Tag Archives: selling

On the Make


Selling things or promises is our common national heritage, usually featuring a mixture of shameless persuasion and outright ‘cons.’ 

Most cultural observers note that Americans these days are perhaps better at selling stuff than making it.  It’s an understatement to note that we have a knack for marketing services and wares to each other.  Our economy is largely propelled by consumption.  And while we can still design elegant products like phones, cars and electronics, many if not most of their parts are made elsewhere.  On the other hand, selling them is something we still do well, sometimes too well.

Even Americans with modest incomes are drowning in stuff. There’s a store and product for nearly every budget.  One sign is the spread of the American idea of franchise stores, with familiar brands now in every corner of the world.  Think of McDonalds or Marriott.  Another sign is the common problem families face in finding places to store all of the things they have accumulated.  In most neighborhoods garages originally built to hold cars are now used for storage.  Especially in the West, the family car is usually relegated to the driveway.

Cultural historian Daniel Boorstin was among the first to offer a seminal account of the typical American “go getter” continually “on the make.”  (The Americans: The Democratic Experience, 1973). Our common heritage is selling and buying medicines, household products and goods that promise happiness.  CNBC’s popular reality show Shark Tank continues the trend and represents it in miniature. It features investors with cash whose hearts quicken when they hear a good sales ‘pitch’, often from strivers who have more optimism than judgement.  Some may be natural entrepreneurs.  But it’s equally likely that others are attracted to the idea of making a pitch as a pathway to celebrity.  Everyone knows the story of actress Lori Loughlin’s daughter, Jade, who used her ill-gained admission to the University of Southern California not to become a serious student, but because of the ego-boost of being a social media “influencer” on campus.  We can also look to the current President as an example the ultimate “man on the make.” Given recent evidence of massive business losses over the years, Donald Trump appears to have little talent for anything except selling his “brand.”  In this sense, his ‘cons’ make him less of an outlier then we might think.


The pitch is the thing; the product, not so much. 

Observing this long-running streak from the communication side makes it plain that little has changed since the days of P. T. Barnum, or the medicine shows that once toured the country.  Today, many students beginning their college careers are still enamored with the apparatus of selling as represented by ad agencies, public relations firms, social media, electronic media and other ways to attract willing buyers. In my own institution the fields of marketing, sales and communication studies easily attract more students than fields like engineering or education.  And while a professor of persuasion should delight in seeing communication as a subject of special interest, it’s apparent that this fascination often comes with less thought in what the content of a given message should be. The pitch is the thing; the product, not so much.  And so the campus television studio remains high on the list of places for future communication students to visit. The excellent library can wait.

Consider another case. A recent New York Times article described the rising popularity of entrepreneurial summer camps around the country.  Parents can now enroll their eight-year-olds for weeks of immersion in the business world.  Highlights typically include stops at a “personal branding station,” in addition to the chance for these youngsters to make their own television commercials for products they will presumably think up later.  If their fantasies eventually come true, they may design a campaign around some plastic thing they can pitch to the rest of us as a product “as seen on TV.”  The American love affair with selling continues even in the pristine woods and away from our screens.


Faceless Giants


There’s no surprise in the fact that no human wants to take our call at banks, government offices, or the vast number of other services that have set up robotic phone routing systems.

Cultural observers have been noting for some time that we are at the beginning of a revolution in robotics. The prediction has it that machines will do what has previously been done by people, even in many service industries.  In truth this transformation has been going on for a long time.  Ask anyone who has tried to reach a service provider such as a utility or cable company.  Robots now “answer” the phones in the nation’s largest customer service centers and many smaller businesses as well.

It is up to us to push buttons and envision menus to find approximations to the questions we need addressed. No live human really wants to greet us at our banks, government offices, or any other of the dozens of services that have set up routing systems that might save a little money.  But it’s worth pausing to notice what we’ve lost.

At best, the human/automated system “interface” is often frustrating, time consuming and—could it be otherwise?—dehumanizing.  Everyone has horror stories about the company that touts its customer service, but still manages to tie us up for the better part of a morning.  Indeed, long phone queues are becoming the norm for many firms, especially those who have already sold their services to a customer.

Medical insurance companies seem to be the worst. Anyone who must reach them to clarify a payment or seek permission for a medical procedure will run the equivalent of a sports decathlon. Professionals who must deal with them as part of their work now equip themselves with phone headsets, antacids and other work that can done while they wait out a company with no financial incentive to deal with a claim. This is a new kind of political-style filibuster found in many businesses after a point-of-sale exchange is finished.

There are a few faceless giants for whom contact with another sentient creature is virtually impossible. Trouble with Google e-mail?  You are on your own.  Hit the “?” key and the best you can get is a link to little generic “help” essays that mostly end in useless cul-de-sacs.  Google is a huge “service provider” without service.  Apple’s iTunes can be as bad.  Apple’s famous “closed system” philosophy is, well, not much help to those of us without Steve Job’s intuitions.

If we want a visual reference to these faceless giants, think of a downtown telephone exchange building in a large city, perhaps 12 stories high with no windows, no markings, and no welcoming access for pedestrians.  (There’s a large one owned by A.T.&T. in Tribeca at 33 Thomas Street)  If you have business inside, it will have to be conducted through a wire.

AT&T Long Lines building in lower                               Manhattan

A friend actually has a phone contact at super-giant Amazon.com. and can report that there are live people who can deal with a customer.  But she guards this hard-won secret with her life.

There are positive stories as well. I am happy to report that the electronics maker Onkyo will connect a customer to an engineer who will troubleshoot a problem over the phone. They actually seem pleased to be able to help, even though the buyer may have purchased a modestly priced item. The same is true at my local Ford dealer. A person always responds to a call. That’s really no surprise. The owner is a gifted salesperson.  Potential sales or repairs are not opportunities he wants to farm out to an electrical router.

An old switchboard or its electronic equivalent requires a human to connect us to another human. No integrated circuit is trying to be a person.

But it’s mostly true these days that someone who wants to experience customer service will probably be most satisfied calling 911 or eating in a restaurant.  Save the emergency call for an emergency. As for restaurants, longtime owner Jeff Benjamin notes that he tries to hire people who have a “hospitality gene.”  These are people who get genuine pleasure in making their customers happy. (Front of the House, 2015).  Alas, with notable exceptions, the gene isn’t found in the management or customer service staff at a lot of businesses.

There’s a generational difference as well.  My students don’t expect much help from other humans in service positions. In fact many prefer to raise questions about a product or order food without any direct human contact. They are “digital natives” used to the equipment and “apps” that are supposed to make life simpler and self-correcting. But here’s the requisite “I remember when.” In my student days soon after California became a state my duties included working in a dormitory with the responsibility ofrunning a modest switchboard. That meant that someone was in charge and on call to help if there was a problem.  When they were in wide use, every staffed switchboard at an organization or business was its own local 911. An old switchboard or its electronic equivalent requires a human to connect us to another human. A live body is at the center of the network. No integrated circuit is trying to be a person. We surely lost something when operators and phone receptionists more clearly knitted people to each other.