat Emptor.


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on November 2, 2005 10:00 AM.

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