Thursday, March 22, 2007


When sales pitches go bad

This is a re-post of an item I wrote for a company blog on 19 October 2005.

In a comment in an earlier entry, Neil talks about how sales/marketing pitches can ramble on about things, without actually “getting to the meat.”

If I am buying a car, I'll sit through one pitch on why the car was designed that way, how it was engineered and why it is better than others... but if we don't get to actually talking about the car itself before too long, I'm gonna fall asleep.
I have a story....

Many years ago (1982, maybe?), I got a solicitation in the mail from Encyclopedia Britannica. Having an old 1963 edition of World Book, I decided to see what Britannica was like, and what it would cost to upgrade (had I been prescient, and foreseen the WWW, well...). I sent back the card. By and by, a sales rep phoned, and set up an appointment for 7:30 p.m. ... and refused directions to my house, because, as she said, “I can find it; I have a map.”

She showed up 45 minutes late, saying that she “got lost.” She started her sales pitch, which was done with a loose-leaf notebook full of what we would then have called “foils”, a one-meter-by-two-meter poster that she unfolded on the floor, and a “sample volume”, which had bits of this and that, and which attempted to show, in one volume, how the cross-referencing through the 30-volume set works. She went through the notebook. She told me what an encyclopedia is for, and when I said that I have World Book, and I know what it's for, she persisted. Apparently she had to go through her pitch sequentially, and no interruption or reordering was possible. The whole thing went something like this:

  • This is what an encylopedia is.   (I know that.)
  • This is why EB is better than others.   (OK, I see why she does this.)
  • This is why not buying one is tantamount to child abuse.   (I have no children.)
  • Here's how it works. Let's look up “rutabaga”....   (Aiiiieeeeeeeeeee!)
  • This is why you want one.   (She'd already said that.)
  • This is why you can't live without it.   (See above.)
  • This is why your kids can't live without it.   (See above above.)
At 15-minute intervals, I tried to stop her and say, “I don't need the sales pitch, the explanation, or any of this... just tell me the price.” “We'll get to that,” she'd say, “but first let me tell you....” After an hour and 15 minutes (so now it's 9:30, and I haven't had dinner yet), she still wouldn't tell me the price, and I said, “Lady, stop reading your notebook to me! I don't need to hear any of this. I know what an encyclopedia is, and why I want it. Just tell me how much it costs.”

She went off the deep end, started shouting at me, saying that she didn't ask to come here, that I invited her into my home, and that she didn't need to stand here and be “brow-beaten” by me. She collected up her stuff, and I held the door open while she walked out. I never did find out how much the thing cost. And I had a very late meal.

I have no idea whether they still sell their encyclopedia set that way, nor whether that woman was typical or off the wall. But it sure was a bad sales-pitch experience!

1 comment:

Maggie said...

I had a similarly bad experience this summer. I was outside, scraping paint off my front porch, when two young men drove up. They wanted to show me some books that weren't encyclopedias, they were some kind of homework helper books, and it was one of those high-pressure, you-must-buy-today pitches. I explained that I wouldn't buy the books today, but they could show them to me if they wanted.

One guy was the pitchman, and he laughingly referred to the other as "his bodyguard." This actually made me very uncomfortable, as I'm one tiny woman and here were two healthy young men, so it definitely got off to a bad start.

He showed me the books, and gave me various reasons for wanting them...

You know how the new math is...
(I'm quite good at math. My friends' and relatives' children call me to help them with their math homework.)

You know how hard it is to find anything on the internet...
(I'm a computer professional and my family is actually very good at finding references on the internet.)

Parents today can't help their children with their homework...
(I teach at a university, and I don't have any trouble helping my children with their homework.)

This will help your child with all of her education, all the way through college.
(I didn't answer that one, because it's clearly absurd. It would be impossible for a slim set of five books to be current, never mind to cover college material in every major.)

He glossed by every single thing that I did say. The answers don't matter; just follow the script.

He showed me a list of people in town who'd already signed up for the books. (Prinicpal of social proof. I tick these things off in my head as salesmen use them now.)

Finally, he asked me if I was interested. I repeated that I would like to look the books over more carefully, but I wouldn't buy them today, as I had said before.

This is where he got snarky, and started to pack up in a huff.

"You didn't tell me what they cost," I told him.

"Well, you know a lot, you'll know how much something like this costs."

His final parting shot was that I should have my porch power-washed. Jerk.

(I completely stripped it, sanded it, and stained it -- all by myself. :-)

It reminded me of when I bought the only new car I ever bought, back in graduate school. I was looking at cars at two different dealerships, and I ended up buying the car that was the better deal. When the guy from the other dealership called me and I told him, he said, "I hope you run it into the ground."

I also had a similar experience with a piano salesman, when I decided to buy a piano from somebody I'd heard about through a friend. The used piano was a beautiful 1950 Chickering baby grand, and 1/4 the price of the cheapest new grand piano in the showroom. The salesman got nasty. "Oh, sure, everybody's gramma was a Mozart. You won't be getting the quality... (he went on to insult the piano that my tuner had checked out but that he'd never seen)."

I wouldn't want to be a salesman. It isn't in me to tell people they need something they don't, or to sell them something they badly want but will make them sick or break them, and that seems to be what salesmen have to do. It must be a very difficult job, as evidenced by the little "snap" that happened in these people's brains before they turned off their charm.