Whatever job I had when I was younger, I was never afraid to dirty my hands. But there was one job that, although my hands were immaculately clean, seemed to be quite dirty. I was offered a job as a hearing aid salesman.
One morning I drove to a small shop with nothing in the window except a few dusty advertisements for hearing aids and was greeted by a fast-talking little man who immediately started telling me about the wonderful commission I would make every time I sold a hearing aid. It was clear that I would not be simply standing behind the counter.
There were no other staff in the shop. The place was scruffy and the shelves were bare except for a few unmarked boxes. The manager/owner—let’s call him Mr. Smith—wasted no time describing the product or explaining anything technical about hearing aids. He didn’t even mention which type he preferred. In fact he never mentioned any brand by name. What he did was immediately measure me for a jacket and explain that we would be visiting a customer next morning. Then he sent me home.
Next morning, Mr. Smith handed me a short white jacket of the type used by medical workers. It had a logo over the left pocket with what looked suspiciously like the winged stick and snakes called a caduceus, which is a symbol usually reserved for doctors. He then pinned a plastic nameplate on the right side of the jacket and slipped a pencil and a metal topped pen into my top pocket. The tip of the pen looked very much like a thermometer.
He then donned an identical jacket, and while we drove he explained that the hardest parts of the job were getting leads and advertising. He avoided television and the major radio stations, he said, and put all his advertising budget into popular magazines and the religious radio stations. He assured me that he always had plenty of good leads.
The customer was an old man in a small house in the poorer part of town. Mr. Smith introduced me as his assistant and, in a matter of minutes, had the man relaxed and seated and was busy pressing wax into the patient’s ears to get impressions. He talked cheerfully all the time, and whenever the subject of money came up, he smoothly brushed it aside and reminded the old man just how fine his hearing was going to be. Every now and then, he made notes on a pad that looked suspiciously like a doctor’s prescription pad. Whenever the “patient’ called him “doctor,” he did not correct him. Just before we left, he casually slipped a form in front of the old man, put a pen into his hand, and got his signature. It was smoothly done.
Back at the shop he tossed the wax impressions into the trashcan, took a box down from a shelf, and filled out a three-page sales agreement. Then he grilled me on exactly what he had done and what he had said and how he had avoided all talk about money. “Your job,” he said, “is to keep his mind on the benefits you’re bringing him. He’s going to hear again! He’ll find the money somehow or other.” Then he looked at the sales agreement said, “I always adjust the price a bit according to what I think he can pay. Up it or down it now and then.”
For the next couple of days we followed the same routine. I watched while he worked, and when we had a particularly stubborn customer, he would bring in a small portable hearing tester with earphones, and solemnly test the customer while writing notes on his pad. Then he would tell the customer what the man already knew. His hearing was bad and he needed a hearing aid. Mr. Smith was a master salesman and never lost a sale.
The day came when he let me go out on my own. I was nervous, of course, but what was worse, I was acutely aware that all his leads were elderly people who quite obviously could not afford an expensive hearing aid. I found it very hard to start a sales pitch for something so expensive when it was obvious that the potential customer was clearly just scraping by on a small pension.
If the “patients” had been affluent customers in the better part of town, I could easily have built up the enthusiasm and the rapid chatter that would have led to a lucrative sale, but my customers were just the opposite. So I stumbled through my rehearsed speech, feeling more and more awkward, and I was soon very politely escorted to the door.
Back at the shop, Mr. Smith simply said, “Well, Rome was not built in a day. Tomorrow will be better.” But tomorrow was not better. Nor were the following days. I would sit in my car outside each house and steel myself with thoughts of the “generous commission” just waiting for me, and I finally would walk up to the door with a firm stride. But when I went through the door and took one glance at the customer and the room furnishings, my resolve always melted.
Within a week I was a nervous wreck. I hated the white jacket and the pretense that I was some kind of medical expert. I hated trying to persuade elderly and often confused men to buy something they could not afford. I hated the idea that I just didn’t have the guts to grab those fat commissions, which I so badly needed. Eventually, I phoned Mr. Smith and quit. I didn’t feel bad about failing as a salesman. I felt clean.