Really Sick Story

I was waiting in line for a sandwich the other day at my local Whole Foods store.  In front of me was a mom with her five or six-year-old son.  It was obvious that the boy was sick as he coughed repeatedly in the direction of the sandwich fixin’s. I watched the spray of saliva and other fluids glaze the Plexiglas barrier.  Unfortunately, his mouth happened to be right at the level of a gap in the plastic shield, so he was covering the lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and sandwich meats with a healthy dose of goop.

I looked at the boy—and I looked at the mom.  I looked back at the boy—and back at the mom.  She absent mindedly watched him cough all over everyone else’s food—and did nothing.  Finally, I spoke up.  “Son,” I said, “Please cover your mouth when you cough.”

The woman snapped out of her reverie, and looked at me with an expression of shock and anger.  “How DARE you?!” she said.  “How DARE you speak to us that way??”

Confused (and a little bit scared of her) I began to back away slowly.  “You B*****D!” she shouted.  “You don’t have any children, DO YOU??” At that point, I made a dash for the cereal aisle, my appetite for sandwiches completely ruined.

Later on, with time to reflect, I had an epiphany.  That crazy little scene had been a totally botched sales job – and even if the woman was a bit…high strung, I was the one who had botched it!

Here’s why:

1. I had directed my appeal at someone who was not the decision maker.  The child was not really the one who was going to make the call on this topic—it was (and should have been) his mother.  Quite simply, my “ask” had gone to a person who did not have any decision-making authority.

2. I had made poor assumptions.  It seemed obvious to me that the mom would not want her child to cough on other people’s food—but I hadn’t bothered to notice all the obvious indications that my assumption was wrong.

3. I did not make a credible case for the sale.  I could have led the mom to a better conclusion by first expressing sympathy for her sick child (“Poor guy.”  “That doesn’t look like any fun!’)  Then I could have asked how he caught his cold. Was it other kids at school who were coughing too?  (See where we’re going with this?)  A few well-placed questions might have led her to realize that junior was infecting yet more people—without having to “accuse” him (or her) of inappropriate behavior.

4. I lacked empathy. It’s almost certain that my voice carried a tinge of annoyance when I spoke to the boy.  After all, I was irritated that he was giving my food a germ bath.  But being irritated, annoyed, or grumpy is never the proper way to make a sale.  I needed to get my mind around the difficult day that this harried woman had probably experienced, and then convey my thoughts to her with genuine empathy and understanding.

If I had practiced these fundamental sales strategies, would I have achieved a better outcome?  There’s no way to know for sure—but it certainly would have increased my odds—and it might have saved everyone from an uncomfortable scene.

Most importantly, it’s worth remembering that every interaction we have—whether it be with strangers, family, or friends is a good opportunity to ask questions, to practice empathy, and ultimately to hone our skills—both in sales and in life.