The Sales Pitch
It was a Friday afternoon and I was sitting in a surprisingly comfortable chair in a set of offices tucked away on the ground floor of a Major Hotel Chain. I was gripping one of those tiny bottles of water they give out when they are not really interested in seeing you hydrated but do want to offer you something to show they care. In front of me was a friendly looking man in a Hawaiian shirt, grinning from ear to ear and rattling off the wonders of timeshare ownership. I’d slept 5 hours in the last two days, and while my eyes said I was listening intently to the benefits of this “no lose” offer, a part of me was wondering how I had ended up here.
I had signed up for it, of course.
I had signed up knowing full well exactly what I was getting into. You see, even a “free” hotel room in Las Vegas comes with a price. That price is two hours of your life, sitting in a boiler room with two dozen beaming sales people trying their best to separate you from tens of thousands of dollars of your hard earned money. It works a lot like the Casinos right down the street, but here you have slightly better odds.
Why would I endure something like this when I could have just as easily gotten a nearly free room almost anywhere on the Strip? Why, because I love it gosh darn it! As a marketer and media guy, sitting through high pressure sales pitches gives me a golden opportunity to understand how the other side lives. They also give me a chance to see what strategies work even when you know exactly what they are trying to do.
For the rest of the story, I’ll call the agent I sat with Dave. The first thing you’d notice about Dave if you were sitting in my seat is that he was trying really, really hard to be a human being. People buy things from people, not from pitches and Dave knew this intuitively. He asked questions, took notes, made me feel like I was just having a regular conversation with an old friend. This conversation just happened to be about real estate, but when I guy is telling you about his kids and his college you tend to forget little details like that.
At this point in the game the pressure is pretty lax, what they are trying to do is establish your level of resistance. This is where lots of people who end up buying candy-apple red Corvettes go wrong, they assume that if they are outwardly hostile the sales guy will back away. Good sales people expect hostility, and the more resistance you show, the more effort they put into breaking it down. You may think you’re being really clever, but understand they’ve been at this a while and most of them are really good at what they do.
I took a different approach. I listened, I payed attention, I allowed the pitch to follow the rhythm that Dave had set down. I learned about how much I really loved vacation travel, and how exciting it would be to be able to go anywhere I wanted, anytime I wanted. I learned about all of the far away places I could visit and all the benefits they were willing to heap on me because I was so special. I learned about how the points of resistance I had established early on really didn’t matter because Major Hotel Chain had done decades of research to make sure they had solutions. I even learned a brief history of Major Hotel Chain’s founders and how they were really stand up guys who wanted very little more than to make me happy.
I listened, I smiled, I nodded and I asked questions. I showed as little outwards resistance as I could muster.
A sales pitch, you see, is like Aikido. The more you resist, the more times you’re going to get slammed against the ground. Dave was an artist at this kind of sale, deflecting and redirecting every one of my questions with a fluidity that was almost magic. Even with my guard up, by mid-way through his pitch he had managed to systematically dismantle each and every one of the things I’d stated early on would keep me from buying. By the time he was taking me on a tour, I was truly considering whether or not owning a little piece of Major Hotel Chain was such a bad idea after all.
What saved me from an expensive and hilarious mistake was when we returned to the boiler room and we passed into the third part of the sale, which I like to call informational diarrhea. Most people think they are pretty good with numbers and that they have a pretty good memory. Both of these assertions are wrong. Psychologists have proven time and time again that we are basically innumerate and that we can only hold about 7 items in our short term memory at any given time. Good sales people exploit this by throwing benefits out at you faster than your brain can process them. They explain one package while showing you the price of another. They start doing back of the envelope math to show how you’re really paying less than you think. They show you charts and graphs that seem to prove inequivocably that whatever it is that you’re buying (by this point you have no clue) they must be insane for offering it at this price. What you might also notice is that this is the very first time they show you the price at all, and oddly enough it’s slightly lower than you expected it to be.
Fortunately, long ago I realized that I am no less stupid than the rest of society and after hearing about 15 minutes of numbers that I could barely keep up with, I decided that even if I had wanted to buy something, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on so it might be better if I kept my checkbook where I found it.
Let me tell you, Dave wasn’t very happy when I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable putting several thousand dollars down on something I most definitely didn’t understand, and honestly had no real intention of buying an hour and a half before. Being a good sales person, he did what good sales people are apt to do when a mark starts to shake the line, he went to speak to his manager to get me a “lower price.”
From where you’re sitting it might not seem like escaping this situation would be all that hard. That’s why thousands of people buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of crap every year. They underestimate the fact that human beings aren’t rational and that we make decisions, even big decision based on factors well beyond logic. Let me tell you right this second, this was hard, incredibly hard and I was hating every second of it.
Remember that Dave had spent nearly two hours making me like him, he poured his heart and soul into subverting my mind and wallet and now I’m telling him it was all for nothing. I felt like a heel. Once the manager arrived, it got worse, now there were two people staring me in the face telling me that if I didn’t buy today I would never get this opportunity again. Dave looked like a puppy I’d just kicked and the manager basically said that if I wasn’t willing to buy today it must mean that I was broke. Ego and pity were screaming at me to “just buy something small to make them stop” and all the while they kept piling on the “extra special” benefits.
Eventually I did manage to say no. Mostly because they had the bad luck of showing me a financing rate of 17.6% which seemed so ludicrous that it broke the spell they had spent such a long time weaving. Dave left me with a friendly handshake and a smile, the manager left grumbling about another deadbeat, I left feeling some odd mixture of triumph for sticking to my guns and mild depression for “wasting their time.”
That last feeling, that trace of depression is what a good sales pitch is all about. Even though I knew all the tricks that they were throwing at me, they had still managed to alter the way that I perceived the situation so completely that I actually felt bad about telling them no. Two hours of subtle manipulation had transformed me from a strong, capable uber-consumer to a shaky mass of self-loathing that really just wanted to get away from the entire thing.
I had managed to survive but just barely, and seeing as it was Vegas I would have put an even money bet down that given another shot in a slightly different situation they may have just had their sale. (Images)