Sam Taggart’s Hard Sell - The New Yorker

Summary

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to using sales as a path to redemption is that redemption, in turn, increases your sales. Pessy told his disciples that, once he got physically and mentally and emotionally stronger, he became such a great salesman that “my boss bought me this cool-ass Breitling that cost ten thousand dollars”—he held up his watch again. “I wear it all the time to remind myself that the real wealth is health.”

When Sam Taggart was selling Kay on solar, he instantly sized her up as a lamb, using the BOLT system, which sorts people into bulls, owls, lambs, and tigers. A bull’s force must be met with equal power; as the pest-­control salesman Parker Langeveld puts it, you “stand your ground and redirect, and then mount the back of the bull while he’s disoriented.” Owls study product specs and buy reluctantly, if at all. Owls, Taggart told me, “are usually Jews, or Asian dudes. My first two years knocking, if an Indian opened the door I’d say, ‘Wrong house.’ ” Lambs want to be told what to do. And with tigers you chitchat and reassure them that they’re getting the latest tech. Bulls drive a black Dodge Charger, owls a Toyota that gets great gas mileage, and lambs whatever the salesman wanted off the lot. Tigers leave their garage door open so everyone can admire their red BMW.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to using sales as a path to redemption is that redemption, in turn, increases your sales. Pessy told his disciples that, once he got physically and mentally and emotionally stronger, he became such a great salesman that “my boss bought me this cool-ass Breitling that cost ten thousand dollars”—he held up his watch again. “I wear it all the time to remind myself that the real wealth is health.”

When Sam Taggart was selling Kay on solar, he instantly sized her up as a lamb, using the BOLT system, which sorts people into bulls, owls, lambs, and tigers. A bull’s force must be met with equal power; as the pest-­control salesman Parker Langeveld puts it, you “stand your ground and redirect, and then mount the back of the bull while he’s disoriented.” Owls study product specs and buy reluctantly, if at all. Owls, Taggart told me, “are usually Jews, or Asian dudes. My first two years knocking, if an Indian opened the door I’d say, ‘Wrong house.’ ” Lambs want to be told what to do. And with tigers you chitchat and reassure them that they’re getting the latest tech. Bulls drive a black Dodge Charger, owls a Toyota that gets great gas mileage, and lambs whatever the salesman wanted off the lot. Tigers leave their garage door open so everyone can admire their red BMW.

As I considered my own place in this taxonomy, I realized that I’m an owl. I want to know every detail. I also realized that my self-image as a savvy, unpersuadable New Yorker was dead wrong. All a salesman has to do is listen to my concerns and I’ll start giving serious thought to buying his tropical-­fish subscription or backhoe. I’m susceptible even as I’m being shown how the trick is done. In one D2DU video, a solar salesman named Pistol Pete Winston pitches Taggart, demonstrating how to bulldoze the “one-legger”—the solo homeowner who won’t make a decision without his spouse. After Winston sets a follow-up appointment with a forced-choice question (Is Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning better for you?), he insures the spouse’s attendance: “As much as this is about helping you save money and increase the value of your home, if you qualify, it’s also about sharing with you what the community is doing to help the environment, and they just ask that both of you be here for that.”

A grin spreads across Taggart’s face: “So you make it about the community.”

“The heathens are no longer at the gate, sire. They’re now at the food truck.” Facebook

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“And ‘they’ just ask . . .” Winston notes, drawing Taggart’s attention to the masterstroke of his coercive piety. “Who? ‘They.’ ” I’d buy solar panels from Pete Winston. And I live in an apartment building.

Perhaps eighty per cent of salesmen are tigers, as Taggart is, so they’re drawn to the latest persuasive techniques. When Taggart filmed an online commercial for a D2D sales summit in March, he did a tongue-in-cheek practice take: “Do you want to pull someone’s brain out of their head and mold it and put it back in their skull? Have you ever heard that sales is bad because it’s a manipulation technique for making people do whatever you want, and thought, How can I learn that?”

His actual ad wasn’t much different: a promise to reveal “how you break into the subconscious mind of your customers to master the art of selling.” Rather than preying on the customer’s fear of loss, you reframe his outlook using “wordsmithing.” Avoid saying “problem” (instead, use “challenge” or “situation”), “contract” (“service agreement”), “chemical” (“product”), “sell” (“provide”), or “sign” (“initial”). Not The customer wouldn’t sign the contract because it cost too much, but The head of the family I served O.K.’d the form once she grasped the unparalleled investment opportunity. “Bucks” sounds cheaper than “dollars,” so you build value in dollars, then promote in bucks: This service is two hundred and forty-nine dollars, but because we’ve got technicians in the area today I can give it to you for ninety-­nine bucks.

A fancier-sounding form of conditioning is neurolinguistic programming. Taggart suggests making seemingly anodyne observations—“Hey, whether you do it or don’t do it, it would make sense to just do it, right?”—that, operating on the same frequency as subliminal advertising and homeopathic medicine, brainwash the prospect into obedience. There’s no real scientific evidence for these techniques, but they have a powerful placebo effect, and salesmen need a thick buffer of confidence against self-doubt. Self-doubt leads to failure, and failure is unacceptable. When reps bagel, the penalties can range from having to lip-synch to Britney Spears to having to shave their beard and consume the clippings.

Failure is abhorrent because it can induce a contagious loss of faith in the whole enterprise. Managers teach salesmen to avert this death spiral by imagining that they’re getting paid for rejections. If you get five thousand dollars for a solar sale, but you sell only one out of a hundred prospects, then condition yourself to believe that you’re getting paid fifty bucks for each no. Michael O’Donnell, successful as he is, told me, “I want to throw up in the bushes half the time. The only way I get myself out of my house is that I made a sacred commitment to get one person to say no to me every day, and I try to experience that no as an uplifting event that I’m getting paid for.”

There are two types of door-to-door salesmen: those motivated by money or by the call of their persuasive gift, and those simmering for a shot at redemption. Taylor McCarthy had a high-school G.P.A. of 1.8; Michael O’Donnell was an alcoholic; Luke Ward, who in 2021 made $1.4 million selling solar, was convicted of several felonies during his years of heroin and meth addiction. “The obsessive quality that made me an addict is also what makes me great at sales,” Ward told me. “That, and the competitive need I have—that all great salespeople have—to be recognized as the best.”

Adam Schanz, the founder and C.E.O. of Alder Security, is the simmering sort. His ability to sell alarm systems elicits wonder. Sam Taggart said, “Adam is the best door knocker in history.” Schanz requires his execs to knock doors for a week each year; in 2019, he spent his own week in a town in northeast Louisiana and sold two hundred and five accounts—a total that might take a merely great salesman half a year. He installed systems for local officials and paid them a hundred dollars for each referral who bought in, got more leads from church congregants after he dropped a thousand dollars in the collection plate, and then raced from house to house, sweeping the town clean like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Schanz, who grew up in a Mormon family, is exceedingly precautious about acts of God, but he remains an optimist about humanity. “In the meanest neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where you live,” he told me, “I can knock on any door and get the people to let us borrow their car and drive to McDonald’s to get a milkshake. It’s amazing how awesome people are when you give them a chance!” And yet, when he started on the doors, he said, “I saw salesmen tricking old people, and liars and cheaters being rewarded. It’s a flashy, trashy industry.” After his second year, he told me, “I called my mother in tears and said, ‘The Cinderella story is a lie, Mom. What you taught me is bullshit.’ ” Schanz’s mother encouraged him to stay true to himself, and he redoubled his efforts, reading every sales book he could, setting three appointments after nine each night, explaining the fine print so that customers couldn’t possibly be confused. He radiated a passion for his product that few people feel for their families, let alone for a seven-inch touch-­screen panel with two-way voice and 24/7 monitoring and support. Three years later, when he sold five hundred accounts in a summer, he called his mother again and said, “Mom, it’s legit! I’m the best in the world at this!”

It’s easier to sell, of course, if you fiddle with the truth. That’s why everyone at your door announces himself as “the regional manager,” even if the region under management is just the space occupied by his own body. Last year, Vivint Smart Home paid $23.2 million to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, to settle allegations that some of its salesmen had been fudging credit reports, including “white paging” to make sure that customers passed a check—that is, borrowing the superior score of an unwitting person with a similar name. Another legendary industry workaround was to go to the local graveyard and run a likely name: the dead frequently retained their credit rating, and the tombstone supplied a birth date.

When home-security salesmen seek to take over another company’s account, they sometimes tell the customer that they’ve come “from the alarm company” to upgrade her system. Schanz himself founded a business called APT, which sounds a lot like ADT, the nation’s largest security company. He contends that his reps never pretended to be from ADT: “Our whole thing was to clown on their equipment and service—to win accounts by doing the opposite.” Unpersuaded, ADT sued four times. “Their goal was to crush me,” Schanz said, even as he acknowledged that his company paid seven million dollars to settle the lawsuits: “I admit that I’m not perfect.”

On the doors, the ends frequently justify the means. In a Knockstar University video, Taylor McCarthy tells trainees, “It is never O.K. to be pushy in selling. Unless it’s a life-or-death situation,” he clarifies. Or, he further clarifies, “if you feel as if it’s a life-or-death situation—if you’re selling home security, if you’re trying to protect the environment,” or “if you’re trying to protect somebody’s lawn.” Danny Pessy told me, “If your intention is to deceive the customer—if you’re saying your meat truck broke down, and it’s actually meat from Ralphs that you repackaged—that’s a no. But, if your intention is to serve them, then you can say whatever you have to say to get them to buy the amazing product that you believe in.”

As Taggart ambled into a development not far from his office, he noted with pleasure that new owners were still moving in. “You can sell these people anything,” he said. “They need Internet, they need alarms, they need pest, they need solar.”

At the first house, a man named Geo answered Taggart’s knock. He wore baggy shorts and had a phlegmatic air. Taggart, pegging him as a lamb, started his pitch gently: “Where normally you’d pay up to sixty thousand dollars, in this neighborhood we’re setting up standard kits to fit on the roof sizes. Is it cool if we step inside and show you? It takes, like, two seconds?”

Sam Taggart’s Hard Sell - The New Yorker
Photo Credit: The New Yorker

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