Be a Little Like a Used Car Salesperson

Used car salesmen get a bad rap, and there are good reasons for that. But I think the home performance community can learn from them in some important ways. I say that as someone who once had a serious case of buyer’s remorse, but got over it.

When I first moved to California I was working at an independent bookstore in Berkeley, and I liked the idea of not having a car. But after a year I realized that I couldn’t get everywhere I wanted to go in a timely manner on BART (Bay Area—sometimes not so—Rapid Transport). Then the owners of the bookstore asked me to help them staff a new store they were opening in San Francisco. I would have to commute over the Bay Bridge twice a week. So I started looking for a cheap but efficient automobile, using modern new technology called the Internet.

I found the perfect car—a GEO Prizm—that was assembled in nearby Fremont, California, and the result of a partnership between Toyota and Chevrolet. I could buy a Japanese car and still feel like I was buying American. The rest of the process was a blur.

I emailed the dealer and he emailed me back. Then he called me, and within the hour I was at the dealer. (I walked.) The car was clean and sparkly. The salesperson did that thing where he went back and forth to his boss, begging him to drop the price for me. I knew they were talking about the Giants or the 49ers, but each time he came back the price got a little lower, until it reached what I was prepared to pay. I signed all the things I needed to sign and left in my new, old car.

The next day I panicked. I didn’t want to make car payments for the next five years. Then there was car insurance. And parking in Berkeley is a nightmare. And it would be sitting there most of the time.

When I went back to the dealer and sat down with the owner, he was very nice and calm and would not budge. He convinced me I had a pretty good deal, and that someone with my background and abilities would have no problem at all paying off the loan. (Flattery works sometimes.) It felt to me like swallowing the car whole, but I accepted the inevitable.

That car was the best one I ever owned. It got good mileage, it required little maintenance, and most important, it allowed me to date the woman I eventually married. I paid it off in two years and, and used it for another six.

So what does this have to do with social marketing? What does this mean for home performance contractors? I had a genuine need. I researched my purchase on the Internet. The dealer answered my email promptly and followed up with a phone call. The salesperson did a great job selling me on the car.

After the owner of the business calmed me down from my panic, I realized that he was a businessman and not a greedy devil. His business was to sell cars and make a profit. But in the end he sold me a quality product that met my needs at a price I could afford.

If you’re a home performance contractor, or a weatherization agency that has to reach out to funders in order to survive, know that you have a very valuable service to offer—an efficient, healthy, comfortable, and affordable home. You are good for the economy! Get the word out through every available media—print, online, social networks, Twitter, Facebook, and the Next Big Thing. When you hear from a potential customer who needs a water heater in a hurry—but who also may have other problems you can fix—follow up promptly and set up a face-to-face meeting. If your Congressional representative is in town and wants to be seen out and about serving the public, organize and invite him or her to a weatherization demonstration. Be honest about what you have to offer and the value of it.

I’m a pretty idealistic guy. I think everyone should contribute to the common good. When I was a kid growing up in a big Catholic family, I wanted to be a saint. My goal was selfless service. Then I grew up. But it really helped when one of my teachers pointed out that the words “merchant” and “market” have the same root as the word “mercy”. A fair exchange of goods and services is actually the most basic form of love. You can’t get to the higher forms—friendship and what theologians call “agape”, a selfless love that knows no boundaries—without learning the basics.

So share the love, make a good living, and make a good life.

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