How about turning the nozzle down on all that high-pressure salesmanship?

Posted 7/14/21

We’re kicking around the idea of replacing the shower in a bathroom at our house. In the process, as we’ve talked to a few companies specializing in that kind of refurbishment work, I’ve been …

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How about turning the nozzle down on all that high-pressure salesmanship?

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We’re kicking around the idea of replacing the shower in a bathroom at our house. In the process, as we’ve talked to a few companies specializing in that kind of refurbishment work, I’ve been reminded of the loathsomeness — and ineffectiveness — of high-pressure salespeople.

You know them, right? I’ve developed great friendships with a number of salesmen and saleswomen over the years, but I’ve also sat across the table from an odious lot of well-meaning pitchers of products and ideas, people who turn incredulous when you don’t immediately and enthusiastically bite at their dangled hook. Show the slightest bit of hesitation or skepticism— or worse, interest — and they try to steamroll you into a “yes,” usually with a tinge of a “you can’t logically say ‘no,’ can you?” angle.

Last week, my wife got a turn on that ride.

Lee Ann, my bride of 31 years, is a tough cookie. She’s not been within the same ZIP code as rude or arrogant or mean, but in her own velvet-handed way she’s way more likely than I to send a bad meal back to the kitchen at a restaurant or point out a minor flaw in a service or product we’re paying for.

Me? On the phone, like with a telemarketer, I can play the strong-armed guy who occasionally likes to prank a caller. Recently, for example, I strung along one of those car-warranty salespeople for a few fun minutes by claiming to have a 1984 Cutlass Cierra with only 12 miles on it in the garage of my (equally-fictitious) vacation home in Cuba; yes, I said, I was very much interested in buying an extended warranty for the car. But they also had to warranty its 8-track tape player and find me a pristine copy of “Synchronicity,” the stellar tape by the band The Police, which had melted in the stifling Caribbean summer.

In person, though, I’m more docile, usually deciding only after the damage is done that I should have spoken up about something unsatisfactory.

So back to Lee Ann: late one recent afternoon, she got exposed to a litany of sales closing techniques that were as irritatingly abrasive as anything I’d heard before. After all the measurements in the bathroom were done, the tile and glass were picked out and the estimate was calculated and presented, the salesman went in for the kill. He twisted the nozzle to wide open and began figuratively spraying Lee Ann with a barrage of tactics, superlatives, “today only” incentives, rationalities and arm-twisting.

As she sat at the kitchen table with the sales guy and I sat in the living room working, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing — but it was enough to know that he wasn’t listening when she said we were getting more estimates before making a decision. I also could tell by Lee Ann’s voice that she’d had enough. Lee Ann can fight her own battles, so in getting out of my chair I was as much coming to his rescue as I was hers.

“Listen,” I said to him, nicely, as I stood up and walked to the table. “Here’s what she’s trying to tell you: we’re not deciding today. We’re getting three quotes, and you’re just the first.”

“So you don’t care about quality?” he asked. “Doesn’t that mean something to you?”

“Look,” I said. “I get that you’re trained to sell a certain way. I understand closing the deal. I know you’re trying to make a sale, but we’re just not there yet. We’ve done projects like this before. A lot. We’re going to talk to the other two vendors before we make a decision.”

That did little to deter him. He kept up his patter, working a new wrinkle. Soon, we were talking over each other. And not long after that we were showing him the door.

The worst part? A bystander in this scene was a new employee of the company who’d just joined as a salesperson; he was sitting in on our presentation as part of his training. This gentleman — twice the age of the “pro” he was training under, meaning he was older than Lee Ann and I were — had arrived at the appointment on time. We’d had such a pleasant conversation with him, learning about his career in construction and contracting, that we barely noticed that when the “pro” finally arrived, he was a full 30 minutes late.

As the young gun drove off in a huff, the sales trainee stood apologetically on our front porch. Earlier in our conversation he’d said one of the things he liked most about his new company was that they didn’t use high-pressure sales tactics. Now he was embarrassed. And maybe having second thoughts.

He left sheepishly, leaving in the air the one thing his associate should have said a half hour earlier — in fact, the best closing line I’ve ever heard: “What can we do to earn your business?”

After which comes the secret to sales: shut up and listen.

Bill Horner III can be reached at or @billthethird.


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