The Fine Line Between Selling And Exploiting
It was the biggest sale I had ever made. My colleagues and superiors cheered my success. The next morning, I called up my manager and told him I would never return. You’ll understand why when you hear the story.
I was working at a car dealership. Yeah, it was that kind of place. I didn’t know it when I started the job. They told me it was a new kind of dealership, absent the typical high pressure and sleazy sales tactics. That promise was true during their two-day training. And then they threw us onto the sales floor. From then on, they urged us to attack, manipulate and deceive.
“Never let anyone walk the lot without a sales pitch. Get them to do a test drive and turn it over to a manager if you run into resistance.”
They taught and showed us all the questionable tricks they had admonished only two days earlier during our training.
It was a wakeup call, the guy in charge explained. His way was the only way to sell cars. You didn’t have to follow their model, but if you didn’t, you had better sell a shit load of cars.
A week into our job from hell we met for our daily sales meeting early in the morning. The boss announced that “Joe” was being dismissed. He had failed to meet his quota, and he wasn’t following the program. Yes, public humiliation in front of his peers. How’s that for treating people with dignity.
A few days later, a prospect walked in. She wanted to buy a new car. She came with her mom who agrees to co sign for the vehicle.
Could I Kill A Sale Without Getting Fired?
I knew within five minutes she had no business buying a car. Her current vehicle looked so beat up; I was amazed it still ran. She told me she had only a part-time job and had another baby on the way. I asked her to fill out a credit application so that we could assess her financial situation. She made a low wage. I brought this to the attention of my manager. He suggested that maybe her mom was helping her out.
That made sense, at least at the time. I figured it was okay. Maybe her mother was well-off financially. It’s none of my business. She’s an adult, responsible for her decisions. That was how these other guys justified some of their questionable actions.
“For all you know, she could have a ten million dollar trust fund,” my manager said.
She settled on a car and it came time to discuss pricing. My manager did one of those old tricks you don’t see much anymore. He withheld the price and showed her two monthly payment options. It was a low down payment and high monthly payment or a high down payment and low monthly payment. Almost 100% of the time, the buyer would say neither, counter offer, or ask to see the price. Instead, she caught me off guard.
“I’ll take this one,” she pointed to the lower down payment.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
I wanted to tell her she could negotiate, but there were too many vultures circling around. I could have gotten fired for such an offense. I took her response back to my managers. They gleefully panicked.
“Where are we going to put all this money? How do we justify this windfall?”
Things Go From Bad To Worse
We sent her into the finance office to close the deal. Word got out that the mother lacked the financial resources to back the loan, and so they had to charge a higher interest rate to compensate for the risk. The deal closed. I received undue adulation for my brilliant salesmanship. The owner handed me a small wad of cash and told me to go out and enjoy myself. My colleagues ignored the obvious truth. I just happened to be standing at the door when she arrived.
I couldn’t sleep that night. My stomach tore itself to pieces. As I watched the sunrise, I knew I would never succeed in this business. I did not even want to succeed. I didn’t have that killer attitude. I called up the dealership the next morning and told them I would not be returning. My manager expressed disappointment.
“You had the stuff to be a great salesman.”
Sales And Marketing Are Tools — Neither Good Or Bad
I breathed easy again after the call ended. I was free. I wouldn’t have to put myself in that position again. That experience occurred fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve learned that sales and marketing are tools. Like any other tool, they can be used for good or evil.
You can use sales and marketing to help people get what they want, or you can use it to scam people into buying things they don’t need. It’s the difference between having a customer wake up the next morning and feeling gratitude towards the person who helped them or waking up and feeling cheated, taken or scammed.
I looked up this dealership a few years later. I was curious. What became of them? I discovered someone had purchased the franchise and replaced all of the salespeople and finance managers. The unethical can thrive for a short while, but they eventually meet their maker.
After my car sales career, I pursued other sales jobs with modest success. I had a sales coach at the time. He became my mentor for several years and coached me into landing a six-figure job. His mentorship served as an interesting case study in sales and marketing. His services cost me the most money I had ever spent excepting cars, home purchases, and home improvements. It also produced the most significant return on investment to date. See, you can charge a lot of money and do it ethically.
History Repeats Itself?
Years later, I delved into copywriting — some of the same folks inhabited this world too. I mean that figuratively not literally. In some ways, it was even worse. At the car dealership, you had to rip people face to face. In marketing, you can do it without ever knowing, seeing or speaking to your customer; plus, you can do it at scale.
I also met people who used their marketing mastery to help people achieve their goals, fulfill their passions and raise money for wonderful causes. It’s a world of saints, sinners and everyone in between.
You choose what you sell, to whom you sell and for how much. It’s okay to tell your prospect not to buy. It’s okay to mention in a sales letter your service is not for beginners. You might lose a sale, but you’ll enhance your reputation. Bad reputations are like criminal convictions. The stigma never completely goes away.
There’s a simple rule you can follow to keep yourself from veering off course. It’s not full proof, but it’s a useful guide.
Sell only products and services you believe in and only to people who can benefit from them.
Avoid telling yourself the familiar excuses. “He’s an adult. He’s responsible for his decisions.”
Or this one.
“If I don’t do it, someone else will.”
The excuses won’t make you sleep any better.