A long-overdue rant about sales

I went to the bank today to tell them I’d changed my phone number. I asked them once why you couldn’t do this kind of thing online, to which they said that you could but that it doesn’t work unless you go tell them, too (“so, I can’t do it online, then?” I asked, confused). On this occasion the lady behind the desk was in her forties or fifties. She was warm and friendly, and said things like “of course” and “no problem” to everything I said. She noticed that my passport is Italian and said “ooh, nice” in an ambiguous sort of way. She told me it was good I had an Italian passport as opposed to an Italian ID card because…well, I didn’t quite catch what she was talking about, but I appreciated the fact that she was smiley and chatty so I smiled and chatted along with her. She asked for my new number and then handed me a piece of paper to write it on, which seemed unnecessary.

The computer monitors in the bank are encased in receptacles which are attached to the desk and built on these little rotating platforms that swivel all the way round. Bank tellers love to spin them around to show customers what they’ve done with their money. I always find it mildly amusing watching customers nod awkwardly as their spending habits are laid out before them. It’s as if someone were in their house appraising the drawer where they keep their sex toys.

The woman swivelled her monitor around to prove that she’d changed my phone number. I thanked her and was about to grab my bag and leave when she asked me if my address needed to be changed, too. I knew full well that it did, but for some reason I said I wasn’t sure. Luckily for me, that was no problem for her either. She scrunched up the piece of paper on which I’d written my phone number – even though there was plenty of space left for my address – and threw it in the bin, and then handed me a new piece of paper to write my new address on.

I wrote my address and she punched it into her computer. I was once more about to leave when she asked if I had insurance. Here we go, I thought. Thinking that she meant health insurance, I told her I hadn’t gotten around to it but that I had a list of things I needed to arrange since moving back to the Netherlands and health insurance was certainly on it. No, she said, home and contents insurance. You know, in case there’s a fire and all your stuff gets destroyed or somebody breaks in and steals everything. Well, now she had me worried, but still not enough to part with the €3 a month that she claimed would let me rest easy. I really hate it when bank tellers become salespeople. It’s a weird dynamic when they’ve got your account open on their monitor: you feel like you’re trying to bat off a salesman who’s already got his hand in your wallet.

I told her I kind of have a personal policy of not signing up for anything on the spot, as I like to go and think about it in my own time. She seemed to find this idea insane. Looking for a compromise, I asked her where I can find more information about this insurance, but she insisted that there was no such information except what she’d already given me, not online, not anywhere – this, naturally, struck me as suspicious. I kept on hesitating and trying politely to decline her proposal, but each time she would paint me a fresh picture of my possessions being destroyed or stolen and there being nobody to compensate me for them.

Now, that actually didn’t sound all that bad since my room is mostly kitted out with stuff that I got for next to nothing on Facebook Marketplace or was left over from previous tenants. But the lady wasn’t about to stop now. What about your laptop? she said. Finally, I put my foot down. I have a lot of patience, but now she was starting to piss me off. I told her firmly that I just came in here to change my phone number and that I would think about the insurance but right now I was not about to sign up for anything that I couldn’t see in writing first. And, to my relief, she backed down. Before I got up to leave, she gave a few closing remarks about how important the insurance is and how I really should go and think about it. I muttered a few closing remarks of my own and left.

I get it. I was a salesman once – sort of. I worked on the shop floor at one of the UK’s major phone networks. I wasn’t there long, but it was long enough to know when someone is giving you genuine advice and when they’re trying to hit a sales target. I’ve learned to sniff it out. It’s interesting how sales pitches take on different shades of subtlety. Among the least subtle are when you’re in shops like Boots and Holland and Barrett and they ask you if you have a loyalty card and if you’d like a loyalty card. At the phone shop we were taught to take a subtler approach, stealthily weaving our sales pitch into a longer conversation in which we feigned interest in our customers’ lives and phone habits and then steered them towards subscription packages and add-ons that usually had very little to do with what they needed.

I’m a terrible salesperson. I just don’t have it in me to try to convince someone to buy something, especially the overpriced phone contracts I was signing people up for. It says a lot about how much I believed in the product I was pushing that I myself had a contract with my company’s biggest rival the whole time I worked there. My approach to sales was simple: I’d offer the customer something, and they’d either say yes or no to it – and I did not much care which one it was. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in not a single month I worked there did I hit my sales targets, and my bosses gave me hell for it. The store manager would tell me that I gave up too easily, that every time the customer says no, that’s really just an invitation to keep asking, keep pushing. He told me to think of it like pulling a bird – his words, not mine. And here I thought ‘no’ meant no. Silly me.

But where I failed as a salesman, I excelled at simply helping people. Helping people is one of those things that big companies like the one I worked for pay lip service to but generally don’t give a crap about. They always have these videos on their websites with bright colours and happy-clappy music and a voiceover telling you how special the customer is and how the customer is their absolute priority and all this nonsense. I couldn’t help but notice that in our internal communications my company did, perhaps to its credit, cut the bullshit. There’s no place in sales charts or spreadsheets for helping people. It’s far easier to tot up the number of iPhones you’ve sold than to gauge how helpful you’ve been to your customers. That’s what helping people is: intangible, unquantifiable, and mostly ignored.

But I love helping people. I was so good at it that customers began coming to the store asking for me. On their way out, they would ask when my shifts were so they could plan their next visits. The company had this online feedback system which let customers rate their in-store experience and the person that had served them: I was our store’s highest performer in every month I worked there, bar the one when I took two weeks of holiday (I finished second that month). Overall, I hated my job because of how much the company bullied and intimidated me because of my poor sales. I would go to bed at night with banging headaches and gnawing anxiety at the thought of going back to work the next morning. But when customers thanked me or left nice comments about me, I felt at least somewhat vindicated. Customers said that they found shopping for new phones confusing and I had made them feel confident and safe. They said that when they spoke to me, they felt that they weren’t being sold to but listened to. That was my contribution to the store, to the company: I listened. I made customers feel at home, made their problems my own, looked after them. I believed that rather than saddling them with add-ons for international calls and flogging them iPads they didn’t need (and this I know for a fact, because nobody in the world needs an iPad), it was better to help them find what they wanted. This seemed an entirely foreign concept to the company, who only spoke the language of monthly targets and profit margins.

What I’m getting at, in a roundabout way, is that customers know when they’re being sold to and when they’re being helped, and they know damn well which one they prefer. I left the bank today feeling a bit sour about how the woman had tried to hard sell me that insurance after starting off so nice and cheerful. I know it’s not her fault: she probably also has unrealistic sales targets and an asshole manager breathing down her neck, just waiting for her to fail. Where I was annoyed at the lady in the bank, perhaps those feelings are best reserved for the ones who sit in elevated positions at these big companies and crack the whip whenever the numbers don’t sing the tune they want to hear, regardless of what it does to the people down on the floor doing making them the money.

It was Summer. I was moving to the Netherlands in a couple of months to start uni, and I’d had just about enough of my job. One morning I went in and handed my letter of resignation to my manager. He smiled and shook my hand, wishing me all the best. I didn’t mention this before, but he was actually a really nice guy. When he came down hard on us for not hitting targets, that was not him talking so much as the guy above him; he was only giving us hell for not selling enough because somebody else was giving him hell for us not selling enough. And when that guy shat on my manager, that’s because he himself was getting his ass chewed off by the guy above him. And so on until it reaches the top of the great big pile of shit that is your average corporation. I’d worked there less than a year and I was fucking fed up of it. But if I have to be honest, my last month there was a lot of fun. I’d saved up loads of money to move abroad with and the company had nothing to threaten me with since I was on my way out anyway. All my anxiety about coming to work evaporated. And do you know what happened? My sales went up. Not just went up – they shot up. I fucking killed it. Now I had excellent customer feedback scores and sky-high sales figures, and my manager was ecstatic with me. But he didn’t draw the link. Nobody seemed to. It didn’t seem to occur to him, the regional managers, or anybody at the company that if you just ease up and stop harassing your staff then they might perform better.

They just didn’t get it.

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