Who will buy this wonderful feeling

I have something in common with a Fox News commentator I will call Mr. Bill.

It is true we do not share a world view. Mr. Bill would consider me a godless, baby-killing, shrill, morally bankrupt whore-of-Babylon. I consider Mr. Bill a carnival barking troll hurling excrement at the bars of his own twisted freak show. He might like to see people like me burned at the stake. I might like a magic spell that would render people like him unable to communicate in any way other than singing 1960s freedom songs.

But Mr. Bill and I both sell stuff for a living.

We both sell with ideological intent. We both think carefully about how we merchandise our product to make a profit. But there the similarity ends. Our result and definition of success are as different as our preferred pundits.

I have been selling stuff since high school. I have stood behind various counters and taken money for gas, potato chips, records, hosiery, handbags, bedding, paper clips, and for a long time, home accessories. Throughout this resume I was just biding my time, “waiting tables” so to speak until I found a rich husband or a writing career or a pirate chest of gold. At some point I would get a real job. I would get a desk with a name plate and my parents would not have to embellish or lie or omit me from cocktail party conversations. “All that education,” heads shake dolefully, “and she is just a clerk at a store?”

Who can blame them? Selling is word that leaves a slightly metallic connotation in people’s mouth. Although ancient and essential, we associate selling with a booming voice bombarding us with reasons to spend our hard-earned money, pressure wrapped in a bad plaid jacket and evoking weird obligation to a total stranger. We worry we might be swindled or misled. Our suspicions that the help is nothing more than cheating con artists with nametags make us cranky before even crossing the threshold. We won’t be told what to buy. Selling at its worst is exactly this—an imperious customer slams an item on the counter for the lackeys to process or an overbearing salesperson pushes “fries with that” for a quota–either extreme a spurt of inauthentic one-way communication. Someone demands and someone reluctantly reacts, simply goods and currency, no humans necessary.

Anyone who has been successful in sales over time will tell you that this stereotype is not inevitable. I have continued in retail long beyond my realization that the pirate treasure was not going to happen, because at its best, selling is a fun job. I imagine myself as a yenta or matchmaker. Someone comes in with a need, or in my business, a want. We talk it about it. I ask questions and listen to what they tell me. I respond according to the person’s vibe: Are they frustrated? In a hurry? Wanting to chat? An expert? Needing an expert? I think of all the possibilities that might fit. I show them a few options. We talk some more. We narrow down. They think a bit. Maybe we talk some more. They make a choice. I put it in a cool box. They leave in love with the curve of a pitcher or the color of a pillow. I have twenty of these interactions a day. Some minutes, some hours, but every dialogue is a tiny story with real drama. I can determine pinpoints of perspective shining though the rules civility that guide our interaction. So much is shared as we linger over a beautiful wine glass.

A great sales person understands the alchemical layers of matter and merchandise. They instinctively know that every product has a physical aspect and spiritual aspect. The customer comes in to buy a function but they leave with a feeling. Their purchase will bring ambiance, status, credibility, interest, romance, brightness—something will shift in their lives, something will be better. Well-spent money must fill a psychic as well as utilitarian need. This balance is at the core of customer satisfaction.

But even I, a jaded old merchant, underestimated to what degree intangible meaning can impact a person’s decisions.

Two weeks ago Mr. Bill, first on radio and then on TV, accused the store where I sell and teach selling of having a policy against saying “Merry Christmas” to customers. It started with an unfortunate public relations quote hacked out of context and ended with a bizarre implication to terrorism. I must make the point that our company has no policies for or against any particular holiday salutation. It is ironic that by being an organization driven by a culture of inclusion we become the perfect liberal target for Mr. Bill. We prefer “gift registry” to “bridal registry” and we sell Hanukkah candles alongside ornaments. Of course we are going to wait for the customer’s cue to give tidings appropriate to that customer’s traditions. Of course Mr. Bill would view this as a sign that we hate all things “Jesus.”

The reaction was immediate: hundred of telephone calls, hundreds of email messages, a few people returning all their past purchases, accosting staff with deliberate Merry Christmases and demanding boycotts on “value-based” web sites. Conservatives concerned with the “War on Christmas” certainly do not have a corner on consumer blackmail. Many customers make very vocal choices every day about only contracting with companies who have acceptable relationships with environmental, human rights and political issues. Religious respect is simply one more measure. Shopping or not shopping as a political act, both on a grand and individual scale, is a fair option in a competitive marketplace.                 

What is interesting to me is that the people who have responded to our corporate office fall into two distinct groups. One group expressed their disappointment/ outrage/ fear for our collective souls and then left names, addresses and numbers to reference. We contacted every person who gave us the chance and almost without exception the customer felt differently after the response. “Oh that makes sense, I see now, thank you for calling or writing me back.” The second group expressed their disappointment/ outrage/ fear for our collective souls and then clicked or hid their addresses, giving us no possibility of explanation or personal interaction. Their minds are made up: if Mr. Bill said it on TV, then it must be so.

It is this second group that reminds me of why selling gets a bad reputation. Same one-way communication, someone talks, someone buys lock, stock and barrel, and the customer leaves with an ill-fitting and ultimately wrong product. The first group might have a notion, they might even have a concern, but they are willing to shop around, have a discussion, open their minds a sliver to what a real human might have to offer. They end up with a better match. They end up with a true value.

Mr. Bill and I both sell stuff. The difference is in what we consider a good sale. It seems Mr. Bill just wants his customers to buy the product of day. He does not require questions or thought. They will listen to him today and vote tomorrow with the same somnambulistic passion. One day blends to the next when you choose the life of a foot soldier.

But I love the shoppers. Whether they buy that day or not at all, it is the volley of ideas between two people that makes me happy. I love moving things around and seeing what catches a person’s eye. I love presenting several combinations and watching someone add completely new elements until it is unique and perfect for them. I love the excitement when they hope their house will look just like a magazine. I love when people feel smart and believe in their own sense of style. Whether politics or dinner plates, I love when people participate, not just in rote acts of solidarity, but face to face, engaging in a genuine barter of diverse experience. 

6 responses to “Who will buy this wonderful feeling”

  1. Scott Godfrey says:

    Pandora, I love how much you love your job. The best job I’ve ever had was as a sandwich maker in NJ. I loved the responsibility of insuring that all my customers had a good lunch. This may sound silly, but I really imagined them all as having crappy jobs, and their lunch breaks as being a beacon of hope in the middle of a long day. I took very seriously the idea that I could make their lives a little rosier. Plus I got to drive around in a kick ass van that said Mitola’s Deli on the side.

    Keep on rockin’ that shit, and don’t let Mr. (fuckface) Bill bring you down!

  2. Dave says:

    “Somnambulistic passion” is a lovely near-oxymoron.

  3. J-man says:

    “I consider Mr. Bill a carnival barking troll hurling excrement at the bars of his own twisted freak show.”

    A more beautiful rant I shall never see!

  4. Stella says:

    I hate bad customer serivce, but bad customers are just as painful. It’s irritating how people channel all their personal anger into these opportunities to get on their moral high horse. And I like that you remind us that the exchange of goods and services can be mutually satisfying and not just some sordid corporate victory. I’ll buy the curvy pitcher from you.

  5. […] Hermey the Misfit Elf (who prefers studying dentistry to making toys) = PB. She’s a great saleswoman, but flirts dangerously with the artist/writer’s life. […]

  6. marni says:

    Hey girl—Wassup? Give me a shout out . . .

    My blog is Life in the Middle @ blogger . . .

    xoxo marn