Aug 30, 2008

Sales: Sort of Like S&M

A friend of mine recently described my blog posts as "verbose." I can't really disagree with that... This is another long one.

Last night, one of my favorite students paid the equivalent of over two thousand dollars to take more lessons. I'm happy about this.

When I was a kid, I'd mow lawns for money. My dad didn't give me an allowance once I was in middle school. Instead, I had to do yard work for people in the neighborhood, and they'd pay me for it. There was an older woman whose lawn I mowed every weekend, and whose leaves I raked in the fall. I took care of her dog when she was away, and helped her build a shed. For any given task, she'd give me ten dollars.

Being older, she occasionally forget to pay me. She'd just say thank you and absentmindedly start doing something else. It wasn't that she was trying to cheat me, she just really was old and forgetful. When she did this, I hated reminding her to pay me. Hated it. I'd shift awkwardly on her front porch like I was about to ask her something horrible, like I had some sort of confession to make, or was somehow in the wrong. I'd usually utter something like "So, ten dollars, right?" She would look embarrassed and come back with a combination of bills that added up to ten. I was happy to have the money, but I also felt oddly and strongly guilty after I had to remind her to pay me. I wished that the money would just show up, that I wouldn't have to vocalize my wants, that I didn't have to force this old woman to open her purse.

This weird and specific guilt took a while to dissipate, and it returned in an odd way when I began my current job. My job not only involves teaching, but also a bit of sales.

To be perfectly clear- I'm not a volunteer. I'm not working for the Peace Corps or CARE or some admirable international entity. My job is not at a public school or a community center. Students pay to be there, and we want them to come back for another round of lessons when their contract is finished. I'm working for a huge company (granted, one that sells something fairly worthwhile), and they want to make a profit.

When I started, I thought this was horrible. Sickening, even.

Why, I thought, weren't we a nonprofit? Why weren't we pure? Why were were soiling education with filthy, filthy commerce? Why did we have fixed tuition rates, and not sliding scale? Why on earth would we do something as vulgar as set profit goals to ourselves? The idea of asking a student whether or not they wanted to buy another contract for lessons, asking them whether or not they wanted to pay to take more classes with me, was something that filled me with guilt and revulsion. Selling, I thought, was something inherently sleazy, regardless of the merit of the product.

In other words, I thought that being a successful salesman meant you had to be something like this:

That was my vague image, and it affected the initial feeling of asking, and such a lack of confidence did not allow me much success in either my beginning teaching or sales experience. To learn a language, (or to make a large purchase) people must feel at ease, they must feel confident. How on earth can one instill confidence and ease when they, themselves, lack confidence and ease?

I'm now fairly good at my job, and my prevailing feeling at work is one of satisfaction. When students say "yes," when people agree to pay large sums of money to learn English from me, the sensation is one of confidence and pleasure. There is more than a little in the way of testosterone-fueled gratificating here, more than a little feeling of conquest and dominance. I have successfully made a person part with large sums of money. I quite enjoy persuading people, seeing people do what I want, affecting people's decisions and actions, and a successful contract renewal or new student sign-up feeds directly into that.

It was this feeling of dominant and controlling satisfaction, I think, that so frightened me and made me riddled with guilt about initially asking for money, or asking for what I wanted. From the beginning, I definitely wanted my students to approve of me by signing up for classes. I wanted them to pay for me. I wanted them to open their wallets and give me what they wanted. I wanted success and impressive numbers, and was intimidated by the supposed dauntingness of it. I wondered how on earthy my coworkers did it, how on earth they successfully took what they wanted from students, from customers. I very badly wanted to be successful at selling myself, and for most of my first year I was more or less a failure because in a certain way I've always been hideously afraid of what I wanted. I was afraid that my desire to control and influence people would mean, if satisfied, that I was some kind of bad person, that fulfillment of my goals would be coterminus with a kind of moral failure, that my fulfillment would necessarily come at others' expense.

Anyway, I realized three things that allowed me to revise my opinions on this, and I'm now much more successful.

First- Customers (in this case, my students) benefit from a successful sales transaction. People spend money on things because they believe they will derive a certain amount of utility from those things. A good salesman believes in the utility of his product, and connects people with that utility. Nonintuitive as it may sound, sales is a service. The common line in popular culture is that the greatest salesman in the world is one who could "sell ice to eskimos," that is, rip people off. I disagree with this. Such a hypothetical ice-peddler would not be providing his customers with any kind of utility. A good salesman is someone who connects people with the utility they need.

Second- I'm not a rip-off. I'm a good teacher, and actually worth paying for. Students do not waste their money or their time in my classes. They benefit from their purchase because I'm good enough to deliver that benefit. I deserve a salary, and I shouldn't feel at all guilty when students pay the tuition that make that salary possible.

Third- People have different definitions of utility. I know this is all very Econ 101, but it's true. While I think it's weird to pay so much for a native teacher, and wouldn't do so in the States, the fact of the matter is that the scarcity of such an instructor is very different here. In any given major American city you can probably find a native speaker of a major language. Not so in Japan. When I lived in Okayama, I was one of the very few people there who was able to, say, pick up something by Milton and get something out of it. In, say, St. Louis or Baltimore, though, you could probably find dozens of people who could devour Basho in the original old Japanese. The utility and scarcity of foreigners here is dramatically different than in the U.S., and thus, what people are willing to pay and what they feel they get is very different.

There are lots of situations where different parties can be mutually satisfied by fulfillment of their different definitions of utility. Take, for instance, S&M (you were wondering when I'd finally get to the S&M bit, weren't you?)

In a good S&M situation, everyone gets what they want. The doms, subs, switches, voyeurs, whoever. It's not like the doms actually rape anybody, or the subs actually get abused. Everyone agrees on what role their playing, and gets something out of it. Granted, the doms get something different than the subs and vice-versa, but everyone walks away satisfied and will hopefully come back for more later.

Likewise, in a good sales situation, everyone gets what they want. The sales staff, customers, managers, whoever. It's not like the salespeople actually rip off anybody, or the customers actually get taken. Everyone agrees on what role their playing, and gets something out of it. Granted, the sales staff get something different than the customers and vice-versa, but everyone walks away satisfied and will hopefully come back for more later.

My school met all of its monetary goals last month (this is not something that happens often) and is doing very well again this month (I can't take all the credit for this, by the way- my coworkers are also good at what they do). There's still a mushy, pinko, part of me that's scared of all that cash, but mostly I'm just pleased about it. I'll probably never work in sales on a permanent basis, but I no longer think of it as devil's work.


Lost Renee said...

Your blog's really really long, but I like to read.So, Oh, my eyes! ^…^

Joseph said...

Nothing gets me hotter than a good bout of supply-and-demand balancing, I'll tell you that...

Anthony said...

It's a good thing you've got those Jehovah's Witnesses right there to save your filthy, corrupted soul. Capitalist pig-dog.