Agape Workplace Initiative

4th Mar 2014

On Obnoxious Sales Techniques

On Obnoxious Sales Techniques
There is a tendency these days among salesmen: telesales men, doorstep salesmen, and those bright young things hired by charities to enlist new donors. It's their trick of beginning a conversation with you by asking you a certain yes/no question: are you the home owner? Do you have children? Have you ever known anyone who's died of cancer?

It seems a presumptuous way to start a conversation. I think we should probably introduce ourselves and our business to a stranger before demanding personal details from them. But for a long time it didn't occur to me to ask them any questions at all. I assume, since they continue to do it, that it continues to be a successful method – that other people besides myself also feel obliged to answer “yes” or “no” with that wide eyed caught-in-the-searchlight stare. Why do we do it?

No doubt there's a subtle power relationship involved: between business and customer, between corporation and consumer, between the consumer-capitalist structure and the individual. When mobile phone companies ask me if I'm on a contract, I feel faintly policed, as though I might have been doing it wrong and they ought to know about it. When the man on the doorstep asks if I'm the home-owner, I feel like it’s my duty to answer, as though they were the DVLA or something. The old phrase the customer is always right and the kind of power relationship it described is long gone. It's not that I liked always being right, but now I feel like I'm always wrong about something and should obediently submit to the salesman's diagnostic interrogation... because only the salesman can put me right again.

It's a spell that can be broken of course. It only happens because we accept it. The fascinating thing is that we do accept it. We are willing to play our subservient role as obedient subjects to the rule of business. Ready to give answers on call.

I would love to hear alternative responses to these miserable impromptu interrogations. However, I suspect the whole thing is even more miserable and oppressive for the one who is paid to start these conversations. No doubt, the salesman isn't the one who comes up with the trick question that he's paid to deceive people with all day long, and I'd have thought it makes for a sad dripping tap in his own heart. Anyone with a bit of chutzpa can put the salesman down with a witty reply, but how do we derail the zombie conversation with compassion? These poor people have become something like the tax-collectors of the gospels – who collected money from their own people for a greedy machine that didn't care about any of them. They were lovingly derailed by an invite to dinner (Jesus usually invited Himself to theirs, we note). What could be further from the cold demand for personal information by a stranger, than an invite to dinner?

Perhaps, then, we might say something like, “I'm not at all interested, but I'd love to have a sandwich with you...” Lord knows what might start happening.