Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Making the sale

We recently bought a car (see Web Security As it Really Is for the prequel). Good car, from a high-volume dealer. That means we talked with a salesman and arrived at a decision. Yesterday a lot of people made decisions, whether to stay at home or to go to the polls, and once at the polls, what to do with the little boxes or circles or touch-screen input areas.

Today I just am reflecting on how decisions get made, and the role of the salesman and his pitch in arriving at them. I am much more an engineer than a salesman, and sometimes I think I could work as an anti-salesman, somebody you bring along to a store or a car dealership so I can explain to you why you shouldn't buy something.

Malcolm Gladwell includes the Salesman as one of three important figures in his best-selling "The Tipping Point", talking about how messages get spread in an epidemic, explosive, exponential fashion. The role of the Salesman as I gathered was to be an emotional persuader, someone who incites people to act. The Salesman is an important role in society, but by nature he represents someone else's interests, not yours.

When we bought our car we researched long and hard. We read the illuminating "Confessions of a Car Salesman" on We were prepared to deal with the car salesman, and I think we did well. I put part of the credit for our success in all the hard work we did to research our purchase before we set foot on a dealership. What caught me off-guard was the business manager, who hit us up to buy an extended warranty after our hours-long ordeal inspecting, haggling over, and agreeing to buy the car that we had researched.

We didn't buy the extended warranty. But the pressure to buy was unexpected, and was palpable to an extent made possible, I think, by my lack of preparation for it. I knew the car in very definite terms, as a matter of fact we were familiar with the same make and model. The warranty was unknown to us, familiar only in vague terms an fuzzy feelings.

I'm afraid our voting decisions are more like my experience of trying to figure out whether to buy the warranty than buying the car.

A few years ago I attended a talk by someone who works as a political analyst. He presented some research from the 1994 Illinois governor's race between Jim Edgar and Dawn Clark Netsch. It featured a fascinating experiment where people are set in a room with a joystick that lets them indicate in real-time their approval of the candidate being interviewed on a TV screen in front of them. What we watched in the talk then was an averaged graph of people's approval over time superimposed over the same video clip they watched. As soon as Netsch mentioned something about not supporting mandatory tougher sentences on a certain type of criminal conviction, viewers' approval started to drop steadily. Netsch lost the election partly due to her stance on mandatory tougher sentences. What was interesting was that when you hear Netsch explain herself on the issue, it was not as clear a difference between her and Edgar. She objected to the mandatory part of the proposal. She reasoned that by making the sentence mandatory it takes away an element of flexibility from the judges actually present and hearing the particulars of a case. She wanted the judges to retain that flexibility. You can argue with me about whether this makes Netsch "soft on crime" as the voters apparently perceived, but this subtlety in the debate was lost on me when I was watching those commercials back in 1994.

Relying on TV commericials was not a good way for me to learn about the candidates.
The salesman, and I include here the architects of political messages, are not at heart interested in reasoned debate about their product. They're interested in getting someone to make a decision.

I heard an upper level software manager relate an imaginary conversation with a customer about a certain usability issue. As a developer, I wanted to help that customer with the usability issue. But the manager's position was summed up in his question "Come on, is this issue going to stop me from getting the sale?"

Decisions play a vital role in life. But we've got to realize that when it comes time to buy or vote, you better have done your research outside of the arena where salesman are pitching and people are trying to get you to make a decision in their favor. Because as my wife observed when told that the dealership doesn't fall in love with their cars, they want to move them: "yes, but we have to live with this car after the sale."

No comments: