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Taking a Good Look at the Selling Process

Posted on Sunday, October 15, 2006 at 05:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , , | Comments2 Comments

I started a new job a week and a half ago. My first full day of work was the Saturday before last.

It was (you will not be surprised to hear) something of a shock to return to the business world after five months of walking across the country and — on my return home — working like crazy on my writing while waiting for my ankles to finish healing.

My new job is much like my old one: once again, I’m selling men’s clothing in a slightly upscale department store. I enjoy such work, but it isn’t perfect (well, what job is?), and it’s one of the imperfections that I want to talk about here.

My first day on the job, the Saturday before last, the shop was fairly empty; there weren’t many customers to care for. My co-workers gathered around the register where I was assigned and talked idly much of the day.

I’ve never felt comfortable with idle talk. It’s the way I am, the way I’ve been as far back as I can remember; but I have a gut feeling that my dislike for idle talk is connected to the reason why Christ taught that, for every idle word that we speak, we will be called to account on the day of judgment. (Matthew 12:36) I’ve always felt that there is a real and good purpose to the way the universe is designed, and the way we are called to live within it, and it makes sense to me that God would not want us forgetting that purpose and just talking — or doing — aimlessly.

Aimless talk wasn’t something I had to deal with on the road. So already, that first full day of work, I had that old, pained feeling: “I’m back on the front lines of the Lamb’s War again!”

And then, as this last week progressed, the pace of business picked up. And I found myself once again having to face the moral challenges that retail selling presents.

Friends, I want to put this matter in a truthful perspective. So bear with me here, please.

Most retail establishments have training programs for new employees, and one of the standard components of such programs is a period of training in the basic sales process. The basic ideas involved are pretty consistent from each place to the next, though they go by different names in different places.

For those of you who’ve never worked in sales, here’s a simplified description of the process:

  1. It starts with a meet-and-greet phase, breaking the ice, and reducing the customer’s resistance to working with a stranger.

  2. The next phase involves finding out what the customer needs or wants. Good salespeople are good askers and good listeners. Good asking and good listening not only make it possible to answer the customer’s needs; they also reduce the customer’s resistance to letting the salesperson make the sale.

  3. Now the salesperson presents the service or product that she has to offer, that would answer the customer’s needs. At the higher end of retail (auto sales, home sales, and the like), this presentation stage becomes quite elaborately choreographed.

  4. Next, the salesperson draws the customer into taking semi-conscious ownership of the product (thinking “this perfume is me”, or “this car is me”). Gifted salespeople take this part of the process to the level of high art.

  5. Finally comes the step of closing the sale — in which a good salesperson will introduce additional products that the customer might want to buy as well.

There’s actually not much wrong with most of this process. Apart from step four, it’s a straightforward description of how marketing and customer service can be combined.

But every step in the process can be made manipulative, and the most successful salespeople I’ve met all do a certain amount of manipulating, at least subtly. And the fourth step, the getting-the-customer-to-take-ownership step, is pure manipulation — and accordingly difficult to practice in an ethical manner.

No retail business I’ve ever seen has been honest about the fact that the fourth step is ethically questionable. (And why would they be honest about it, anyway? Honesty is mandatory for Christians, but still, you should walk a mile in the merchant’s shoes before you criticize him.)

Ethical salespeople often skip that fourth step, and when they do practice it, do so only in a limited way, working with the customer to discern whether it is truly right for her or him before asking her or him to take ownership. My new employer, bless it, teaches its salespeople to practice the fourth step only to a limited and ethical degree. I applaud this, and applaud my new employer.

But taking that ethical approach will often reduce a salesperson’s sales, making it harder for her or him to meet her/his employer’s expectations, get raises, or even keep her/his job, in the highly competitive retail world — unless she or he can find out some other way to keep her/his sales above average.

And so the pressure is on salespeople to practice that fourth step in a more serious way, and to practice all the steps with some degree of manipulativeness. And those salespeople who yield to the pressure, generally shut their minds to the fact that the manipulations they are engaged in are sometimes highly questionable.

Auto dealerships are among the worst places in this respect; I can personally attest to that, having worked for a bit in that field. (Although politicians and big-name evangelists, who all have to engage in a lot of self-selling, are frequently far worse than auto sellers.) But salespeople who close their eyes to the questionable aspects of customer manipulation are, quite literally, everywhere in retail.

Now, I’d like to submit, dear readers, that the matter of the aimless small talk, the problem of manipulativeness in selling, and the problem of closing one’s eyes to the questionable nature of the games one plays in selling, are actually all of one piece. They are all based on a disconnection between our awareness and the purpose-led right dealing that God is constantly calling us to. It’s a disconnection that can be rightly described as a lack of integrity.

Once upon a time, generations ago, we Friends were deeply involved in retail selling, and our high ethical standards made us the most trusted retailers in the Western world — and the trust we won made many of us very rich indeed. We proved that one can succeed in retail without any manipulativeness at all. But much has changed; Friends with serious careers in retail are unusual nowadays, and I think most Friends know little of the retail process.

As a Quaker magpie, I am keenly aware that I have taken ownership of a large number of purchases in the course of my life, purchases that I really shouldn’t have purchased. (It’s pretty easy to seduce a magpie into taking ownership of a shiny object. Just ask any bird.) I cast my beady little bird eyes about at my fellow Quakers, and find most of them confessing to buying unnecessary things, just the same as me.

We Friends recognize that unnecessary consumption is wrong at multiple levels. As George Fox put it so long ago, this is a matter of “not abusing the creatures” by consuming them without real need. As John Woolman and others also noted, it’s likewise a matter of not squandering our limited resources on purchases that do not further the progress of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Most of us speak of “simplicity” as the cure to this problem of overconsumption. But most of us also confess that we have difficulty keeping our lives and our purchases “simple”.

What we Friends do not examine sufficiently, perhaps because as a community we have fallen so far out of touch with retail, is that the subliminal manipulativeness of a decently-run store with competent salespeople in it is a terribly hard thing for a normal person, shopping alone, to overcome time after time.

I frankly think that it is unreasonable to expect ordinary shoppers to overcome it consistently all on their own. I think the widespread Quaker habit of placing almost the entire burden of self-restraint on the consumer, is a mistake.

The solution to the overconsumption problem may actually require learning not to shop alone, and instead, bringing companions along with us whenever we shop — friends who can help us to resist the selling process — thus using the power of community to keep ourselves on the right path.

The solution may also require challenging the overall retail sales process, and finding ways to pressure it to change. In other words, it may require a deliberate campaign to nurture greater integrity in selling, as a foundation for making restraint in consumption easier to practice.

That’s a very large challenge to contemplate. But then again — does God want a social disease of this magnitude to go unchallenged?

This is a matter I hope to return to in future essays, God willing —



There have been some very fine and moving essays published on other Quaker blog sites recently, addressing the problem of overconsumption and criticizing consumers who fall into that bad habit.

This essay should not be taken as a criticism of any of those essays or their authors. Just as consumer self-restraint alone is not enough, so reform of the selling process alone is not enough. To get to a rightly ordered world, we surely need both!

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Reader Comments (2)

Thanks for posting this, Marshall. I'm not directly in sales now, but still spend a lot of time working with 'sales creation', and this provides me with some much-needed balance.

Feb 18, 2007 at 05:24PM | Unregistered CommenterSimon St.Laurent

Thank you for visiting, Simon. I'm glad this was helpful to you.

If you have related insights stemming from your work with "sales creation", I'd love it if you'd post them somewhere where the rest of us can read them!

Feb 21, 2007 at 06:40AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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