Rushing into a grocery store on Key Largo Saturday morning, I was confronted by one of the all-time great sales pitches – “Hey mister, would you please buy some Girl Scout cookies?” – delivered as always by the sweetest, most adorable little girl you’ve ever laid eyes on. The catch in her throat - eyes turned down – impossible to disappoint even if you have already ordered a case from your next door neighbor's exceptional daughter. As in most selling situations, success has everything to do with the seller and very little to do with the product being sold.
Having spent my entire working life in the business of selling things to retailers (shoes and apparel) who in turn sell the general public, it occurred to me as I succumbed to that wonderful little cookie merchant, that very little has been written about the dynamics of persuasion, which largely accounts for the movement of goods and services and resolves most of life’s controversy.
That’s not to overlook the large number of textbook-like manuals which purport to help novice sellers gain confidence, improve their body language, make eye contact, and display intimate knowledge of the product or service they are selling. From experience, all of this pales in importance to the interpersonal soft side which convinces one human being to do what another wants. It clearly works in the Girl Scout cookie business where the seller’s nervousness and inexperience translates into irresistible emotional suck.
We grew up believing that without a good product no amount of professional salesmanship could, for very long, prevail. With the exception of the charlatans who continue to find the odd buyer for bridges in Brooklyn, this is particularly true today as industry’s relentless pursuit of perfection has made it virtually impossible to market anything, at any price, that doesn’t perform very well. Inexpensive cars, while lacking the glamour and prestige of the luxury models, are nonetheless expected to go 100,000 miles before a tune up. Flat tires are a thing of the past.
As there are more models and makes of everything from boats to bath soap than there are people to buy them, never has it been more important for individuals and industries to master the art of emotional suck. Most of us began to intuitively develop these skills as small children, finding ways to convince mom to fork over the price of an ice cream bar, Dad to free up the use of a car, or a first love to become a first lover.
Most of us realized fairly early in life it was impossible to honestly pass a test without knowing the answers, but that straight A’s have very little to do with a successful job interview. Convincing a spouse to overlook a sore back or a headache to engage in erotic gyrations requires more raw talent than the technical know-how needed to sell Russia a million tons of wheat.
Why, with an acre of glitzy of cosmetics counters covering the main floor of every major department store, all staffed with strikingly beautiful people, does your wife prefer Joanne at Estee Lauder, over Barbarella at Calvin Klein? While brand loyalty is important, with so many great brands, it must have more to do with the pitch and pitchee, than with the curative powers of the creams and jellies.
Presidents are elected not just for what they know, or for the promises they make, but for what the public believes about them as people. The hard Right still can’t accept the fact, notwithstanding Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, that the majority of Americans like Bill Clinton and kept his popularity rating above sixty percent while being impeached. Clinton loved the job, and his personal magnetism accounts for the fact that he continues to be admired and respected by most of the leaders of the free world. Al Gore, Clinton’s intellectual equal with a perfectly pristine code of conduct, couldn’t carry Florida. Perhaps if he had organized an army of Girl Scout cookie sellers rather than like-minded policy wonks, he could have picked up a few hundred more votes and prevailed.