The Honest Salesman
An Honest Sales Pitch: Is That An Oxymoron?
My most memorable experience dealing with a professional salesperson was about 17 years ago. My wife and I moved into our first home, and, among other repairs, it was in desperate need of new windows. We called one of the local companies that was advertising heavily in our area and made an appointment for a salesperson to come to our home. Mike The Window Salesman rolled in guns blazing. He was smooth, funny, energetic, extraordinarily pushy, and convincing. He had every trick of the trade well rehearsed and he had us almost convinced. He explained that the price that he was quoting us was only good for that night and that whatever we signed we could retract within seventy two hours. Then he did something that sealed the deal. He claimed that he needed to take a cigarette break, went outside and gave us time to think. With Mike out of earshot, we discussed it and made our own “unbiased decision”—we were going to sign with him. He left happy, we went to sleep uneasy and in the morning we decided that we did not like the sales tactics and I went down to the office and cancelled the deal. We ended up finding a different company without pushy sales and got the same job done for 40 percent of Mike’s price. Mike was not at all happy and he called me to try to give me more discounts, but I had learned my lesson. Although Mike gave us the illusion that we had made our own decision, in truth he had clouded our judgement through his sales tactics.
We are all salespeople to some degree. Some of us sell as part of our day job and some of us sell ideas to our friends, neighbors, and loved ones. Some of us tend to be forceful in our sales tactics. We feel that our forcefulness is justified; ultimately, the customer—our friend—will make the decision out of their own free will. We are not forcing anyone to do anything that is not good for them, right?
I recently discovered an amazing lesson in a Torah perspective on sales and forceful arguments. In Numbers 27 we find the daughters of Zelaphchad approaching Moses and respectfully yet forcefully demanding Mosses render an opinion on their eligibility to inherit their father’s stake in the Land of Israel. Rashi notes that their forcefulness and forwardness in their demand came from their confidence in their own understanding of Torah. They knew that God wanted them to inherit the land of Israel, Rashi explains, otherwise they never would have spoken the way they did. Although ultimately Zelaphchad’s daughters were only asking Moses to clarify the laws of inheritance, not suing him for land, it is not appropriate to ask with forcefulness and powers of persuasion unless you are 100 percent confident that you are correct. My rabbi expanded this idea by explaining that arguing forcefully when you are not sure that you are correct is a lack of honesty.
It is obvious that Mike The Window Salesmen has much to learn about honesty, but I think that we can all learn a lesson in honesty from Zelaphchad’s daughters. We tend to think of honesty in a binary fashion: what I said is either true or untrue. The Torah is teaching us that honesty runs far deeper than that. Honesty dictates how we sell goods and ideas even when we leave room for others to make the final decision. Being great in the area of honesty is nuanced and there will be many grey areas that test our ability to fulfill the message of the Torah “distance yourself from falsehood.” The Torah does not simply say to not lie. The Torah is teaching us that we must distance ourselves from anything that has even a nuanced sense of falsehood.